Softwood vs Hardwood: What’s The Difference?
Our editors publish helpful guides and insights learnt from years of experience. They also test, review and suggest garden products. If you buy something via links, we may earn a commission, but we never accept products or incentives from manufacturers. Learn about our process.
This may seem like an odd question, after all, surely softwood is soft and hardwood is hard, right?
Well, actually, it’s not that simple.
Here I explain the difference between the two with my thoughts never too far away from the garden decking project I’ll be undertaking next week.
Hardwood is generally stronger than softwood but not always.
Softwood comes from fast-growing trees and makes up over 75% of all machined timber used in the world. The trees are quicker to replace, and the timber is easier to work with, it also dries faster.
Examples of softwood trees are:
Hardwood usually comes from deciduous trees that are slow-growing and difficult to replace. The timber is often dense and more durable but takes longer to dry.
Examples of hardwood trees are:
Softwood is a readily available and versatile timber that is widely used in the construction industry:
- Roof rafters.
- Window frames.
- Plywood applications.
Despite being lighter and more flexible, softwood is almost always the preferred timber for structural timber projects such as roof trusses, because it’s cheaper.
Hardwood offers superior strength (usually) and durability and is often found in:
- Musicial instruments.
- Flooring and decking.
- Boat building.
- Bespoke projects.
Hardwood usually lasts longer than softwood, hence why furniture that is hundreds of years old can still be found in near-perfect condition.
Attributes: Comparing Softwood to Hardwood
|From:||Evergreen Trees||Deciduous Trees|
|Most Common:||Mahogany, Oak, Maple||Pine, Ceder, Redwood|
|Hardness:||Softer (usually)||Harder (usually)|
|Colour:||Light||Light to Dark|
|Resistance to Fire:||Poor||Fair|
Which is Best For Garden Decking?
I’ve personally installed both softwood and hardwood decking and I’ve overseen dozens of similar projects.
This what I know:
Softwood is almost always cheaper, I’ve found it easier to cut and work with, but it’s less durable and unlikely to last more than 15 years unless frequently treated.
Hardwood is generally more expensive and harder to work with but looks more appealing and is far more durable, often lasting for many decades.
Softwood is a popular decking material because it’s cheaper to buy. Its life can be extended through careful installation (so water doesn’t pool on it) and by frequently treating it with a protective woodstain.
As for cost, my experience and recent research tells me that a typical small to mid-size garden decking installation in the UK will cost around:
Softwood: Around £100 – £150 per square metre, including the base.
Hardwood: Around £225-£275 per square metre, depending on hardwood type, including the base.
Are All Hardwoods Harder Than Softwoods?
The general rule of thumb is that hardwood timber is more complex and more durable than softwoods, but there are a few softwoods that buck the trend. For example, Yew (a softwood) is harder than American Cherry (a hardwood).
Also, modern treatments such as tanalising and oiling can extend the life of softwoods to match many hardwood timbers.
However, when comparing common decking timbers, I’ve found that most hardwoods will be denser, more durable and more resistant to rot than softwoods.
Author: Daniel Woodley
Daniel has over 18 years of experience in the construction, home improvement, and landscape garden industries.
He previously worked as a project manager and has experience in managing teams of tradespeople and landscape gardeners on both small and medium sized projects.
Daniel is also a keen gardener and enjoys growing unusual plants and tending to his lawn.
Why Trust Us? Our Experience
At DIY Gardening, we follow a detailed, rigorous process to create content that is helpful, factually correct and meets the highest standard of integrity.
Our 5-step process is:
1) We select a topic that we feel will help our readers.
2) The author creates the content based on their knowledge and experience of the subject.
3) We ask an expert with qualifications in the relevant area to fact-check and review the content, which we update accordingly, if applicable.
4) The content is checked by the site owners and published.
5) We review the content yearly to ensure it’s still correct and relevant.
Daniel Woodley has installed gardening decking himself and project-managed installations by teams of others in a professional setting.
As accuracy is important, we asked Paul Farley to review and fact-check this guide.
Explore: Paul Farley’s profile and qualifications.