There are roughly 73,300 tree species on our planet1 that are either hardwood or softwood. The two terms get thrown around in firewood circles, so you may wonder how they differ.
This guide compares hardwood and softwood firewood, so you know which is best for your next fire.
What is the difference between hardwood and softwood firewood?
Hardwoods typically grow slower than softwoods, which makes them denser and slower to burn in the fireplace. Most hardwoods provide better heat efficiency and are best for smoking, roasting, and barbecuing with. Softwoods are less dense, so they’re excellent for getting fires started or burning in the shoulder seasons.
There are some exceptions to these general characteristics, so it’s a good idea to research a specific type of tree before making assumptions about its burn qualities. For example, yew and pinyon pine are both exceptionally dense softwoods. Their BTU rating, which measures heat efficiency, is comparable to other excellent firewood types like black locust, beech, and apple.
Tip: Check out out BTU firewood chart for our complete list.
What are hardwood trees?
Hardwood trees are characterized by their dense wood, although some species are relatively soft. They are typically deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall and grow new ones in the spring.
Common hardwood trees include oak, birch, maple, and beech. There are many more hardwood species globally than there are softwoods, but they make up less timber volume as they grow much slower.
Hardwood trees are valued for their use in furniture, flooring, and other woodworking projects. The wood from these trees is strong and durable. Hardwood trees are also crucial for providing habitat for wildlife, and some species are important food sources for animals.
Hardwood firewood is typically more expensive than softwood because it’s harder to get your hands on in some states. It is well worth the extra cost for its superior performance as firewood.
What are softwood trees?
Softwoods are a type of tree characterized by their low density and high levels of sap and resin. Softwood trees are often evergreen conifers that produce cones and needles instead of broad leaves.
Examples of common softwood trees include pine, yew, spruce, cedar, hemlock, and fir. They are an important renewable energy source essential to the environment’s health.
Softwood trees are popular in construction because of their weight, price, and resistance to rot. They are also used for making furniture, paper products, and other wood-based items.
Do softwoods or hardwoods burn the hottest?
There is a misconception that hardwoods produce much more heat than softwoods, but each has a similar calorific value by weight. However, hardwoods are often twice the density of a softwood, so double the amount of softwood is required to produce the same amount of heat.
Heat efficiency comparison
Check out the summary table of some common types of wood and their heat output per cord of wood, measured in million BTUs. Notice how most hardwoods rate higher than softwoods, although there are some outliers.
|Type of tree||BTU Heat Rating||Type of wood|
When should I burn hardwood firewood?
While most wood is acceptable for burning, hardwood will provide the best results in most cases. Here are some situations where it outperforms:
1. Open fireplaces
Hardwood varieties like oak, black locust, and hickory give off minimal smoke once adequately seasoned. You won’t have sore, red eyes at the night’s end. It usually sparks less too, so there’s less chance of burnt carpet.
2. Wood stoves or furnaces
Hardwoods are best for wood stoves in most cases as they give off less creosote than softwoods. This black substance is highly flammable and can cause fires if left to build up. There are some exceptions, however, like avocado which is classified as hardwood but is well-known among Californian chimney sweeps for its creosote.
Keep in mind some hardwoods like manzanita, Osage orange, and eucalyptus burn fiercely and may damage some wood stoves. Be sure to check your stove specifications before using.
Hardwoods are the best option whether you’re cooking food with a roaster, barbecue, smoker, or any other device. The wood burns slower, so you don’t get a burst of fierce heat that quickly peters out.
Wood like mesquite and hickory is excellent if you enjoy flavor-packed food. Other popular varieties include oak, maple, or fruitwood like pear, cherry, apple, and quince.
We’ve compiled a handy list of the best firewood types for cooking. It’s well worth a read if you enjoy cooking with flame.
4. Wood-fired hot tubs and saunas
Hardwood and softwood are both suitable for heating a spa or sauna. However, hardwood is denser and burns slower and more evenly than softwood, making it a better choice for long-term heating.
If you enjoy the invigorating pine-like smell that softwoods often emit, you can toss in some small bits of cedar or pine for this purpose.
While softwoods are often fine for campfires, hardwoods are slower burning. That means more relaxation time sitting around the flames instead of lugging wood to the fire.
Hardwoods also burn cleaner, making for a more enjoyable, less eye watering session outdoors.
When should I burn softwood firewood?
While softwood often takes the second stage to its hardwood cousin, there are some excellent uses for this low-cost, more sustainable type of firewood.
1. Lighting fires
Softwoods are a much better option than most hardwoods for lighting fires. They are lighter and catch alight easily. Use wood like pine or tamarack for kindling and small firewood pieces, then add bigger hardwoods once the flames are roaring.
2. Mixed wood
So long as softwood has been well seasoned, it is excellent combined with other denser varieties. This mix is a good way to reduce heating costs, as fast-growing softwoods are often much cheaper.
Softwood timber makes decent firewood for outdoor campfires, but ensure it’s not greenwood, or the site will fill with smoke.
Remember that softwoods tend to pop and spark. Sit a safe distance to avoid unwanted burns and never leave the fire unattended – forest fires will quickly ignite from one stray ember.
Backyard fire pits can also take seasoned softwood as a fuel source. It is great for taking the cold edge off the air and providing a pleasant fragrance.
4. Commercial products
Some commercially manufactured firewood fuels like briquettes are often made from softwoods. These work great as the sap has been removed, leaving a dense product for burning.
Pros and cons of burning hardwoods
Although tree varieties each have unique burn qualities, we’ve included some general strengths and weaknesses of hardwood firewood.
- Slow-burning, high-BTU firewood.
- Burns clean with fewer sparks and popping.
- Leaves good coals with less ashes to clean up.
- Low creosote buildup inside the chimney.
- Best for home chefs cooking over the fire.
- Can be difficult to light.
- Often more expensive.
- Less sustainable.
- May be tough to split.
Pros and cons of burning softwoods
Although tree varieties each have unique burn qualities, these are some general advantages and disadvantages of softwood firewood.
- Easy to start fires with.
- Easier to split by hand.
- More sustainable.
- Cheaper to buy.
- Burns too fast in the fire.
- Produces more ashes instead of coals.
- Smokes, sparks, and gives off creosote.
Summary comparison of softwood vs. hardwood firewood
|Burn time||Up to 3 hours||Up to one hour|
|Creosote buildup||Less likely||More likely|
|Good for cooking||Yes||No|
|Sparking||Less likely||More likely|
|Speed to light||Slower||Faster|
|Winter heating||Yes||Best mixed with hardwoods|
The choice between softwood and hardwood firewood can be confusing.
Softwood is generally cheaper and burns quickly, making it well-suited for fire lighting. It’s also great mixed with hardwood, so long as the wood is seasoned.
Hardwood is commonly more expensive, but it produces a longer-lasting fire that tends to burn cleaner.
Ultimately, the decision between softwood and hardwood firewood comes down to personal preference and the user’s specific needs. Both types of wood have pros and cons, so keep them in mind before deciding what’s right for your home.