Firewood is usually classified in two categories, softwood and hardwood. Knowing the difference between hardwood and softwood firewood can help you know how much to pay for a cord of wood as well as how to select the right wood for your needs.
Hardwood usually refers to wood that comes from species of trees that produce hard dense wood. Softwoods are of course the opposite, wood that comes from trees that produce softer and less dense wood. Dense hardwoods are heavier than softwoods because they actually have more wood fiber per volume than softwoods. This means there is more wood to burn in hardwood and more heat.
Resinous softwoods like pine and fir do have a little more energy per weight than non resinous wood because the resins have more heat than wood fiber. But the difference is minimal and is greatly overshadowed by more dense wood.
All wood will have around the same amount of energy per a certain amount of weight. It’s the density of wood that determines the amount of heat per volume. A cord of dense hardwood has more wood fiber than a cord of softwood. It’s the same volume, but the hardwood has more solid wood and weighs more than a cord of softwood.
Hardwood comes from broad leaf trees like oak, madrone, walnut, hickory, alder, maple, birch and aspen. Softwood comes from conifers like pine, fir, larch, redwood and cedar. Not all hardwoods are dense and hard. Some hardwoods like aspen, cottonwood and alder, even though they are technically hardwoods, are less dense and softer than some softwoods and they also burn more like softwoods. For this article, when we talk about hardwood firewood, we will be talking about the more dense hardwoods.
Hardwood is typically considered to be the best firewood and is usually the most popular, where it is available. Hardwood is known for burning long and hot. It puts out more heat over a longer period of time. It burns down to a hot bed of coals that tend to burn clean and put out a lot of radiant heat.
Softwoods and low density hardwood are easier to light than hardwood, especially resinous conifers. This makes these types of wood good for making kindling and starting fires. They produce heat quicker and sometimes produce a more intense heat, but it does not last as long. This makes softwood good for getting quick heat and for campfires and open fireplaces when you want a lot of flames.
Hardwood is more popular for cooking wood. This is because of the way it radiates heat and for its flavour. Resinous softwood will make your food have a “piney” taste. Most hardwood has a much better taste. Popular hardwoods for smoking and cooking are oak, alder, hickory, mesquite and many fruit tree woods.
Hardwood usually costs more per cord than softwood. This is because hardwood is more popular and there is more demand, but mostly because you are getting more heat out of a cord of hardwood.
Both hardwood and softwood firewood have their place. I like to have a mixture of both. All wood will burn and put out heat, so if you have it burn it. Over time and burning different types of wood you will learn which types are best for you.
Learn more about different firewood types and compare the BTU between different species.