Is it Better to Burn Hardwood vs Softwood Firewood?
Hardwood is commonly thought of as being better than softwood as firewood. Hardwood is usually more sought after and sells for a higher price. When making the decision between burning hardwood vs softwood, the best choice will depend on your situation and what you want to get out of the wood. Although hardwood is usually more popular, softwood can also make good firewood and for some uses it is the better choice.
What is the Difference Between Hardwood vs Softwood Firewood?
When it comes to firewood, hardwood simply refers to any wood that is hard and dense. Softwoods refer to woods that are less dense and not as hard. But botanically, and in some forest product industries, it gets a little more complicated than that.
Hardwood or softwood doesn’t necessarily relate to the hardness or softness of the wood. Most hardwoods do tend to be harder than most softwoods, but with some species, that’s not always the case. Some hardwoods such as aspen cottonwood and alder are softer than some softwoods. Balsa wood is well known for being a very soft and light but technically it is actually a hardwood. Whether a type of wood is a hardwood or a softwood has more to do with the way the wood fibers are structured more than its actual hardness.
Hardwood comes from deciduous trees such as oak, tanoak, madrone, myrtle, hickory, elm and maple. Hardwood is usually more dense, burns longer and produces more heat than softwood. Hardwood tends to produce more coals when it burns which produce more radiant heat over a long period of time. This makes hardwoods ideal for wood stoves when you want it to produce a steady heat over a long period of time. This can also be good when using firewood for cooking.
Softwood comes from conifers such as fir, pine, cedar, and redwood. Softwood is usually less dense and more resinous, burns faster and produces less heat than hardwood. Softwood is good for starting fires and making kindling. Softwood produces more flames and sometimes more intense heat than hardwood but over a shorter period of time. Softwood is good for starting fires or in a fireplace where you want a crackling fire with nice flames. Softwood is also nice for a campfire for the flames but throw some hardwood in to make a nice bed of coals for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows.
There are approximately 100 times more hardwood species in the world than softwoods. All wood has about the same amount of energy per pound. The difference is the density that varies between species. The more dense the wood is the more energy it will have per volume. As a general rule, the heavier a dry piece of wood is, the more heat energy it will have and the longer it will burn. Wood that is lighter will end to ignite easier and burn faster with more intense flames but with less total energy.
How to Tell the Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood
The general rule for distinguishing whether a wood is hardwood or softwood is to use the fingernail test. With this test you press your fingernail against a piece of wood or scratch it along the wood in a direction parallel to the edge of your fingernail. If it leaves a mark in the wood, it is probably softwood or one of the softer hardwoods, which tend to burn more like softwood. If it is hardwood you will not be able to make any significant mark with your fingernail. Softwood from conifers will also usually have a distinctive pine or cedar type of odor, especially when freshly cut or scraped.