Which is Better:  Hardwood or Softwood?

You burn wood in a fireplace, stove or insert.  And you want to use the best wood you can for keeping your family comfortable.  Different wood species are found in different areas of the country.   Everyone knows that hardwoods are best for burning, right?  Or . . . . are they?  Many old timers who burn wood have a saying:  the best firewood is whatever’s closest!  There’s a lot of truth to that statement.


We talk about hardwoods and softwoods, but what’s the real difference between them?  The difference boils down to the density of each species of wood.  Hardwoods are denser.  A hardwood log will typically burn longer and hotter than a softwood log that’s cut and split to the same size.

It’s interesting to note that pound for pound, and dried to the same moisture content, hardwoods vs. softwoods have very similar BTU or heat output values.  A ton of oak will provide roughly the same amount of heat as a ton of willow.  But the kicker:  a ton of willow is a much larger pile of wood than a ton of white oak!  (Sort of reminds me of that old kids joke:  What weighs more; a ton of bricks of a ton of feathers?)


Some wood species burns slower, hotter and cleaner than others.  Some have a considerable amount of resins and sap that can lead to sparks popping out of the firebox.  Some species of wood have better coaling properties than other species.  (Wood’s “coaling ability” is its capability to form long lasting coals for extended burn times.)

Hardwoods are usually preferred for burning in fireplaces, stoves and inserts.  A similar size hardwood log can provide up to 50% more heat output than a softwood log.  Popular hardwoods are hickory, ash, oak, maple and most fruit trees.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for softwoods.  Softwoods are great for kindling.  They burn quickly and are just the ticket for taking the edge off a chilly spring or fall morning, when a long, sustained fire would be too much heat.

SoftwoodSoftwoods grow much quicker than hardwoods and are less dense.  Popular softwoods include spruce, Douglas fir, red pine, cedar, cypress and larch.  Evergreens and conifers are softwoods and are easily identified by their distinctive needles and that good old pine aroma.

A side bar if you have access to birch:  Be aware of the phloem, that is, the thick, brown inner bark.  It can be difficult to dry birch evenly because the bark retains lots of moisture.  So, try to remember to mix birch with other hardwoods for a cleaner, less smokey fire.

Remember that smoke is unburned fuel.  It’s a by-product of incomplete combustion, consists of unburned tars and can lead to creosote forming in your chimney.

One other point worth mentioning here:  there’s a bit of a misconception that resins and pitch in softwoods can create more creosote.  When any wood species dries, hardwoods or softwoods, the pitch can act as a high-octane additive for the wood! Learn more about WHAT’S THE BEST KIND OF WOOD TO BURN?



Not all wood is safe to burn in your fireplace or stove.  In fact, some woods are down right dangerous to burn.  Mexican elder is a species found in the southern U.S.  It’s a fast growing evergreen that’s a natural source of cyanide.  Never use it for firewood.  Breathing the smoke from Mexican elder can cause cyanide poisoning.

Speaking of poisoning, never burn a tree or woody plant that has the word “poison” in its name.  Poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac can release a substance called urushiol in the smoke.  This can be life threatening to some people.

Oleander is a woody shrub that grows in oceanic climates, particularly the Pacific Northwest.  This species should never be burned or placed near any food.

Never burn driftwood.  It’s permeated with salt that contains chlorine.  This is converted into cancer causing substances when burned.

Other woods to avoid:  pressure treated lumber, plywood, particleboards, MDF and other engineered sheets of wood products, painted or varnished wood and compressed paper products.  It should go without saying, but we’ll mention it anyway:  Never cut and burn an endangered species of wood.


If you don’t cut your own wood, buy it from a reputable source.  Hardwoods are generally more expensive than softwoods and tend to leave clinkers (hard, stony chunks) in the ash.  But they burn hotter and longer.

Softwoods are cheaper, burn faster and leave finer ash than hardwoods.


If there is one, most important rule when burning wood:  MAKE SURE THE WOOD IS DRY.  Cut it, split it, stack it, cover it from the rain and snow and then leave it . . . . for one year.  “Green wood”, that is wood that has a high moisture content will not burn properly.  The moisture from burning unseasoned wood leads to creosote building up in the chimney.

Whether you cut it yourself or buy wood, a moisture meter is a quick and easy way to ensure that your wood’s moisture content is <25%.  Read more about WHAT IS A MOISTURE METER?

Use this chart for reference.  It lists the most common species of wood, corresponding heat values and other important characteristics.

Alder 17.5 2540 Easy Good Moderate Fair
Apple 27.0 3888 Medium Good Few Excellent
Ash, White 24.2 3472 Medium Good Few Excellent
Aspen 18.2 2160 Easy Good Few Fair
Basswood 13.8 1984 Easy Poor Few Fair
Beech 27.5 3760 Difficult Excellent Few Good
Birch 20.8 2992 Medium Good Few Fair
Box Elder 18.3 2632 Difficult Poor Few Fair
Buckeye 13.8 1984 Medium Poor Few Fair
Catalpa 16.4 2360 Difficult Good Few Fair
Cherry 20.4 2928 Easy Excellent Few Fair
Coffeetree 15.8 3112 Medium Good Few Fair
Dogwood 24.8 4230 High Fair Few Good
Douglas Fir 20.7 2970 Easy Fair Few Good
Elm, American 20.0 2872 Difficult Excellent Few Fair
Fir, White 14..6 2104 Easy Poor Few Fair
Hackberry 21.2 3028 Easy Good Few Good
Hemlock 19.3 3028 Easy Good Many Good
Hickory 28.3 4227 Easy Excellent Few Excellent
Honey Locust 26.7 3832 Easy Excellent Few Excellent
Juniper 21.8 3150 Medium Poor Many Fair
Larch 21.8 3330 Medium Fair Many Fair
Locust, Black 27.9 4016 Difficult Excellent Few Excellent
Maple, Hard 25.5 3680 Easy Excellent Few Excellent
Maple, Silver 19.0 2752 Medium Excellent Few Fair
Mulberry 25.8 2752 Easy Excellent Few Excellent
Oak, Bur 26.2 3768 Easy Excellent Few Excellent
Oak, Red 24.6 3528 Medium Excellent Few Excellent
Oak, White 29.1 4420 Medium Excellent Few Excellent
Osage, Orange 32.9 4728 Easy Excellent Many Excellent
Pine, Lodgepole 16.2 2610 Easy Fair Many Fair
Pine, Ponderosa 16.2 2336 Easy Fair Many Fair
Pine, White 15.9 2250 Easy Poor Moderate Fair
Pinyon 27.1 3000 Easy Fair Moderate Good
Red Cedar, Eastern 13.0 2060 Easy Poor Many Fair
Red Cedar, Western 18.2 2632 Medium Poor Many Fair
Spruce 15.5 2240 Medium Poor Many Fair
Sycamore 19.5 2808 Difficult Good Few Good
Walnut, Black 22.2 3092 Easy Good Few Excellent
Willow 17.6 2540 Easy Poor Few Fair

Below is a list of fireplace and grill stores that service Virginia (VA)

Manassas, VA

Winston's Chimney Service
11301 Industrial Road
Manassas, VA 20109

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Mechanicsville, VA

Hearth & Home Shoppe
8151 Mechanicsville Tpk
Mechanicsville, VA 23111

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Roanoke, VA

Dixie Building Products Inc.
3342 Melrose Ave NW
Roanoke, VA 24017

Warrenton, VA

Costello's Warrenton Fireplace & Hot Tub
251 West Lee Hwy
Warrenton, VA 20186

For more information, contact your local fireplace and grill store..

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