Hard Maple vs Soft Maple
"Hard maple" is the common term for two species of maple trees: Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Black Maple (Acer nigrum). Hard maple is commonly used in the manufacture of flooring, furniture, cabinets, billiard cues and other finished wood products.
"Soft maple" is the common term for four species of maple trees: Silver maple (Acer saccharinum), Red maple (Acer rebrum), Boxelder (Acer negundo) and Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Soft maple is commonly used for railroad crossties, boxes, pallets, crates, furniture, veneer, wooden ware and novelties. The flesh of soft maple trees -- in particular silver and red maple -- resembles that of hard maple, but is not as heavy, hard or strong.
Despite being called soft maple, both hard and soft maple are considered hard woods. Soft maple holds the same hardness rating as cherry at 950 on the Janka Hardness Rating Scale, making it harder than African mahogany at 830, alder at 590 and poplar at 540. Hard maple comes in at 1450 on the Janka Hardness Rating Scale, which puts it at the upper end, and makes it a preferred choice for flooring, baseball bats, bowling alleys, violins and butcher blocks. Hard maple grows more slowly, which makes the wood harder but also increases the time to harvest and makes it more costly.
One unscientific but simple way to test the hardness of a piece of maple is to push your fingernail into the back or hard edge of the lumber or cabinet door. If it dents easily it is most likely soft maple. If the wood is hard and your fingernail does not leave much of a mark, it is most likely hard maple.