It is recognized that some form of post-treatment will usually be required if reasonable hydrolysis yields (>60%) of steam pretreated softwood are to be achieved when using low enzyme loadings (5 FPU/g cellulose). In the work reported here we modified/removed lignin from steam pretreated softwood while investigating the influence that the severity of pretreatment might have on the effectiveness of subsequent post-treatments. Although treatment at a lower severity could provide better overall hemicellulose recovery, post-treatment was not as effective on the cellulosic component. Pretreatment at medium severity resulted in the best compromise, providing reasonable recovery of the water soluble hemicellulose sugars and the use of post-treatment conditions that significantly increased the enzymatic hydrolysis of the water insoluble cellulosic component. Post-treatment with alkaline hydrogen peroxide or neutral sulfonation resulted in 62% cellulose hydrolysis at an enzyme loading of 5 FPU/g cellulose, which was four times greater than was obtained when the cellulosic fraction was not post-treated. When the enzyme loading was increased to 15 FPU/g cellulose, the post-treated cellulosic fraction was almost completely hydrolyzed to glucose. Despite the higher lignin content (44%) of the sulfonated substrate, similar hydrolysis yields to those achieved after alkaline peroxide post-treatment (14% lignin content) indicated that, in addition to lignin removal, lignin modification also plays an important role in influencing the effectiveness of hydrolysis when low enzyme loadings are used. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2011;108: 2300–2311. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.