The kind of wood you’d like to use decides the outcome appearance and strength of the finished piece whether it’s furniture, a sturdy fence or perimeter, or a wood siding for your home.
There are many wood species that are readily available, and all of them have their own perks.
Below are the most common types of soft and hardwoods in the woodworking and the rest of the construction industry.
Softwoods aren’t weaker than hardwoods. Softwoods most come from coniferous trees such as cedar, fir, and pine and tend to be yellow or reddish in colouring.
And since most coniferous trees grow fast and straight, softwoods are usually less expensive than hardwoods.
One of the most common types of cedar is the western red cedar. Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) has reddish to pinkish brown heartwood, which often had random streaks and bands of darker red/brown areas; has narrow sapwood with pale yellowish white colour, and isn’t always sharply demarcated from the heartwood.
Western Red cedar is commonly used for outdoor projects from Shingles, exterior siding and lumber, boatbuilding, boxes, crates, as well as musical instruments. (Wood rating 1 on a scale of 1 to 4)
Pine comes in quite a few varieties with Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa), Sugar (Pinus lambertiana), White (Pinus strobes or Pinus strobus), and Yellow (Pinus echinata), and all of them make great furniture.
In some areas of the country (especially southwest United States), pine is the wood to use. Pine is very easy to work with and, because most selections are relatively soft, it lends itself to carving. Pine generally takes stain very well (as long as you seal the wood first), although Ponderosa pine tends to seep sap, so be very careful when using this stuff.
The Soft Pines: Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana), Western White Pine (Pinus monticola), & Eastern White Pine.
The Hard Pines: Southern Yellow Pines – Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata), Slash Pine (Pinus elliotti), Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris), Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) & some minor species of SYP: Sand Pine (Pinus clausa), Spruce Pine (Pinus glabra), Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens), Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida), Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana), & Pond Pine (Pinus serotina).
Like cedar, redwood is commonly used for outdoor projects because of its resistance to moisture. Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) has a light pinkish brown to deep reddish brown heartwood. The Sapwood is pale white or yellow. Curly figure or Redwood burls (sometimes referred to as “lace” or by the name Vavona) are occasionally seen.
The Redwood is easy to work with hand tools or machinery, but planer tear-out can occur on figured pieces with curly, wavy, or irregular grain. Glues and finishes well. Redwood is relatively soft (2 on a scale of 1 to 4), and is moderately priced. You can find redwood at your local lumber store.
It is often referred to as Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which can vary in color based upon age and location of tree. Typically, the wood has a light brown color with a hint of red and/or yellow, with darker growth rings.
Fir is most often used for building; however, it’s inexpensive and can be used for some furniture-making as well. It doesn’t have the most interesting grain pattern and doesn’t take stain very well, so it’s best to use it only when you intend to paint the finished product. Douglas fir is moderately strong and hard for softwood, rating 4 on a scale of 1 to 4.
Most woodworkers love to work with hardwoods. The diversity of colors, textures, and grain patterns makes for some beautiful and interesting-looking furniture. The downside to hardwoods is their higher price. In most cases, the more exotic the wood species is – the higher the price tag for it.
White Ash (Fraxinus americana) has a heartwood that is a light to medium brown color with sapwood that can be very wide, and tends to be a beige or light brown; not always clearly or sharply demarcated from heartwood. The wood has a medium to coarse texture similar to that of oak; have a straight and regular grain, though sometimes moderately curly or figured boards can be found.
It’s pretty easy to work with, and produces good results with hand or machine tools. (Hardness of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) Responds well to steam bending. Glues, stains, and finishes well; though, ash is getting harder and harder to find. Ash is a good substitute for white oak.
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a very popular and all-around great wood; easy to work with, stains and finishes well with just oil, and ages beautifully. Cherry has heartwood that is a light pinkish brown when freshly cut, darkening to a medium reddish brown with time and upon exposure to light; the Sapwood is a pale yellowish color. Cherry has a hardness of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5.
This is a very common wood for furniture-making and is available from sustainably grown forests. Its popularity extends to using for cabinetry, fine furniture, flooring, interior millwork, veneer, turned objects, and small specialty wood items. Because it’s in demand, cherry is getting somewhat expensive compared to other domestic hardwoods, such as oak and maple.
Birch comes in two varieties: yellow and white birch. Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) has heartwood that tends to be a light reddish brown, with nearly white sapwood. Irregularly figured pieces are available with a wide, shallow curl similar to the curl found in Cherry.
Both types of birch have a hardness of 4 on a scale of 1 to 5. Birch is readily available and less expensive than many other hardwoods.
Birch is stable and easy to work with. However, it’s hard to stain because it can get blotchy, so you might prefer to paint anything that you make with birch. Birch are commonly used for Plywood, boxes, crates, turned objects, interior trim, and other small specialty wood items.
One of the great furniture woods, mahogany also called Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) has a heartwood color can vary a fair amount with Honduran Mahogany, from a pale pinkish brown, to a darker reddish brown which tends to darken with age; has a straight, interlocked, irregular or wavy grain, Texture is medium and uniform, with moderate natural luster, and a hardness of around 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. It takes stain very well and looks great with just a coat (or 10) of oil.
The only drawback is that mahogany isn’t being grown in sustainable forests – the only place to find mahogany is a decent lumberyard (and it is also very expensive).
Maple wood comes in two varieties: hard and soft maple. Both are harder than many other woods; hard maple (Acer saccharum) is so hard (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) that it’s difficult to work with. Unlike most other hardwoods, the sapwood of Hard Maple is most commonly used rather than its heartwood.
On the other hand, Soft maple varieties such as Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), Box Elder (Acer negundo), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), or Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum) is relatively easy to work with. Because of their fine, straight grain, both varieties are more stable than many other woods. They also tend to be less expensive than other hardwoods. You won’t usually find maple at your local home center, though most lumber yards have a good selection of it.
Oak is one of the most used woods for furniture. Available in two varieties: the red and white oak. The Oak wood is strong (hardness of about 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) and easy to work with. White oak (Quercus alba) has a heartwood that is a light to medium brown, commonly with an olive cast.
Nearly white to light brown sapwood is not always sharply demarcated from the heartwood. White Oak is preferred for furniture-making because it has a more attractive figure than red oak. White oak is also resistant to moisture and can be used on outdoor furniture.
This is one wood that can be found quarter-sawn (the most stable cutting option available). Actually, quarter-sawn white oak is less expensive than some other hardwoods, like cherry.
With a hardness of about 4 on a 1 to 5 scale, Black walnut (Juglans nigra) has heartwood that can range from a lighter pale brown to dark chocolate brown with darker brown streaks. The wood’s color can sometimes have a grey, purple, or reddish cast. Sapwood is pale yellow-grey to nearly white.
Figured grain patterns such as curl, crotch, and burl are also seen. Unfortunately, walnut is somewhat expensive, and finding large boards for big projects is getting really difficult.
In spite of this, black walnut is still a great wood to work with and lends itself nicely for use as accents and inlays to finish up a woodworking project. As expected, you won’t easily find a walnut available anytime at your local home center; you may need to special order it from a lumberyard or speciality wood suppliers if you want a large quantity.
Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is one of the less expensive hardwoods. The wood also is fairly soft (1 in hardness on a scale of 1 to 5), which makes it easy to work with. Poplar’s heartwood is light cream to yellowish brown, with occasional streaks of gray or green.
The Sapwood is pale yellow to white, not always clearly demarcated from the heartwood. It can also be seen in mineral stained colors ranging from dark purple to red, green, or yellow, sometimes referred to as Rainbow Poplar which tend to darken upon exposure to light. Since poplar is not the most beautiful wood, it’s rarely used in fine furniture, and if it is, it’s almost always painted.
Poplar is commonly used for pallets, crates, upholstered furniture frames, paper (pulpwood), and plywood. Poplar veneer is also used for a variety of applications: either dyed in various colors, or on hidden undersides of veneered panels to counteract the pull of the glue on an exposed side that has been veneered with another, more decorative wood species.
Teak (Tectona grandis) is becoming rarer as the days go by, but it is the staple for fine outdoor furniture. Teak has heartwood that tends to be a golden or medium brown, with color darkening with age and has a straight grain, though can occasionally be wavy or interlocked; have a coarse, uneven texture and moderate to low natural luster.
Teak is highly weather-resistant and very beautiful (not to mention expensive) Teak has an oily feel and a golden-brown color. It rates a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 for hardness and is usually or only available from bigger lumberyards and specialty wood suppliers.
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