Woodworking: Know Your Wood
Wood is made of cellulose fibers, held together with a property called lignin, and is classified as hardwood or softwood, depending on the type of tree from which it comes. In addition, sapwood or new growth wood on a tree is still alive, while heartwood refers to the part of the tree that is no longer functioning. These two stages of wood also have different properties and uses. Knowing something about the different woods can help you determine which to use, how to work it, what problems to watch for, and how to care for the finished product.
There are hundreds of different types of trees and wood, with a wide range of colors, density, grain, figure, and other characteristics that affect its workability and application to different types of uses. The following is an alphabetical listing and description of some of the more popular woods used in woodworking. Types such as ebony and ironwood are not listed here, as they are not typically used in woodworking, at least not by beginners. The focus is on woods that work well and are common in woodworking.
The following legend provides a guide for symbols included with each type of wood.
Cost: $ = inexpensive, $$ = moderate, $$$ = expensive
Ease of working: E = easy, M = moderate, D = difficult
Ash, white $, M
A strong, inexpensive wood that is lighter in color and bends well, white ash is often used in sports equipment such as bats and canoe paddles. It is also common in pool cues, tool handles, and other products that require durability and strength.
Balsa $$, E
One of the lightest hardwoods, balsa has been used for canoes, model building, life rafts and other situations where a light, buoyant wood is needed. It is usually white in color and priced moderately. Because it is exceptionally soft, it can be worked well with hand tools, but has poor durability.
Basswood $, E
Basswood is an inexpensive and versatile hardwood that is often used for woodcarving. It is soft, light, fine textured and ranges in color from soft white to brown. Other uses include turning, toys, kitchen utensils and crates.
Birch $, E
The birch known as paper birch, is the white tree growing in the forest with its bark peeling like paper. Inside the sapwood is creamy and darkens toward brown at the heartwood. It is inexpensive to purchase and consequently is one of the most popular woods with beginner furniture makers. It can also be used for cabinets, toys and plywood but is not durable when left unfinished.
Butternut $$, M
A course-textured wood that is light to medium brown, butternut is moderately priced, and is a common choice for veneers, woodenware, and church alters.
Cedar, aromatic $, M
Known for its red coloring and pleasing, somewhat spicy smell, aromatic cedar or red cedar is a popular woodworking material for containers and closets. It has alternating lines of dark and light color and may also have dark knots, making it visually appealing as well. It is relatively inexpensive.
Cherry, black $$, E
Cherry sapwood is light colored, but the heartwood can vary from light brown to a dark red color that many find appealing. It has a fine grain and tends to darken in color as it ages. It is used most often in cabinetry and furniture making and is moderately priced.
Cottonwood $, E
A white to pale brown colored wood that is part of the poplar family, cottonwood is light and tends to be soft, which makes it good for carving. It is also used in making furniture, toys and woodenwares. Many carvers prefer the bark of the cottonwood tree because it can be found in large pieces and has a soft, workable nature.
Cypress $, E-M
Cypress wood has an oily texture, resists rot and decay and is often used in outdoor furniture and docks. It is light yellow in color and is inexpensive compared to other woods.
Elm, white $$, M
There are many elms, and most tend to be easy to work with and bend well. The white elm is soft yellow in color, and if used by beginners, it is usually in a furniture project. This tree is affected by Dutch Elm disease, so it is becoming more difficult to find, and thus a bit more expensive.
Mahogany $$, E
A reddish colored, dense hardwood that is durable and easy to work, Mahogany, (especially that from Honduras) is often used when making various grades of furniture and cabinets. It is moderately priced.
Maple, white $$, M-D
Maple has white sapwood and reddish brown heartwood. The grain can come in different patterns including wavy and birds eye. It can be difficult to work, but is used to make furniture, cabinets, flooring, and small projects such as cutting boards.
Oak $$, E-M
In the oak family, white oak is perhaps the easiest to work and is highly durable. It has a light tan color with a straight grain. It is moderate in price and used for furniture, cabinets, and is a favored wood for building barrels.
Pine: Ponderosa, white, yellow $, E
Although the different kinds of pine have varying specific features, it tends to be a softer, light colored wood that is used in many construction settings. It is also a popular wood for woodworkers, especially beginners, because it is inexpensive, easy to find, relatively easy to work, and holds up well (except for white pine). Often selected for birdhouses, flower boxes, benches and other beginner projects.
Redwood $$$, E
Redwood is known for its ability to hold up well in outdoor conditions. It is relatively easy to work and is used in outdoor furniture, decks, and other applications where durability outdoors is important. Despite the fact that redwood trees grow quite large and yield high quantities of boards, the price is on the higher end.
Walnut, black $$, E
A dark, tough wood that works well, black walnut is used in carving, making gunstocks, fine furniture, cabinets, and other items where strength and appearance are both important. It has a chemical in it that can cause irritation. Black walnut is moderately priced.
Willow $$, E
There are many different varieties of willow, but in general they are a soft, light wood with dull brownish heartwood and light colored sapwood. Because of its softness, it is popular with carvers. It is also used for caskets, Venetian blinds, and a number of other items.
Yellow poplar $, E
Yellow poplar is a strong, inexpensive hardwood that has a light color and sometimes is streaked with green, which can make it more difficult to finish. It is not a true poplar. Along with pine, it is one of the most common woods used today. Poplar is used in basic furniture, shelving, and boxes. It is also acceptable for carving.