Which Wood Should I Use? Hardwoods vs. Softwoods

Which Wood Should I Use? Hardwoods vs. Softwoods

Johnny Williams
Aug 31, 2009

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Each species of wood exhibits a unique personality — some are easy going and fun to work with, others hardheaded and quick to snap. Woodworkers must psychoanalyze this manic material, turning character flaws into well-balanced furniture. To help you interpret wood's many moods, I've compiled a little list of the most common species and their notable traits.

Lumber is split into two major groups: hardwoods and softwoods. Curiously, these classifications don't reflect the density or durability of the tree, rather the structure of its seeds. So while most hardwoods are in fact hard, somehow balsa is allowed to masquerade in the same category as ebony. That's as if I were allowed to play for the Yankees just because I knew how to spit. Below are some common hardwoods:

White Ash: Easy to work especially for steam-bending and laminating projects. Light grain finishes and stains beautifully. Fun fact: used to make baseball bats.

Birch: A highly affordable choice used in the production of plywood sheets and firewood. Also a favorite for woodturning and instrument making.

Cherry: An American classic. Salmony in color at first, but turns brown when exposed to sunlight. Prolonged contact with power tools can cause the wood to burn.

Mahogany: A rich history of use in fine furniture. Currently difficult to come by due to preservation laws and logging shortages. Takes finishes and stains terrifically.

Sugar Maple: A very strong wood with straight grain and beautiful white coloring. Special varieties include curly maple and bird's eye maple.

White Oak: A highly durable wood with rich figuring. Can be tiresome to work with hand tools. Known for its use in Arts and Crafts style furniture.

Walnut: Spectacular grain coloring. Heartwood is a purple-tinged brown, sapwood is cream colored. Takes polish extremely well. My personal favorite.

Now for some softwoods...

Douglas Fir: Water resistant and commonly used as a building material. Given Santa's seal of approval for use as Christmas trees.

Pine: Yellow colored with straight grain turns a rich amber over time. Softness allows for easy shaping, but wood is susceptible to denting.

Poplar: An affordable hobbyist's wood, great for model-making. Few knots due to limited number of branches.

(Images: 1 Flickr member mr*sha*mme*r licensed for use under Creative Commons, 2 West Coast Hardwoods, 3 Fence Fabric, 4 Vandersteen, 5 Oceanside Aluminum, 6, Wood Magazine, 7 Wood Wonder, 8 Edgewood Cabinetry, 9 Lambeth Custom Door, 10 Victorian Salvage, 11 Banks Hardwood)

Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student at Maine's Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.

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