Tree Week

These Are the Best Types of Wood for Furniture, Flooring, and Cabinets

published May 23, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

If you’ve ever set foot in a home improvement store, you’ve probably noticed a lot of one material: wood. And you’ve probably noticed it in your own home, too — or perhaps even installed it yourself.

Wood has many practical applications in a house, from flooring to cabinetry to furniture. So if you plan to embark on a renovation or design project that has to do with wood, it might be helpful to familiarize yourself with the vast variety of species out there so you know exactly what to look for (and what to skip). There are dozens of types of wood that are commonly used in the home, and they all have unique qualities that make them suited for specific applications.

For instance, given the beating that floors take, it’s almost always better to go with a hardwood option. But when it comes to creating detailed furniture, softwood is far easier to sculpt. There are even further qualities to consider regarding the end aesthetic, too, such as the natural grain of the wood, which impacts how well the wood can take a stain. Plus, learning about wood can help you identify what you already have in your home and figure out what changes you might want to make.

Feel a little overwhelmed? Don’t worry, we’re here to help you out. Below, your expert-led guide to everything wood.

What’s the difference between hardwood and softwood?

There’s a common misconception that all hardwoods are hard and all softwoods are soft. While that’s generally true, there is a lot of variety in the hardness of both hardwoods and softwoods. The main difference between them is actually the group of trees from which they originate: deciduous or coniferous. 

“Hardwood is identified by trees that are deciduous. They lose their leaves annually and most produce fruits or nuts. Trees such as maple, cherry, and oak are hardwoods,” says Char Miller-King, an Atlanta-based woodworker known by her Instagram handle, @woodenmaven. “Softwood trees are known as evergreen or coniferous, and have cones. These are trees such as pine and fir trees.”

The differentiation between the groups goes far beyond their leaves and reproduction methods. “Hardwoods are deciduous trees that grow more slowly and therefore have tighter rings. They are, for the most part, harder, but not always,” says Kelly DeWitt of Austin-based KKDW Construction, who is a woodworker and welder. “Softwoods grow relatively quickly, and that quick growth is what creates a generally softer wood.”

The relative hardness and softness of various woods isn’t just based on a feeling. You might be familiar with the Mohs Scale of Hardness, which ranks gemstones based on their hardness (diamonds being a 10, and talc being a 1). Woods are similarly ranked for durability, using something called the Janka Hardness Scale. “The Janka Hardness Scale identifies at what point a 11.28-millimeter [0.444-inch] steel ball will embed itself halfway through a board proposed for flooring,” says Miller-King.

It sounds like an odd system, but it’s a helpful one for determining which types of woods to use for different purposes. 

“Hardwoods are better suited for areas that are more susceptible to wear and tear, such as cabinets, flooring, and countertops,” says Sean Walsh, CEO of California-based Walcraft Cabinetry. “Softwoods often find their place in the home as picture frames, crafts, shelves, moldings, balusters, and even handrails. It is also common that furniture is crafted with softer woods such as pine, poplar, or fir.”

If you’re looking for durability, you’ll want want a something with a Janka rating of at least 900, but ideally 1200 for heavy-wear uses like high-traffic floors.

Why do woods have different natural colors and grains?

While woods are often painted or stained to manipulate their color, woods inherently have their own colors. “Woods from different regions around the world each have very unique colors and grains, all of which are only species-specific. They are not affected by where they are growing, only what they are in species,” says Walsh.

Most woods fit in brown and red families, but there are also black, green, orange, and purple woods — most of which are only revealed beneath a tree’s bark.

“Purple Heart is the only truly purple wood,” says Walsh. “Jatoba, also known as Brazilian Cherry, has a deep reddish-brown base with streaks of black running through it and a very straight grain. American Cherry has a more wavy grain and is an orangish red color that turns darker with age and exposure to sunlight.”

Grain is evaluated separately from color. It refers to two main characteristics of the wood: the striping and the texture. “What you see when you are looking at wood grain is the orientation of the wood fiber cells. Trees can have open grain or closed grain, which is all based on the pore size of the cells, the rate at which the tree grows and when it was cut,” says Miller-King. “There are many ways to cut a tree: plain sawn, quarter sawn, and flat sawn to name a few. This influences the grain pattern that is revealed.”

So, what’s the best wood for flooring, cabinetry, and furniture?

Credit: Alexis Buryk

The Best Wood for Flooring

There’s really just one rule when it comes to wood flooring — pick something durable! Wood floors handle a lot of traffic and they’re likely to get scuffed. Harder woods like oak or maple are a solid (pun intended) option for flooring, as is bamboo (though it’s technically a hardened grass, not a true hardwood). “Softwoods can be used for flooring, but buyers be warned: Make sure your style is distressed and worn because your floors will be just that in no time,” says Walsh.

The Best Wood for Cabinets

Cabinets have to handle some wear and tear, but not nearly as much as floors. Therefore, softer woods can be used — especially for detail work like molding, which needs to be softer in order to be tooled. “Oak had a long run in the ’80s through the early ’00s, but its days are not over. It can be finished using techniques that are very modern and trending such as wire brushing, gray-washing, and even glazing,” says Walsh. “Maple is fantastic for painted finishes, as well as stained finishes. Cherry is a great choice for those looking for high-character cabinets with a deep reddish-brown tone.”

Plywood is also frequently used in cabinetry, as it’s not prone to bending and warping over time. “The word ‘plywood’ often has a negative connotation — folks tend to conjure up something cheap, usually ugly, and never high-end or luxe,” says DeWitt. “Plywood is not inherently cheap; the term simply refers to thin layers of alternating-grain wood, pressed and glued together to create a very strong and stable panel. When plywood’s top layer of wood, or veneer, is solid, real wood, it can certainly be very expensive, high-quality, and quite high-end.”

Credit: Lula Poggi

The Best Wood for Furniture

There are a number of factors involved with choosing the right wood for furniture. Overall, hardwoods are usually better, as the furniture must be able to stand up to regular use. “Where and how furniture will be used dictates which type of lumber should be employed,” says Miller-King. “For outdoor furniture, species such as teak and mahogany work well. For indoor furniture such as tables and chairs, hardwoods such as oak and cherry are great.”

But in some cases, softer woods can be used, so long as their construction is extra sturdy. “Using readily available pine and poplar can be used with the proper joinery and finishing techniques,” Miller-King notes.

It’s also worth considering what kind of detail work will be done with the furniture. As with cabinets, anything that requires detailed carving or shaping will require a softer wood. And it’s also worth thinking about how well a wood will take a stain, as many pieces of wood furniture are finished with them. That’s determined less by grain, and more by the cell structure of the wood — woods with larger cells (oak) tend to be more porous, and take stain better, than woods with smaller cells (pine). Some woods also have more variation in tone within a single board; those can be more difficult to stain if you want an even finish.

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What are the most common types of wood you’re likely to see at home?

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Red Oak

Red oak is an extremely porous type of hardwood that grows in North America, particularly in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. If you look at its end grains, you’ll see and feel an almost honeycomb-like texture. But don’t be thrown off by its name — it’s not necessarily red (though its leaves are in the autumn). It’s usually a light to medium brown that trends towards a slightly pinkish side, with straight grains running through it. Red oak takes stains well, thanks to its porous nature, which makes it a popular choice for flooring, cabinetry, and furniture.

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White Oak

White oak is easily identified by tyloses, or “balloon-like swellings,” according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, filling its pores. Those tyloses prevent water from traveling through the pores, making white oak a great choice for any type of wood piece that might get wet, like outdoor furniture. Like red oak, however, the word “white” in its name doesn’t necessarily refer to the color of its natural grain, but the color of its leaves — they have a whitish hue to their undersides. The wood, however, is light to medium brown with a slight olive tone that takes stains, particularly light-colored stains, very well. The hardwood grows across the eastern half of North America, from Ontario, Canada, down into northern Florida, and as far west as the edge of Kansas and Oklahoma.

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Cherry, which in the U.S. comes primarily from the American black cherry tree, is best known for its red to reddish-brown coloring, which deepens with age. It’s a very fine-grain wood on the softer side of the spectrum for hardwoods — it has a Janka rating of just 950, which means it’s not ideal for high-traffic flooring. But it’s a great wood for cabinetry and furniture, as its slightly softer rating allows it to be shaped easily while still withstanding moderate use. Cherry wood grows across the eastern half of the United States, as well as through parts of Mexico.

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There are several types of ash, with the two main ones being white ash and black ash. Both types of ash are a softer hardwood with fairly porous end grains. The differentiators between the two are color (both are light to medium brown, but white ash is typically lighter) and ring spacing (black ash’s rings are closer together than white ash’s rings). Ash trees, which belong to the olive family, grow around the world, particularly in the northern parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. Their wood is relatively flexible yet durable, and it’s a popular choice for flooring, cabinets, and decorative items — especially since it takes stains and paints well.

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Maple — specifically hard maple, which is the most common type of maple wood used in woodworking — is exceptionally strong, ranking a 1450 on the Janka scale. As such, it’s frequently used for flooring, cabinetry, and furniture. (You’re likely familiar with it as the source of maple syrup.) Maple has an off-white to light-brown color that darkens over time, with stains bringing out its grains more heavily. You can identify maple by its light color paired with a very fine texture and straight grains. Because of that fine texture and tight grains, it is slightly difficult to stain evenly. Maple is most commonly found in New England in the United States and Ontario and Quebec in Canada.

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There are more than a dozen species of birch trees in North America alone, but it’s yellow birch and white birch that are most frequently used in the home. The former is typically a light golden brown in color, and the latter is more creamy white. Both have a fairly uniform grain that has hardly noticeable growth rings; they blend right into the rest of the wood. Its pores are closed, creating a smooth texture — but it’s better at absorbing stains than maple. Birch grows throughout the northern United States and southern Canada, particularly around the East Coast and the Great Lakes.

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Teak is prized throughout the world for its durability, not only in terms of its hardness, but also in terms of its resistance to moisture, rot, and insects. As such, it’s commonly used for furniture, boat construction, and flooring, including decking. One way to identify teak is by its density — its resistant nature means the wood is very dense, protecting itself against outside invaders. Otherwise, you can note the wood by its very smooth, almost oily texture, straight grain, and golden to medium brown color. It is native to South Asia.

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Walnut wood is most prized for its beautiful natural color, which is typically a chocolatey brown — it’s one of the most distinguishing features of the hardwood. Its grain is mostly straight with slight waves or curls throughout. Though there are a number of walnut species, the most common one in woodworking is the American black walnut, which grows throughout the central and eastern United States. Because of its natural beauty, it’s a favorite material for furniture, as well as cabinets and veneers. With a Janka scale score of 1010, it’s also durable enough to be used for flooring.

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With more than 100 species of pine, there’s no one-size-fits-all description for the wood. Pine may be a softwood by biology, but its hardness varies per species — in some cases, pine can be as hard as oak. Color-wise, it ranges from nearly pure white to a golden yellow to a cream, which is the most common hue. Though there’s such variety in pine, it can most typically be identified by its generally lighter color and a number of knots throughout its grain. It’s also a lightweight wood. Because pine is a softwood, it’s not best used as flooring. It is, however, a very affordable type of wood — it grows in abundance throughout the Northern Hemisphere — so it can be used somewhat frequently in cabinetry and furniture, despite its overall lack of durability.

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One of the most wide-ranging tree genuses in the world, cedar trees can be found from the Himalaya Mountains in Asia to the warm, rocky shores of the Mediterranean. But the ones most frequently used in woodworking in North America are the eastern and western red cedars. Unlike most woods, cedar’s most identifiable trait is its distinct scent. But eastern red cedar’s dark reddish-brown hue also is a key indicator that you’re looking at cedar; western red cedar has a far lighter color. Cedar is technically a softwood, though it’s on the harder end of them. Eastern red cedar has a Janka score of 900, though its western counterpart only has a Janka score of 350. Cedar is often used for specific types of furniture, including wardrobes and dressers, as the wood has a natural anti-fungal and antibacterial agent within it that can protect clothing. It’s also popular to use as paneling on walls.