Woodworking: Know Your Wood
Wood is made of cellulose fibers, bound together with a property called lignin, and is classified as hard or soft wood, depending on the type of tree it comes from. Also, the sapwood or new wood of a tree is still alive, while the heartwood refers to the part of the tree that no longer functions. These two stages of wood also have different properties and uses. Knowing something about the different woods can help you determine which one to use, how to work it, what issues to look out for, and how to care for the finished product.
There are hundreds of different types of trees and woods, with a wide range of colors, density, grain, shape and other characteristics that affect their workability and application to different types of uses. The following is an alphabetical list and description of some of the most popular woods used in carpentry. Types like ebony and ironwood are not listed here, as they are not normally used in carpentry, at least not by beginners. The focus is on woods that perform well and are common in joinery.
The following legend provides a guide to the symbols included with each type of wood.
Cost: $ = inexpensive, $$ = moderate, $$$ = expensive
Ease of work: 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.
Raft $$, E
One of the lightest hardwoods, the raft has been used for canoes, model building, life rafts, and other situations where a light, driftwood is needed. It is usually white in color and moderately priced. Because it is exceptionally soft, it can be worked well with hand tools, but has little durability.
Linden $, E
Basswood is an inexpensive and versatile hardwood often used for carving wood. It is smooth, light, fine in texture and ranges in color from soft white to brown. Other uses include spinning, toys, kitchen utensils, and boxes.
Birch $, E
The birch known as paper birch, is the white tree that grows in the forest with its bark peeled like paper. Inside, the sapwood is creamy and darkens to brown in the heartwood. It is inexpensive to buy and consequently one of the most popular woods among beginning furniture makers. It can also be used for cabinets, toys, and plywood, but it is not durable if left unfinished.
Butternut $$, M
A textured wood of course that is light to medium brown in color, walnut is moderately priced and is a common choice for veneers, wood items, and church alterations.
Cedar, aromatic $, M
Scented cedar or red cedar, known for its red coloration and pleasant, somewhat pungent smell, is a popular material for woodworking in containers and cabinets. It has alternating dark and light colored lines and can also have dark knots, which makes it visually appealing as well. It is relatively inexpensive.
Cherry, black $$, E
The sapwood of the cherry is light in color, but the heartwood can vary from light brown to a deep red color that many find attractive. It has a fine grain and tends to darken as it ages. It is most often used in cabinetmaking and furniture making and is moderately priced.
Cottonwood $, E
A white to pale brown wood that is part of the poplar family, poplar is light and tends to be soft, making it good for carving. It is also used in the manufacture of furniture, toys, and wooden items. Poplar bark is preferred by many carvers because it can be found in large chunks and has a soft, workable nature.
Cypress $, EM
Cypress wood has an oily texture, resists rot and decay, and is often used in outdoor furniture and docks. It is light yellow in color and is inexpensive compared to other woods.
Elm, white $$, M
There are many elms, and most tend to be easy to work with and bend well. White elm is a soft yellow in color and, if used by beginners, it is usually found in a furniture project. This tree is affected by Dutch elm disease, making it increasingly difficult to find and therefore slightly more expensive.
Mahogany $$, E
A dense, durable, and easy-to-work reddish-colored wood, mahogany (especially that of Honduras) is often used to make furniture and cabinets of various grades. It is moderately priced.
Maple, white $$, MD
Maple has white sapwood and reddish-brown heartwood. The grain can have different patterns, including wavy and bird’s eye. It can be difficult to work with, but it is used to make furniture, cabinets, flooring, and small projects like cutting boards.
Oak $$, EM
In the oak family, white oak is perhaps the easiest to work with and is very durable. It has a light tan color with a straight grain. It is moderately priced and is used for furniture, cabinets, and is a preferred wood for building barrels.
Pine: Ponderosa, white, yellow $, E
Although different types of pine have different specific characteristics, it tends to be a softer, lighter colored wood that is used in many construction environments. It is also a popular wood for carpenters, especially beginners, because it is inexpensive, easy to find, relatively easy to work with, and holds up well (except white pine). Often selected for birdhouses, planters, benches, and other beginner projects.
Redwood $$$, E
Redwood is known for its ability to hold up well in outdoor conditions. It is relatively easy to work with and is used in outdoor furniture, decks, and other applications where outdoor durability is important. Even though redwood trees grow quite large and produce large quantities of boards, the price is on the higher end.
Walnut, black $$, E
A strong, dark wood that works well, black walnut is used for carving, firearms, fine furniture, cabinets, and other items where strength and appearance are important. It has a chemical that can cause irritation. The black walnut is moderately priced.
Willow $$, E
There are many different varieties of willow, but in general it is a soft, light wood with dull brownish heartwood and light-colored sapwood. Due to its softness, it is popular with carvers. It is also used for coffins, Venetian blinds, and other items.
Yellow poplar $, E
Yellow poplar is a strong, inexpensive hardwood that is light in color and sometimes streaked with green, which can make finishing difficult. It is not a real poplar. Along with pine, it is one of the most widely used woods today. Poplar is used in basic furniture, bookshelves, and boxes. It is also acceptable for carving.