Best Types of Wood Species for Woodworking

Where to begin? There is a lot to consider when choosing the best wood (or timber) for your next project. Things such as:

As well as the type of wood, you should also think about getting the right cut of wood from the timber yard, this will have a huge impact of the final look, ease of working and stability of your project. We have covered this in a separate article on ‘How to Choose Lumber‘.

Below is a list of the most common timber used for woodworking and the attributes each has that might make them suitable or unsuitable for your next project.

Log or Timber Pile

Softwoods for Woodworking

There is a misconception that softwoods mean they are softer than hardwoods. While this is most often the case, it’s not always true. Instead, softwoods are defined by the trees they come from. Softwood comes from conifer trees which produce needles and cones, such as fir, redwood, pine, cedar, and spruce. These are fast growing and are easy to process, hence cheaper. As a result, softwood is common in the construction industry, as well as for use in plywood. Softwoods are often treated with a biocide to make them more rot and bug resistant, this can give them a yellow, green of even blue coloration which isn’t desirable for woodworking. Having said that, untreated softwood is still common in furniture making and there are many applications where it is the best option.

Pine

Possibly the most common wood in a timber yard and used for many different applications. There are a few varieties, but all are similar. Ranges in color from yellow to white and can be knotty or clear. Easy to work with due to being cheap, light, and soft, though it can also have more tear out and it is harder to get sharp edges. Typically, an indoor wood, unless treated.

Cost – $ in USA, £ in Europe
Common Uses – Framing lumber, construction, joinery, plywood, interior woodwork
Hardness – 1 out of 5 (soft)
Finishing – Finishes well but requires initial seal coats
Sustainability – No threat

Western Red Cedar & European Cedar

One thing to know about Cedar, is that it is not all the same. Western Red Cedar (American Cedar) and European Cedar are very different in aesthetic, even if they are similar in other properties. Both are remarkably resistant to rot and insects, so are suitable for outdoor applications. The natural oils that make it desirable outdoors, also make it unsuitable around the kitchen as it can be an irritant if exposed to skin for a long time. Western Red Cedar is the classic timber that we desire, European Cedar on the other hand does not have the warm red coloration and is very knotty.

Cost – $ in USA, ££££ in Europe
Common Uses – Cabinet making, boat building, carvings, outdoor furniture, house cladding
Hardness – 1 out of 5 (soft)
Finishing – Finishes well, but oil finishes take better
Sustainability – Varies depending on species; from no threat to endangered

Redwood, Douglas Fir & Spruce

I have grouped these together, not because they are similar, but because I wouldn’t consider them as strong contenders for a woodworking. Or rather, there is nearly always a superior alternative. For construction or other purposes, these maybe a contender.

Hardwoods for Woodworking

Hardwoods come from trees that don’t produce needles or cones. These tend to be broad leaf deciduous trees such as oak, walnut, beech, maple, though not always, as bamboo and palm are also considered hardwoods. In general, however, hardwoods are slower growing and bigger trees than softwood trees. Hardwoods are stronger and more durable due to being denser in structure. Hardwoods come in a vast range of grains, colors, and strengths.

Ash

Recommended

Ash is a pale wood with straight unfeatured grain. It’s one of the harder wood species that is still simple and enjoyable to work with and easy to stain. It is very close to oak in terms of strength and characteristics of durability and flex. It can be hard to find in stores, this is due to its relative unpopularity rather than any scarcity. We feel its unpopularity is a little unfair and when finished well can be a beautiful wood.

Cost – $ in USA, ££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, panelling, hand tools, flooring
Hardness – 4 out of 5 (hard)
Finishing – Finishes well
Comes From – UK, Europe, North America
Sustainability – No threat

Birch

Comes in yellow and white varieties. The white variety has a similar color to maple, whereas the yellow variety looks like varnish which has yellowed with age. Birch is a very stable and robust timber that is nice to work with.

Cost – $ in USA, ££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, toys, plywood, interior doors
Hardness – 4 out of 5 (hard)
Finishing – Can be difficult to stain because the wood gets blotchy. You’re better off painting
Comes From – UK, Europe, North America
Sustainability – No threat

Cherry

A popular timber that comes from the Cherry fruit trees. A rich color with smooth grain. Hardness is similar to Mahogany, and it is easy to work with. Can be steamed easily.

Cost – $$ in USA, ££££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, decorative work, cabinetry, flooring, veneer, musical instruments
Hardness – 2 out of 5 (medium)
Finishing – Light and natural finishes work best, but well take any finish
Comes From – UK, Europe, North America
Sustainability – No threat

Mahogany

Once a popular wood, though now less in fashion. This is partly due to a change in tastes and partly since it is not grown in a sustainable way, hence, is at risk of extinction. Reddish-brown tint, straight and unfeatured grain that will darken with age.

Meranti and Sapele are widely regarded at alternatives to Mahogany. Having similar density and grain structure. Unfortunately they are equally or more endangered, so not recommended.

Cost $ in USA, ££££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, joinery, plywood, musical instruments, exterior doors
Hardness – 2 out of 5 (medium)
Finishing – Finishes well, looks great with just a coat of oil
Comes From – West Africa, Brazil
Sustainability – Vulnerable – at risk of extinction in the wild

Maple

Recommended

A beautiful light-colored wood that comes in two varieties: hard and soft. Soft is the preferred choice for woodworking because it is easier to work, whereas the hard variety is preferred for flooring. A great choice for woodworking due to its straight grain, exceptional stability and being relatively cheap. A great place to start if you are a beginner.

Cost – $ in USA, ££ in Europe
Common Uses – Flooring, musical instruments, furniture
Hardness – 4.5 out of 5 (hard)
Finishing – Finishes well
Comes From – Africa, South America, India
Comes From – Asia, North America
Sustainability – No threat

Oak

Recommended

Oak is a popular wood and on-trend species, though few people are aware that there are around 600 different varieties that can look very different from each other. If you are purchasing Oak, it is important to know which variety you are getting. The most popular species are English Oak/European Oak, White American Oak, and Red American Oak. European Oak has yellowish-brown heartwood with lighter sapwood and straight grain, it is a more consistent wood than its American cousins. White American Oak ranges for yellow brown to mid-brown heartwood with almost white sapwood. You should expect a distinct difference. Red American Oak is similar, though with a reddish tinge (that personally we aren’t a fan of).

Oak, regardless of species is very strong, heavy, easy to work with and durable. It is also naturally resistant to fungal attacks, making it suitable for outdoor use with the right sealing.

Cost – $ in USA, £££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, panelling, flooring, joinery, outdoor furniture
Hardness – 4 out of 5 (hard)
Finishing – Finishes well, hardwax oil is a great option to bring out the grain in a natural way
Comes From – UK, Europe, North America
Sustainability – No threat

Poplar (aka Tulipwood)

Recommended

Poplar, also known as Tulipwood in some timber yards is white with green or brown streaks in the heartwood. It isn’t regarded as the nicest looking timber, so tends to be used when out of sight or when it will be painted. It is however a great choice of woodworking where aesthetics isn’t important. It is a softer wood, so easy to work with and kind on tools, though will dent easily. It is inexpensive and stable.

Cost – $ in USA, ££ in Europe
Common Uses – Matches, crafts, painted furniture
Hardness – 1 out of 5 (soft)
Finishing – Finishes well
Comes From – UK, Europe
Sustainability – No threat

Rosewood

Deep purplish brown to golden with darker streaks. When dried properly it is a durable and tough wood. Though it can have chalky deposits which can dull tools and present problems when finishing. There is a lot of illegal logging and smuggling of Rosewood so it might be best to avoid.

Cost – $ in USA, ££££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, musical instruments, veneer
Hardness – 5 out of 5 (very hard)
Finishing – Finishes well but required initial sealing coats
Comes From – Africa, South America, India
Sustainability – Varies depending on species; from no threat to endangered

Teak

Due to the long growing cycles of the tree, teak is one of the most expensive woods and can be hard to find. It has a golden-brown color and contains natural oils which make it highly weather resistant. Though these oils can also make it hard to glue (requires specialty glue) and can become a skin irritant if exposed for too long.

Cost – $$ in USA, £££££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, joinery, garden furniture, flooring, boat decking, crafts
Hardness – 3 out of 5 (medium)
Finishing – A finish isn’t required due to natural oils but does finish well with a lacquer or oil
Comes From – South Africa, South-East Asia
Sustainability – Near threatened

Walnut

Recommended

A personal favorite and increasingly popular across the US and Europe. The grain can be wonderfully featured with a gentle flowing grain that varies from light brown to golden, with darker streaks throughout. The wood is stable, shock resistant and strong. Although it is higher on the hardness scale, it is not difficult to work with.

Cost – $$ in USA, ££££ in Europe
Common Uses – Furniture, joinery, veneers, tables, musical instruments
Hardness – 4 out of 5 (hard)
Finishing – Finishes well, hardwax oil recommended
Comes From – Europe, North America, Africa
Sustainability – No threat (European, North America), Vulnerable (African)

Janka Wood Hardness Scale

A universal and widely used wood hardness scale. The Janka Scale measures the amount of force required to press a 0.444” (11.28mm) steel ball into the wood by half its diameter. A very good way to compare timber and predict its ability to withstand wear and tear.

To give a little perspective, anything rated above 1000 lbf (4,448N) is suitable for flooring.

Wood SpeciesHardness (lbf)Hardness (N)
Australian Buloke506022500
Brazilian Walnut - Lapacho -Ipê368416400
African Pearwood - Moabi368016400
Bolivian Cherry365016200
Brazilian Teak - Cumaru354015700
Ebony322014300
Strand Woven Bamboo300013300
Red Mahogany - Turpentine269712000
Live Oak268011900
Southern Chestnut267011900
Ease Indian Rosewood244010900
Brazilian Cherry - Jatoba235010500
Golden Teak233010400
Santos Mahogany - Bocite22009800
Purpleheart18608300
Tigerwood - Goncalo Alves18508200
Hickory and Pecan18208100
Rosewood17807900
African Padauk17257700
Black Locust17007600
Wenge16307300
Red Pine16307300
Zebrawood15757000
True Pine15707000
Sweet Birch14706500
Hard Maple - Sugar Maple14506400
Natural Bamboo13806100
Australian Cypress13756100
White Oak13606000
Ash (White)13205900
American Beech13005800
Red Oak (Northen)12905700
Caribbean Heart Pine12805700
Yellow Birch - Iroko12605600
Yellow Heart Pine12255400
Larch12805700
Carbonized Bamboo11805200
Cocobolo11365100
English Oak11205000
Albizia/Albizzia - Silk Wood10204535
Black Walnut - North American Walnut10104500
European Oak10104500
Teak10004400
Cherry9954400
European Ash9944400
Black Cherry - Imbuia9504200
Red Maple9504200
Paper Birch9104000
Eastern Red Cedar9004000
American Red Elm8603800
Mahogany - Honduran Mahogany8003600
Sycamore7703400
Douglas Fir6602900
Pine5802600
Chestnut5402400
Poplar - Tulipwood5402400
Spruce3501600
Balsa70300
Subscribe
Notify of
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x