Carpentry: know your wood
Wood is made of cellulose fibers, held together by a property called lignin, and is classified as hardwood or softwood, depending on the type of tree it comes from. Also, the sapwood or new wood that grows on a tree is still alive, while the heartwood refers to the part of the tree that is no longer working. 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 problems to watch 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 more popular woods used in woodworking. Types such as ebony and ironwood are not listed here, as they are not normally 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 to the symbols included with each type of wood.
Cost: $ = cheap, $$ = moderate, $$$ = expensive
Ease of work: E = easy, M = moderate, D = difficult
ash, white $, millions
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.
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 is moderately priced. Because it is exceptionally smooth, it can be worked well with hand tools, but it has poor durability.
Basswood is an inexpensive and versatile hardwood that is often used for wood carving. It is soft, light, fine in texture and its color varies from light white to brown. Other uses include turning, toys, kitchen utensils, and boxes.
The birch known as paper birch, is the white tree that grows in the forest with its bark peeling off like paper. Inside, the sapwood is creamy, darkening to brown in the heartwood. It is inexpensive to purchase and consequently one of the most popular woods among beginning furniture makers. It can also be used for cabinets, toys, and plywood, but is not durable if left unfinished.
A coarse-textured wood that is light to medium brown in color, nutmeg is moderately priced and a common choice for veneers, woodwork, and church altars.
cedar, aromatic $, millions
Known for its red coloration and pleasant, somewhat spicy smell, aromatic cedar or red cedar is a popular material for woodworking in containers and cabinets. It has alternating lines of dark and light colors and can also have dark knots, which makes it visually appealing as well. It is relatively inexpensive.
cherry black $$
Cherry sapwood is light in color, but the heartwood can range from light brown to a deep red color that many find attractive. It has a fine grain and tends to darken as it ages. It is most often used in furniture and cabinet making and is moderately priced.
A white to pale brown wood that is part of the poplar family, poplar is lightweight and tends to be soft, making it good for carving. It is also used in the manufacture of furniture, toys, and wooden items. Poplar bark is preferred by many carvers because it can be found in large pieces and has a soft, workable nature.
Cypress $, I
Cypress wood has an oily texture, resists rot and decay, and is often used in outdoor furniture and docks. It is light yellow in color and is inexpensive compared to other woods.
elm white $$,M
There are many elms, and most tend to be easy to work with and bend well. White elm is light yellow in color and if used by beginners, it is usually in a furniture project. This tree is affected by Dutch elm disease, making it increasingly difficult to find and therefore a bit more expensive.
A dense, reddish-colored hardwood that is durable and easy to work with, mahogany (especially from Honduras) is often used when making various grades of furniture and cabinetry. It is moderately priced.
maple white $$, MD
Maple has white sapwood and reddish-brown heartwood. The grain can come in different patterns, including wavy and bird’s eye. It can be difficult to work with, but it is used to make furniture, cabinets, flooring, and small projects like cutting boards.
Oak $$, EN
In the oak family, white oak is perhaps the easiest to work with and is highly 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 building environments. It is also a popular wood among 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 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 redwoods grow quite large and produce large quantities of boards, the price is high.
walnut, black $$
A dark, tough wood that works well, black walnut is used for carving, stock making, fine furniture, cabinetry, and other items where strength and appearance are important. Contains a chemical that can cause irritation. Black walnut is moderately priced.
There are many different varieties of willow, but in general they are a soft, light wood with dull brown 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 has green streaks, which can make finishing difficult. He’s not really popular. Along with pine, it is one of the most widely used woods today. Poplar is used in basic furniture, shelving and boxes. It is also acceptable for carving.