Working with Different Types of Wood: The Best Techniques We Learned the Hard Way

Wood is one of the most valuable and abundant organic materials used in various industries. Forests are grown and harvested around the world to meet the growing demand for this carbon-neutral and robust material.

Hardwoods are cultivated from broad-leaved trees and make up 10 percent of the world’s timber stock, while the rest is supplied by softwoods. Hardwood species take longer to grow and cultivate, which explains its value – they are more expensive than most softwoods. Despite this, many varieties of hardwood lumber have become the staple materials for fine furniture, ornate architectural fittings, and other specialty woodworking projects. They are harder than most types of wood and yield a variety of colors, textures, and grain patterns that make for robust and attractive furniture pieces.

Softwoods have special attributes as well. Their versatility, pliability, and attractive grain patterns create inexpensive but beautiful accent pieces and furnishings. Before rolling up your sleeves, it is critical to first familiarize yourself with the various wood types and woodworking fundamentals.

Choosing the Best Hardwood for Your Project

With many hardwoods and softwoods available in the market, selecting the best wood type for a project can be a daunting task. It is advisable to do some research and consult with a local supplier or professional woodworker to help you decide. After all, it pays to know which types of wood are suitable for certain projects.

While hardwood and softwood boards in showrooms and production sites look similar, the differences are apparent under a microscope. Hardwoods have vessel elements and pores. These pores allow water to seep into the heartwood. It is this quality that makes the growth process of hardwood trees different. Seasonal fluctuation influences these growth stages, which explains the delicate grain patterns that are only apparent in hardwood lumber.

Broad-leaved tree species in temperate and tropical forests produce the hardest and densest hardwoods, because two distinct stages of development alternate throughout the growing season. In tropical regions, where temperatures don’t fluctuate drastically, the growth rings diffuse, resulting in an even appearance when cut. Softwoods that grow in temperate regions tend to exhibit some qualities of hardwoods as well.

At the core of woodworking, the use of hardwoods involves more labor. Beginners with basic tools and limited skills are advised to work with softwoods and softer varieties of hardwoods, such as those in the intermediate category. It’s also best to choose woods that have a straight grain, as they are easier to bend and shape. Harder and denser woods are also prone to splitting, and working with them requires specialized machinery and tools on top of a certain skill level.

For more information on the structure and makeup of hardwoods and softwoods, refer to this comparison chart. Listed below is an overview of the most popular wood types used in woodworking and furniture making:

1. Ash

There are numerous variants of ash, each with its distinctive grain patterns and hardness. The most popular variant used in construction and woodworking is White Ash. The stark contrast between ash-colored springwood and light-hued summerwood, which are emphasized by straight, wide-spaced grains, gives it a unique appearance.

2. Birch

Birch is common and inexpensive. This explains its popularity in all aspects of furniture making. Woodworkers use it for its beautiful yellowish brown hue and straight grain, which effortlessly adds a fresh and subtle character to the final piece.

3. Cedar

The density and mechanical properties of cedar vary widely across geographic sources. A popular variant is the Atlantic White Cedar, which grows abundantly in the coastal plain regions of the US. It is a practical material for outdoor projects and light woodworking projects as it is highly durable, resistant to decay, and easy to work with.

4. Cherry

Harvested from the fine Black Cherry trees of the Southern Appalachian region, cherry is among the often used lumbers in woodworking. Its rich-colored, hard, and straight-grained heartwood makes for an ideal material for furniture and elaborate architectural fittings.

5. Hickory

Hickory is prized for its unique grain pattern. The stark contrasts of light and dark coloration make for interesting-looking furniture pieces. Because of its rugged, natural appearance, the material is prevalent in rustic décor and home furnishing.

6. Mahogany

Mahogany, one of the hardest, versatile woods, can be harvested from various regions across the globe. The endless variety of colors, textures, and grain patterns of mahogany is attributed to the distinct topography and microclimate of the region where the tree grows. The grain patterns range from straight to interlocked.

7. Maple

Used a lot in hardwood flooring for its exceptional strength and durability, maple hardwoods are an excellent choice for furniture as well. They also exhibit a range of grain patterns as a result of the constantly changing climates in the area where the tree grows.

8. Oak

Oak, particularly the Red and White Oak species, grows abundantly across the United States. It is readily available and affordable, which prompts its becoming a staple material for big construction projects, such as flooring and decking. It is also a dependable material for furniture and smaller woodworking items.

9. Pine

Each species of pine has its own set of defining characteristics. The hardwood derived from the Southern Yellow Pine is valued for its density and hardness, as it’s comparable to that of the Red Oak. Western Yellow Pine woods, on the one hand, are valued for their grain appearance. Some species of softwood pines are also hard, and because they have no pores, the grain pattern showcases harsh contrasts of springwood and summerwood.

10. Walnut

Walnut is an easy choice for furniture making as it boasts a robust quality. Most dark furniture is made with walnut, as its heartwood features bold, rich brown grain patterns. It’s also a solid choice for large accent pieces, such as beds, tables, and dressers.

These are just some of the popular wood types used in furniture making and woodworking projects. Other noteworthy wood types include rosewood, satinwood, sycamore, and teak. Browse The Wood Database for more substantial information on every wood species across the globe.

Tips for Beginners

There are rules that craftsmen and hobby woodworkers follow and master when working with hardwoods. Since each wood type comes with a unique structure and wood grain pattern, each board will look differently when cut. During the carving and sanding process, the texture and appearance of the wood will also change. The use of specialized tools and an understanding of the traits and behaviors of each wood types are essential in the creation of a sale-worthy item. For more detailed information on this subject, check out this comprehensive guide to the many tools and techniques used for different woodworking projects.

After learning the basics, you can start drafting your design and assembling the appropriate materials and tools for your woodworking project. For safety purposes, it is advisable that you first create a good working environment before cutting. Draft your design before heading to the workbench. This lessens mistakes, bringing you much closer to the desired outcome.

Before investing in more advanced tools and bigger projects, master the basics first. Start with simple benches, coffee tables, and shelves. Try your hand at several sanding and finishing techniques until you’ve made several usable items. More importantly, never start a project without considering the three hallmarks of good furniture design: comfort, functionality, and beauty. For more tips, visit the Workshop Companion. The website provides a wealth of resources for aspiring craftsmen.

Highlights in Woodworking and Wood Technology

To supply the growing demand for quality woods, technologies had been developed across the different stages of lumber processing, woodworking, and finishing. In the furniture industry alone, we witnessed the arrival of an extensive range of handheld and power tools. These tools and machines enable craftsmen to build furniture pieces and fittings efficiently and accurately.

The introduction of these tools to consumer markets, and increasing demand for handmade, one-of-a-kind furniture, has roused a generation of crafters and hobbyists. With help from the media, and home décor programs like HGTV, the movement has produced a wave of entrepreneurial artisans. Environmental awareness has also inspired consumers to switch to woods derived from sustainable sources, pushing local suppliers to adapt. All these factors have a role to play in inspiring craftsmen to turn their hobby into a money-making venture.

Woodworking and furniture making are respectable industries and timeless hobbies. It may seem intimidating for beginners, but like all specialized trades, the only way to become a pro is to learn it by heart and practice frequently as possible. Craftsmen take pride in their work, and this passion for turning wood into something beautiful and useful makes woodworking both an enjoyable and rewarding activity, as well as a lucrative trade.

By Sam Unruh

I started Unruh Furniture in my garage in 2012 when my wife was pregnant with our first. Today I have 4 kids, 20 employees, and plenty of fires to put out every day. It's a great life and I am a happy man.