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A Woodworkers Guide to Wood

Updated by Jim Deckebach

Wood is a commonly used material for making furniture and household fixtures, but not every kind of wood is the same: Some types of wood are more beautiful, while others are more durable, affordable, or easy to work with. Learning more about the traits of different types of wood can help you make the best decision about what material you should use for your next project.

When choosing wood for furniture or other woodworking projects, the hardness of the wood is a key characteristic you'll want to look at. It's easy to conclude that hardwood is harder and denser than softwood, but this is not always the case. Hardwood is harvested from trees that flower, and softwood is harvested from conifers. Hardwood and softwood can both be appropriate for both structural and decorative uses.

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Hardwood vs. Softwood: The Difference

Hardwood comes from trees such as walnut, maple, and oak, deciduous trees that lose their leaves each year. As these trees grow, the wood fibers become denser. Hardwood is more expensive than softwood in most cases, but a few hardwoods are comparable in price to softwoods. Hardwood is also lower in sap content and more fire-resistant.

Softwood comes from evergreen trees, including fir, pine, cedar, juniper, and redwood. Evergreens are not as dense as deciduous trees, so it is easier to harvest them. Softwoods have a looser grain, higher sap content, and lighter color. This wood is also less fire-resistant, and it weighs less.

Hardwoods

  • Mahogany: Mahogany is a popular tropical hardwood that's highly regarded for its durability and beauty, and its color tends to get darker over time. Mahogany is a reddish brown, it has a medium texture, and it's often used for high-end furniture and interior millwork.
  • Walnut: Walnut is also a popular hardwood in the United States. Walnut is strong and has rich coloration and dimensional stability. Walnut ranges in color from pale brown to a rich, dark brown. This wood has a medium texture, it's moderately open-grain, and it's often used for high-end furniture, flooring accents, and musical instruments.
  • Red Oak: Oak has a reputation for its weight, durability, and strength. Oak is also resistant to fungal attacks. Oak varies in color, it's very hard, and the grain varies in pattern. Oak is popular for furniture, flooring, paneling, and cabinets.
  • Ash: Ash trees are medium to large in size. Ash wood is durable, strong, and flexible, and it makes an ideal wood for carpentry. Some carpenters prefer not to work with ash wood due to the odors it gives off during construction. Ash wood is light in color, has an open grain, and is popular for flooring, millwork, and tool handles.
  • Birch: Birch trees grow readily throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and birch is harder than oak wood. Birch color varies from a light color for heartwood to an almost white color for sapwood. Birch has a high density and a straight grain, and it's used frequently for plywood, cabinets, millwork, and furniture.
  • Maple: Maple trees are native to Asia. Maple wood resists splitting, and it's strong and durable. Maple is ideal to use in the kitchen because it's easy to clean. Heartwood maple is often reddish brown, and the sapwood is found in lighter hues. Maple has a closed and straight grain in most cases, and it's commonly used for furniture, millwork, and flooring.
  • Cherry: The cherry fruit tree yields cherry wood. This hardwood has a smooth grain, a rich color, and some degree of flexibility. Cherry wood varies in color and will darken over time. It has a medium weight and hardness and a closed grain. Cherry wood is often used for furniture, cabinets, flooring, and interior millwork.
  • Beech: Beech trees are deciduous, producing durable hardwood. Beech is an excellent choice for carpentry because it steam-bends easily. Beech wood varies from pink to reddish brown. It's very hard, and the grain tends to be straight. Beech is popular for flooring, musical instruments, and chair legs.
  • Teak: Teak is a tropical tree and is known to be one of the most durable and hardest woods. Teak resists breaking down due to moisture and sunlight, so it's ideal for outdoor construction. Teak colors vary from medium brown to golden, and colors darken over time.
  • East Indian Rosewood: East Indian Rosewood is another tropical tree that is exceptionally strong. This hardwood varies in color from a purplish brown to a golden brown, and the grain tends to have a narrow interlock. Teak is used for high-end furniture and as a veneer.

Softwoods

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  • Parana Pine: Parana pine grows in South America, and it's known for its nail-holding capacity. Parana pine ranges in color from light to medium brown for heartwood and yellowish for sapwood. It's got a straight grain, and it's ideal for interior woodwork, for framing lumber, and as a veneer.
  • Eastern White Pine: Growing widely across North America, eastern white pine is a valuable type of timber. This softwood is affordable and available, but it's also porous. Eastern white pine is soft, and the grain tends to be straight and tight. This wood is used for paneling, furniture, and exterior millwork.
  • Lodgepole Pine: Lodgepole pine grows in western North America and Canada. With its high number of dimples, this wood makes ideal paneling. The color ranges from light reddish to yellowish white, and it's heavier than eastern white pine. Lodgepole pine is used for construction lumber, plywood, doors, windows, and furniture.
  • Pitch Pine: Native to North America, pitch pine trees are resistant to fire. They also have a high resin content, making them resistant to decay. Pitch pine is soft, light in weight, and straight-grained. This wood is commonly used for plywood, heavy construction, fencing, and railroad ties.
  • Scots Pine: Scots pine is native to both Europe and Asia, and it's considered to be one of the strongest softwoods. Scots pine ranges in color from a light reddish brown to almost white. It's got a straight grain, and it's often used in construction, paneling, and flooring and for poles.
  • White Spruce: White spruce grows in northern temperate regions. It's a popular carpentry wood due to its nailing and screwing abilities. White spruce ranges in color from reddish brown to creamy white, and it's a moderately hard wood. The grain is fine and straight, and this wood is used for construction lumber, millwork, and cabinets.
  • Red Cedar: Red cedar grows in eastern parts of the United States. Red cedar is known for its resistance to both insects and decay. The color of this wood ranges from purplish brown to pale yellow, and it has a hard texture. The wood tends to have many knots, and it's ideal for outdoor furniture, fence posts, and carvings.
  • Fir: Growing widely throughout many continents, fir trees are prevalent in mountainous regions. Fir is known for its stability and low shrinkage rate. The color ranges from reddish yellow to reddish white, and the color will darken quickly. Fir trees have a straight grain and medium to hard density, and fir is a popular construction lumber.
  • Larch: Larch trees grow in cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Larch wood resists insects and decay, and it tends to have small knots. The color ranges from nearly white to a medium brown, and it has a medium weight. Larch has a straight or spiraled grain, and it's often used for fence posts and flooring and as construction lumber.
  • Western Hemlock: The western hemlock is native to North America, and it has a reputation for being resistant to termites. The color of this wood ranges from medium to lighter reddish brown, and it has a light density. The grain is straight with a coarse texture, and it's the wood of choice for plywood, cabinets, millwork, pallets, boxes, and crates.
  • Yew: Yew is native to Europe, and it's very strong and durable. Yew bends readily while maintaining its durability, and it resists many insects. Yew varies from golden brown to purplish brown to yellow or tan. It has a straight grain, and it's moderately heavy. Yew is used for cabinets, furniture, and veneer.

Qualities of Wood

The wood used for construction and woodworking is known as timber. The best timber is harvested from mature trees, but timber also has to be free of defects.

  1. Appearance: When freshly cut, timber has a sweet smell and a shiny appearance if it's high-quality.
  2. Color: Timber should have a dark color if it's strong.
  3. Durability: The highest-quality timber is very durable, resisting weather damage, insects, and fungus. Timber is separated into five classes according to durability. Class 1 is very durable, and class 5 is not durable, with each class in between varying slightly.
  4. Elasticity: Elasticity indicates the ability of the wood to regain its shape, important for wood used to make sporting equipment.
  5. Fibers: The fibers of timber need to be firm, compact, and straight. If the fibers are twisted, wood loses its strength.
  6. Fire Resistance: Tiber needs to be fire-resistant. Denser woods have a higher fire resistance.
  7. Hardness: Hard timber will resist deterioration from both physical abrasion and mechanical wear.
  8. Shape: High-quality timber will retain its shape and structural integrity,
  9. Sound: A high-quality timber will produce a clear ringing sound when struck.
  10. Strength: Timber should withstand structural loads.
  11. Toughness: Timber needs to withstand shocks and vibrations.
  12. Water Permeability: Timber needs to have a low water permeability, meaning that it won't absorb water and decay.
  13. Weight: The heaviest timbers are strong and hard.
  14. Workability: Timber should be easy to work with, having a low resin content for the easiest workability.

Wood Processing

Timber must be processed for use. After trees are chosen and felled, they are transported to a sawmill for processing. Lumber processing involves a number of stages.

  1. Debarking: Removing the bark from felled trees is first. This might be done with a grinding wheel or high-pressure water.
  2. Bucking: After debarking, logs are bucked, which involves cutting them into predetermined lengths.
  3. Sawing: Sawing cuts a log into planks. A special sensor measures the precise length and thickness, scans the logs for defects, and chooses the optimal cutting pattern for the largest number of planks possible.
  4. Resawing: Resawing involves cutting larger planks down into smaller widths and trimming outside edges square.
  5. Drying: Planks need to dry so they will be durable. Drying might happen in the open air or in a kiln.
  6. Planing: A planer trims dried planks to make the edges and surfaces smooth.
  7. Quality Check: The final step is inspecting the lumber and separating it into various grades.

From Wood to Furniture

Many different types of wood are suitable for furniture, but no matter which you choose, most wood that will become furniture goes through the same series of steps.

  1. Splicing and Cutting: Lumber needs to be cut and spliceds into parts. Carpenters use various tools on only the highest-quality wood.
  2. Molding: After splicing and cutting, wood is molded into the required shapes and sizes.
  3. Planing and Drilling: Wood may be drilled with machine or hand-held drills. Carpenters are careful not to damage the wood. Then, the wood is planed to make it smooth.
  4. Sanding: Sanding is performed prior to assembly to remove sharp edges and rough surfaces.
  5. Assembly: Furniture is assembled to create the final product. Assembly may involve gluing joints.
  6. Finishing: The finishing process involves applying coats of wax, shellac, lacquer, varnish, or paint. Finishing may be applied by hand or machine.
  7. Packing: After the piece is complete, it's packed and shipped to its destination.

Woodworking Tools

To make furniture, a number of woodworking tools will be necessary. It will also be important to hone your carpentry skills to use the tools correctly and effectively. Some tools are hand-powered, while others are machine-powered.

  1. Block Plane: A block plane levels corner joints and smooths surfaces.
  2. Chisel and Mallet: Use a chisel and mallet to cut and carve wood. Chisels come in many different sizes and styles.
  3. Circular Saw: This power saw has sharp teeth to make smooth cuts. Use a circular saw to cut plywood, drywall, or solid lumber.
  4. Claw Hammer: A claw hammer drives nails or pulls them out.
  5. Hand Saw: Use a hand saw to make cuts when you can't use a power saw. Hand saws come in many different styles.
  6. Jigsaw: Use a jigsaw to make intricate cuts or cuts with smooth curves.
  7. Jointer: Smooth surfaces with a jointer when a surface planer isn't effective.
  8. Power Drill: A power drill may be cordless or corded, and it has a variety of speeds.
  9. Orbital Sander: Sand wood with an orbital sander to make it very smooth.
  10. Router and Router Bits: A router and bits helps you hollow out areas or shape them. Routers may be machine- or hand-powered.
  11. Screwdrivers: Use screwdrivers to drive screws into wood. Screwdrivers come in many styles and sizes.
  12. Smoothing Plane: This hand-held tool helps you create very smooth surfaces on wood.
  13. Square and Tape Measure: Use a square and tape measure to measure wood.
  14. Thickness Planer: This tool enables you to make your boards a consistent thickness and smoothness.
  15. Workbench: This surface provides you with a place to work on your projects.

Further Reading

 
 

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