Choosing The Best Wood Species For Your Project

Choosing The Best Wood For Your Project

Boris Woodworking 101 0 Comments

Selecting the best wood for your next woodworking project is never easy. What level of hardness will work best? What finish would you like to achieve? Is there a particular grain or color that you have in mind? All these questions can quickly become overwhelming when diving into the plethora of different wood species available for purchase at your local lumberyard.

Many different factors come into play when searching for the ideal species of wood. Level of machinbility can vary greatly, sanding can be a dream or a nightmare, finishing might take extra steps to achieve a blotch-free finish.

Each species of wood has its own unique quirks and characteristics that should be known before incorporating them into your project. Breakdowns of various ratings are also given per species of wood, the categories used are:

  • Price – Ranging from “$” for inexpensive wood to “$$$” for the most expensive.
  • Hardness – Janka rating which measures the materials resistance to denting and wear.
  • Weight – The weight of the wood in pounds per board foot.
  • Density – Ratio of the density of wood to the density of water, wood will not float with a ratio higher than 1.00.

This overview of various species details tips, tricks and other crucial factors to look out for when selecting some of the most commonly used woodworking species.

Ash

If you’ve ever held a wooden baseball bat, you’ve held ash. The number one choice for an entire assortment of sporting equipment ranging from hockey sticks, baseball bats, oars and paddles. Ash is also a great choice for furniture due to its excellent workability, even bending into shape with relative ease. The benefits don’t end there, ash is also low cost, not too heavy, and is right behind oak on the hardness scale. Read on as we detail the best methods for working with this great, do-it-all, species of wood.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$ 1,320 lbf 3.58 lbs / bd. ft 0.67
Machining
High hardness means carbide tips! Use carbide-tipped blades and bits when working with ash to prevent quickly dulling your tools. Sharp tools will also help prevent burning the material which ash can easily do if one is not careful.

Routing should be done using shallow cuts with a backboard to prevent any chipping or blowouts during the process. Carving ash isn’t the most popular choice for a carver but can be done, use shorter strokes and try to limit fine detail.

Sanding
Since ash is a harder wood, you won’t be able to easily skip grits when sanding. Skipping grits will lead to scratches that won’t be easy to get out by hand. We’ve found that the best way to sand ash is by using progressively finer and finer grits until you reach your desired smoothness. We recommend sanding no further than 320 grit, any further may start to highlight the sanding scratches. Blotching is also not a problem when it comes to staining ash.

Finishing
Ash is perhaps one of the best woods for staining that you can find. Basic stains take to ash very well without the need to fill the grain or condition the wood prior to application. No other real disclaimers here, you can go traditional or get creative when it comes to finishing ash!

Beech

Beech is a hard, pliable and attractive species of wood. While it is primarily a commercial lumber, beech is sometimes used in furniture and other wood projects. Beech has an unmistakable shiny, silver, smooth bark on the outside with a yellow, slightly reddish wood on the inside. Grain orientation is straight grained with an even texture.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$ 1,300 lbf 4.5 lbs / bd. ft 0.7 - 0.9
Machining
When it comes to machining, beech has some issues due to the hardness of the wood and evenness of the grain. When planing or routing, use shallow cuts and passes to prevent chipping or tear out. When it comes to ripping beech, do not try to feed the material any faster than the cutting blade will allow in order to avoid burning or kickback.

Drilling beech requires frequent hole clearing due to dust buildup, this is also necessary to reduce the chance of burning the stock. Make sure to always pre-drill beech in preparation for screws and other fasteners.

Sanding
Due to beech’s tight grain achieving a smooth, flawless finish is possible with very little sanding. Abrasive sandpapers make quick work of beech. The best way to sand beech that we’ve found is using progressive grits, jumping in 20 grit intervals, until reaching the 220 grit mark. This should leave your workpiece with a smooth surface that is ready for a beautiful finish.

Finishing
Beech takes most types of finishes rather well and isn’t susceptible to blotching. Beech is also easily stained to resemble other hardwoods, for example using a dark red stain to mimic cherry.

Oil stains can be troublesome when applied to untreated beech. Beech tends to not accept the stain evenly and could give you some blotching that you’ll need to deal with. We recommend using shellac or another sealer prior to applying an oil stain to beech.

Birch

Birch has been a staple among woodworkers for centuries. A popular choice for furniture that commonly takes heavy abuse such as tables, chairs, flooring, chests and cabinets. While birch’s popularity as the standard for quality furniture has declined due to the rise of other more exotic woods, it’s still an excellent choice for woodworking due to it’s toughness.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$ 1,260 lbf 4.8 lbs / bd. ft 0.67
Machining
Birch has excellent turning potential and is commonly used for items such as posts and balusters. Hand carving birch is not recommended as its hardness makes it a difficult material to work with. On the flip side, a major benefit of birch’s toughness is how well it holds screws and nails; a great choice for projects that require tensile strength.

Sanding
The best way to sand birch is to keep it simple. Work with progressive grits until you reach your desired smoothness. Birch sands very well but requires an extra step before applying a finish in order to prevent blotchiness.

Finishing
Make sure you seal birch before you stain! Without a proper seal, your finish is likely to end up blotchy. A quality penetrating sealer should be used before your desired finish coat is applied. Birch has a beautiful natural color so we recommend using a polyurethane coat to keep it light for the best finish. Lacquer finishes can also be used as they add no color, oil-based finishes may add an amber tone.

Cherry

Cherry wood holds screws and nails well, is easy to glue, and even takes stains and other finishes exceptionally well. Cherry is a real superstar wood with it’s low stiffness, resistance to shock, and impressive steam-bending rating. Common uses range from cabinets, furniture, sculpture, to tobacco pipes and boat interiors.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$$ 995 lbf 3.8 lbs / bd. ft 0.63
Machining
Cherry has excellent machinability, even with hand tools. It is susceptible to burning so make sure your tools are razor sharp. Sawing, chiseling and turning are all pleasant experiences when working with cherry. Be careful when ripping cherry on a table saw as it is infamous for leaving burn marks in the blink of an eye.

Sanding
Sanding cherry isn’t too difficult as it easily sands to a smooth finish. Cherry is prone to scratching, especially if you decide to skip grits so make sure to sand with the grain and move progressively through the grits in 20-grit intervals.

Finishing
One of the reasons that cherry is such a favorite among woodworkers is due to it’s deep rich color when finished properly. One of the unique characteristics of cherry is the distinct contrast between the color found in it’s sapwood versus it’s heartwood. This poses a few problems, mostly uneven stain application and difficulty mixing different cherry boards (or plywood) in the same project.

One of our top tips for bringing out more character in your finish is using an all-natural oil finish to stain cherry. You are guaranteed a beautiful, rich color with any of the wipe-on oil finishes. As your workpiece ages, the color will become even darker and richer which is a great bonus.

Cedar

If your woodworking project is going to be used outdoors, you’ll probably be working with cedar. Cedar is known for it’s superb weather and insect resistance which makes it the ideal choice for any outdoor projects. Cedar covers a wide range of different species, such as Western Red Cedar, Northern White Cedar, Eastern Red Cedar, Yellow Cedar and Spanish Cedar.

Cedar takes wood glue well and is the preferred method of joinery since screws and nails tend to work themselves out over time due to movement of the wood throughout the seasons. If fasteners are your only choice (such as when building a fence) try using stainless steel bolts with locking nuts and washer. This combination can help counteract wood movement.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$ 900 lbf 2.3 lbs / bd. ft 0.38
Machining
Since cedar is such a soft wood, carving can easily be done by hand. Make sure to use sharp tools as dull blades will tear the wood. When proper technique and sharp tools are used, the wood should have a shiny appearance. The wood will exhibit a dull, rough surface finish when using dull tools for carving. Pay attention to the grain pattern when carving cedar, use shallow cuts and go with the grain to reduce the chance of tearout or chipping.

Sanding
Cedar is a soft wood and is best sanded by hand when used for finer work. Power sanding can easily gouge or mar the surface. If you decide to use a power sander, we recommend 100-grit with constant movement in small, circular motions.

Finishing
The only real choice for cedar is stain. Painting cedar is a no-go since not only does it not adhere well but it will also quickly begin to flake and peel as the seasons change. Stain allows the wood to breathe and depending on your choice of stain, adds even more weather resistance.

Hickory

Historically, hickory has been used for handles of various striking tools, wheel spokes, furniture and even ladder rungs. Hickory has also found a home in various sports equipment such as baseball bats and golf clubs, similar to ash. The sapwood is very pale, almost white, while the heartwood has a reddish-brown color. Hickory is straight grained with the occasional wave or irregularity here and there.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$ 460 lbf 5.3 lbs / bd. ft 0.83
Machining
Carbide tipped blades are a must when machining hickory! Hickory should be fed with a slight angle when planing in order to avoid surface chipping. Similarly, feed slowly when ripping on the table saw and allow the saw to do the cutting.

Drilling hickory does not pose too much trouble, make sure to use slow drill speeds and clear the bit of sawdust often to avoid burning. Routing should be done with light passes while maintaining a slow, consistent feed rate, otherwise tearout may occur.

Sanding
Sanding hickory requires some care as it scratches easily. Do not sand across the grain, only with the grain! As always, use steady, consistent sanding passes and work your way up progressively through each grit until you reach your desired surface smoothness.

Finishing
Hickory finishes beautifully and takes most finishes and stains rather well. Take note that hickory does fade rather quickly so a finish with UV blockers is highly recommended. To keep things simple, shellac is often used to bring out the natural color of hickory while providing adequate protection.

Maple

Maple has been a staple hardwood for centuries. It’s been used in industrial flooring, roller skating rinks, school desks, bowling alleys, furniture, workbenches and even butchers’ blocks. There isn’t much that maple can’t do. Maple can be a little troublesome if not seasoned properly due to it’s tendency to shrink. Make sure your lumber is properly dry and acclimatized to your climate before beginning your woodworking project.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$ 1,450 lbf 4.6 lbs / bd. ft 0.6 - 0.75
Machining
Maple has good bending capability and exhibits low stiffness with high shock resistance. Maple does have a dulling effect on tools and may cause some vibration when sawing, sharp tools and blades are highly recommended. Maple should be pre-drilled before using fasteners.

Sanding
As with most woods listed in this article, the best way to sand maple is using light, even pressure with a progressive increase of grits, climbing in 20 step increments. It is especially important to blow off any dust that may have accumulated during sanding, these dust particles can get lodged in the next sheet and create swirls or scratches in the material.

Finishing
Pre-stain conditioner is necessary for maple to avoid blotchiness in your stain. If you are after a natural look for your maple, we recommend tung oil as the best choice for an excellent natural finish, oil also pops the figure of the maple very well. If you intend on applying a dye to your workpiece, spraying is a better option than wiping on the dye. Seal your workpiece with a quality sealer such as shellac to really lock-in the finish and add extra protection from moisture and other potential surface damage.

Red Oak

The mighty oak has been a staple in woodworking for centuries. One of the best wood species for building kitchen cabinets, furniture and flooring. Red Oak remains the king of hardwoods, outselling all other species of hardwoods even after centuries of rampant popularity. Red oak is strong, hard, straight grained and produces a beautiful finish when handled properly.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$$ 1,290 lbf 5.3 lbs / bd. ft 0.74
Machining
Red oak has excellent machining capabilities as long as you use proper power tools. Working with oak by hand can prove rather difficult due to its hardness. Oak will quickly dull tools so make sure to use carbide-tipped blades, selecting the right blade for your saw is crucial to get the most out of oak. Ripping is not much of a problem with oak due to its straight grain but burning could be an issue if fed too quickly on a table or radial saw. For the smoothest crosscut, shoot for a blade with 40-teeth or more.

Use shallow passes and a backing board when routing in order to avoid splinters or chipping. When using fasteners, drill pilot holes and lubricate the threads of your screws or nails to aid with driving.

Sanding
Sanding oak is not much of a hassle, the best tip we can recommend is to use garnet paper when hand sanding and oxide-based abrasives for belt sanders. Scratches and swirls are removed from oak rather easily so they shouldn’t present much of an issue.

Finishing
Finishing oak requires some special preparation for the best possible results. Before applying any stain or finish, fill the grain with a paste filler. While the paste filled grain will have less of an intense contrast, the final finish will be better in the end.

Pine

Pine is perhaps the workhorse of wood species. Used in the lowest of quality construction lumber to architectural high quality stock, pine is a versatile wood that has a plethora of possible uses. Pine is readily available at most any hardware store and is affordable, even for higher quality grades. Recently, pine has begun to find popularity in cabinets and doors. Pine is a sturdy wood that can stand up to a fair share of abuse.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$ 420 lbf 3.0 lbs / bd. ft 0.35 - 0.5
Machining
Pine machines well when worked on using power tools, hand tools are usually not the best choice when working with this wood. Pine has a high resin content so it make gum up saw blades and other cutting tools. When ripping or cutting take occasional breaks to clean buildup off your saw blades. We recommend a quality teflon-coated blade when cutting pine, this should greatly reduce any gum buildup.

Pine chips and splinters easily when not using a backing board so we highly recommend the use of one during any cutting. Drilling pine poses no real challenges, just make sure to use fast drill speeds.

Sanding
When sanding pine, make sure you are working with dry, well-seasoned material. Keep an eye out for any resin or sap on the surface of the material. If resin is found, wait for it to dry, then scrape away before sanding.

Finishing
Pine will need to be treated properly before applying any stain. Use a coat of shellac or wood conditioner prior to applying stain, this will help guarantee an even, botch-free finish. If you would rather paint pine, make it a priority to seal knots and pockets in the wood with shellac as they may bleed sap or make it difficult for paint to adhere.

Yellow Poplar

Perhaps the most economically valuable species of wood found in North America, yellow poplar has a myriad of uses, such as, construction lumber, paper, furniture parts, moldings, and even matches. This fast-growing hardwood holds the title of the tallest trees found in the eastern forests of North America and oddly does not suffer from the common problems found in fast growing trees, such as weak wood strength and short lifespans.

The strength of this particular species of wood is enough for most projects and is best suited for indoor applications. It also packs decent stiffness as well as adequate wear resistance. Read on as we detail the characteristics of this extremely versatile species of lumber.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$ 540 lbf 2.5 lbs / bd. ft 0.42
Machining
Poplar, being a softer wood, is a great candidate for machining, especially if you prefer working with hand tools over power tools. It’s easy on blades, bits, and abrasives so don’t expect any major hang-ups during your project. Poplar is also an excellent choice for carving, routing and turning.

Due to poplar’s softness, burning may easily occur if you are not careful. Make sure to always keep the material moving at a steady rate and use your sharpest blades to further prevent the chance of burning. Follow the same guidelines when drilling poplar as well, a faster drill speed will lower your chances of burning the material.

When joining poplar, the best glue we can recommend is a quality PVA glue for wood to wood joints. Poplar doesn’t expand or shrink as much as other woods so a strong joint with only glue shouldn’t be too challenging.

Sanding
It doesn’t get much easier than sanding poplar. A smooth surface can easily be achieved by hand, just remember to gradually move up to higher grits. We find starting at 80 grit and progressively moving towards 400 grit to produce excellent results.

Finishing
When it comes to finishing, poplar is the most commonly painted wood stock when used in a woodworking project. If you choose to paint poplar using a water-based paint make sure to first apply a primer followed by a light sanding, this will provide a barrier between the paint and wood surface which will prevent slightly raised grain that water-based paints can trigger. Oil-based paints do not have this issue and are the more desirable choice when painting poplar.

Staining poplar does not go over quite as well as painting does. Poplar tends to absorb stain unevenly and will produce a splotchy appearance. In order to remedy this problem, apply a pre-stain wood conditioner prior to staining, this should help the stain absorb much more evenly, providing a quality finish.

Teak

Teak is native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia and was primarily used as a nautical wood throughout most of the 1800s, eventually making it’s way through Europe and America as the standard choice of material for shipbuilding. Teak is still commonly used in boat decks, furniture, and decorative trim. This tropical hardwood features excellent workability and structural characteristics, even surpassing those of oak. While it is one of the more expensive woods, the excellent workability and beautiful grain can really set a project apart from more traditional offerings.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$$ 1,155 lbf 4.5 lbs / bd. ft 0.65 - 0.98
Machining
No major issues with planing, jointing, ripping or even crosscutting teak, just make sure to always use carbide tipped blades and remember that your blade will dull much faster than normal given the high silica content in the wood.

Routing and drilling shouldn’t pose much of a problem either, just make sure to use quality bits and a high rate of speed to prevent any nasty blowout of the material.

Teak does handle carving with a chisel rather well, we recommend using shallow cuts and, as mentioned before, carbide tipped tools when possible.

Sanding
Hand or power sanding teak can prove to be rather tricky due to the high oil content found in the wood. Paper tends to gum up rather quickly and frequent stops are necessary to both clear out the paper and wipe the oily dust away from the wood’s surface.

The ideal grit for sanding falls somewhere between 50 and 100, anything above 100 grit tends to be useless while grits below 50 cause micro-scratches no matter how delicately the material is handled, cross grain sanding is also a no-go.

Keeping the wood wet while sanding helps prevent dust build-up but one must make sure to not keep the workpiece wet for too long as extended periods of moisture will raise the grain. Always make sure to properly rinse and dry the material after each sanding session.

While sanding teak will indeed smooth the finish and pop the natural colors of the wood, it does not fully prepare the surface for stain or lacquer. Fresh teak resin is exposed whenever material is removed from the surface which makes it difficult for any finishes to properly bond to the wood. A quick rubdown with either bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or most other acidic cleaners should be enough to breakdown the microfibers on the surface that prevent staining.

Finishing
The most difficult part of teak has to be the finishing process. The wood naturally does not take stain very well, due to the resin found near the wood’s surface. Two-part polyurethane tends to provide the easiest application process for the woodworker and is the finish most commonly seen in nautical teak applications.

Another great option for teak is using tung or teak oil (aptly named after this particular species of wood). Tung oil permeates the surface well and is highly resistant to water; great additional security for the already highly water resistant teak wood. Tung oil will slightly darken the natural color of the wood. Teak oil provides great protection from inside the wood which will aid in preventing splitting, peeling or chipping. Teak oil gives a warm, natural appearance to the wood.

One common issue when staining teak is a splotchy finish due to improper removal of the resin found on the surface (as detailed in the Sanding section above). If you encounter this problem, use an acidic cleaner such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or TeakGuard Super Cleaner to prepare the surface, then try applying your stain again.

Black Walnut

Walnut is a favorite amongst woodworkers and has been for centuries, walnut quickly became a prime choice of timber due to its variety of beautiful grain patterns. Grain patterns run the gamut from perfectly straight, flame-like designs and even tightly swirled burls. Patterns differ depending on the location and cut of the wood, burls occur at random and are usually used for veneer, crotch wood creates unique flame-like patterns in the walnut while flat sawn wood creates a straight grained appearance, quarter sawn wood is most often used for veneer and presents a straight but more subtle grain than that of flat sawn walnut.

Despite being one of the stronger hardwoods walnut offers excellent workability and gorgeous finishing options which has made it a common choice for furniture, musical instruments, accent pieces and even rifle stocks. Read below as we breakdown the various aspects of this superb wood species.

Price Hardness Weight Density
$$$ 1,010 lbf 4.8 lbs / bd. ft 0.65 - 0.70
Machining
Walnut does require some special treatment when machining due to a high tendency for chips and tear outs. Use of a backboard when cross cutting or drilling is recommended in order to avoid chipping. Routing should be done using carbide tipped bits and shallow passes as walnut is prone to burning.

Carving walnut should be done with some care and is best suited for carvings with simple lines. Note that ease of carving will vary based on grain pattern, an open grain will carve easier while a closed grain will be more difficult but more suitable for finer detailing.

Sanding
Dust protection is vital when sanding walnut! Walnut dust can be harmful if inhaled, even without a walnut allergy. Wear a mask or respirator and make sure you have an adequate dust collection setup in place.

Otherwise, sanding walnut isn’t that different from any other hardwoods, progressively work through grits until you are satisfied with the smoothness of your material. We recommend moving in 20-grit intervals (80, 100, 120 grit) for the best finish.

Finishing
Finishing options for walnut vary, stain is normally the least used finish option due to the natural beauty of walnut. Lacquer, polyurethane and oils are the most commonly applied finishes. Lacquer is one of the best choices for finishing walnut thanks to it’s fast drying time, clear appearance and low number of coats needed (usually two coats is plenty, four if you are after a deeper finish).

Finishing techniques vary for lacquer but we recommend spraying an even, wet coat, and allowing it to set for 30 minutes. Afterwards, hand sand the walnut with 180-grit to flatten any imperfections followed by a final, wet coat. This process should give your walnut a smooth, glossy finish without too much trouble

For a natural finish, oil is a popular option. The resulting finish will vary depending on the oil used, popular options are teak oil, tung oil, or danish oil. Dry times with oil are much longer than lacquer due to the fact that the oil must first penetrate into the wood before it can harden. Application of oil is a long process, usually requiring 24 hours between coats. Semi-annual maintenance is also required when using oil.

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