As a DIY woodworker or carpenter, there are seemingly endless species of wood from which to choose. Whether it’s a bank of kitchen cabinets, a DIY shed, a birdhouse, or a backyard deck project, choosing the best types of wood can make or break your projects.
It can feel like a lot of pressure to choose the right species, so this guide is here to help. Keep reading to learn about the most common types of wood that DIYers may want to use, some common characteristics of each type, and the projects that best suit each species.
In addition to the basic lumber definitions, there are two kinds of wood from which to choose: hardwood and softwood. The terms have almost nothing to do with the actual hardness of the wood. There are certain characteristics that are common in all wood types.
Hardwoods are the deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall. Although there’s an abundant variety, only 200 are plentiful and pliable enough for woodworking. Hardwood trees are generally slower growing, making the wood denser than softwoods. These woods have a more interesting grain pattern, which makes them popular with woodworkers. Much like our skin, hardwoods have microscopic pores on the surface. The size of these pores determines the grain pattern and texture. Because of this, hardwoods are classified by pore openings as either: closed grained (smaller pores) like cherry and maple, or ring porous (larger pores) like oak, ash or poplar.
Softwoods come from coniferous trees, commonly referred to as evergreen trees. Only 25% of all softwoods are used in woodworking. Softwoods have a closed grain that isn’t very noticeable in the finished product. The most popular softwoods are cedar, fir, pine and spruce. Softwoods are faster growing and have straighter grain, making them good for framing, construction and outdoor projects.
Benefits of Using Wood in Construction
- Wood is a natural material that’s easy to work upon, widely available in huge quantities, and has several varieties. Each type of wood can be used for specific purposes.
- It is lightweight and sturdy, Further, it is available in a variety of patterns and looks natural.
- The material has been used since ancient times. Therefore, skilled workers who have adequate knowledge about the different types of wood are easily available globally.
- Wood retains its thermal properties. Thus, it is highly resistant to high temperatures.
- The heat conductivity of wood is relatively low in comparison to materials such as aluminum, marble, steel, or glass.
- It can absorb sound and echo, making it a favorite material for the construction of offices and residential structures.
- Wood is a bad conductor of electric waves. Hence, it’s perfect to provide insulation to a living or working area.
- Wooden houses are inexpensive to build and extend and enjoy low running and maintenance costs over a long period of time. However, this also depends on the availability of wood in the local area.
- Wood paneling is particularly popular for ceilings, covering irregularities, minimizing maintenance, and simplifying the fitting of lighting and the ventilation system.
Different Types of Wood and their Uses
Wood can be broadly classified as Softwood and Hardwood. Density is a major determinant of the strength of wood. Hardwoods, being denser than the softwoods, are stronger and more durable.
According to ‘Madan Mehta, Walter Scarborough & Diane Armpriest’ (Author of Building Construction), the difference between hardwood and softwood is not only based on the density of the wood. This is because several hardwoods are lighter than softwoods. Generally, the distinction between these two types of woods is based on their botanical characteristics.
Let’s learn about the different types of wood used for furniture and in construction.
1. Alder Wood
Alder is a hardwood which is slowly gaining a rising popularity due to its natural beauty, workability and versatility. It is more frequently found in the Northwest regions of California and Southwestern parts of Canada. It is in the same family as the birch tree, so it often shares similar applications.
Alder will appear to be almost white when freshly cut, but quickly turns to warm honey brown once exposed to air and sunlight. This medium density wood usually has a straight grain and is easy to use for carving, turning, and machining.
The wood also works well with a variety of different finishing treatments. Alder wood has a very smooth surface when sanded which can easily be stained or painted.
Ash wood can be somewhat difficult to find currently, especially due to the recent issues with the Emerald Ash borer, an invasive pest which caused many of these trees to prematurely die. If you live in the areas where Ash trees are native and grow abundantly, it will be easier to find this wood than if you live somewhere that does not.
Ash mimics the same strength and characteristics of white oak but typically comes at a more budget friendly price if you are able to find it at a local lumberyard near you. The wood takes stain easily and can be used for many different types of projects.
Aspen is a light colored wood which takes painting and stain well. This wood can sometimes appear or feel to have a fuzzy texture.
Aspen is a hardwood grown in Northeast America but can sometimes be difficult to find. Due to its general limited availability, it is typically only used for very specific projects in which Aspen wood is ideal.
One of the most specialized uses for Aspen wood is in the building of saunas. The wood does not conduct heat and can tolerate the moisture well with limited swelling or movement. Because it does not conduct heat easily, it is also sometimes used in the production of matchsticks.
Often referred to as Douglas Fir, this wood has a straight, pronounced grain, and has a reddish brown tint to it. Fir is most often used for building; however, it’s inexpensive and can be used for some furniture-making as well. It doesn’t have the most interesting grain pattern and doesn’t take stain very well, so it’s best to use it only when you intend to paint the finished product. Douglas fir is moderately strong and hard for a softwood, rating 4 on a scale of 1 to 4.
This wood is worth mentioning because it is very common at your local home center and it’s so inexpensive you’ll probably be tempted to make something with it.
Pine comes in several varieties, including Ponderosa, Sugar, White, and Yellow, and all of them make great furniture. In some areas of the country (especially southwest United States), pine is the wood to use. Pine is very easy to work with and, because most varieties are relatively soft, it lends itself to carving.
Pine generally takes stain very well (as long as you seal the wood first), although Ponderosa pine tends to ooze sap, so be careful when using this stuff. Pine is available from most home centers, but it’s often of a lesser grade than what you can find at a decent lumberyard.
Cedar is an aromatic and naturally rot- and bug-resistant softwood, and it’s well-known for its beauty and durability. It comes from a variety of coniferous trees, with white and red cedars being the most common. As the name suggests, white cedar is paler and weathers to a pleasant silvery gray. Red cedar has an amber appearance and will weather to a deep, rich brownish-red.
Regardless of the variant, cedar is durable and lightweight, and it’s used for a variety of outdoor and indoor projects. Red cedar is more straightly grained, but white cedar tends to take stains and paints more consistently.
If you’re not familiar with redwood, you might know it better by its more romanticized moniker: Sequoia. Redwood trees are known as the tallest tree species in the world, growing up to 400 feet. These softwoods grow in a relatively small area of the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Redwood is very soft and workable, and it’s also lightweight. It ranges in color from pale white or yellow to deep red to reddish-brown. Growing as tall and quickly as these giants do, the grain is typically straight, with old-growth redwood grain being very tight. The wood has a rough texture, and it’s rot-resistant and very insect-resistant, making it a great choice for outdoor projects.
Birch is a popular and rather economical hardwood. Birch trees are common in the eastern United States, particularly in the Northeast. These trees grow up to 70 feet tall but tend to stay thinly trunked. The most common variants of the birch tree are the white birch, yellow birch, and black birch.
Birch wood tends to be smoothly and tightly grained, giving a relatively uniform appearance. It varies in color from white to yellow, with black birch commonly having some black streaks throughout. The wood is heavy, hard, and strong but responds very well to woodworking with sharp tools. It usually shrinks quite a bit as it dries.
Cherry trees are good for more than just their fruit: They also produce one of the most sought-after wood types available. The trees are common throughout the Midwest and eastern United States, with commercial production coming mostly from the Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York areas.
Cherry wood varies from creamy white to red to reddish-brown, and it darkens as it ages and dries. The grain is very straight and tight, giving cherry wood a uniform look and it mills very well. When stained and sealed, cherry produces one of the smoothest finishes available, giving it a very high-end look.
Mahogany is a luxury-grade hardwood that grows in the Central and South Americas, West Africa, and the West Indies. A mahogany tree can grow very tall, reaching heights of more than 150 feet.
When it comes to hardwoods for luxurious finishes and projects, mahogany tends to stand on its own (even over the gorgeous cherry wood). The wood tends to be a rich red or brown-red. Mahogany has a very smooth, tight grain and is extremely strong and resilient. It’s also very, very dense, making it both rot- and insect-resistant.