If you’re starting as a woodworker, the amount of information on different kinds of wood for woodworking can be a lot to process. In addition to hardwood and softwood, there are many other types of wood under those two main categories. You should know all about the best wood for furniture and which kinds are well-suited for outdoor use before you decide.
Learn more about the difference between hardwoods and softwoods, as well as the standard benefits of various species and their primary applications.
Difference Between Hardwood and Softwood
The difference between softwoods and hardwoods comes down to the type of tree they’re harvested from. Softwoods come from conifer trees, which produce cones and have needles. Some common types of softwood trees include fir, redwood, pine, cedar and spruce.
Hardwoods, in contrast, are milled from trees that don’t produce cones or needles. These deciduous trees have seeds and leaves instead. Some of the common types of hardwood include walnut, cherry, oak, mahogany and maple.
Due to the name softwood, there’s a common misconception that they’re soft. While some hardwoods are harder and more difficult to work with, many hardwoods are softer than their softwood counterparts. The bottom line? The difference between hardwood and softwood doesn’t come down to how hard or soft they are. Instead, they refer to the type of tree they come from.
It should be noted that bamboo and palm are considered hardwoods, but they aren’t deciduous trees. They come from plants called monocotyledons, but still share many similarities with other hardwoods.
As you search for a wood to use for projects, you should be aware of the different kinds of softwoods available. By knowing more about the varieties of softwoods, you can make a more informed purchase and choose the wood best suited for your projects.
Below you can find types of softwood commonly used by woodworkers and learn more about their typical applications:
A few different types of cedar are available, with the western red cedar being the most popular. This type of wood features a reddish color and is one of the softest woods available. It also is a straight grain wood that has a subtle aromatic smell. Western red cedars are easy to find at most home stores and usually come at a moderate price.
Some believe that the wood’s aromatic smell helps to ward off moths and other pests, so cedar is sometimes used to build storage chests and closets.
It’s even more popular for outdoor building projects, as the wood is rot-resistant and perfect for rugged outdoor applications. You’ll often see cedar used for fencing, siding, patio furniture and decks. Due to the natural oils and aromatic properties, this wood can be an irritant to some, meaning the wood shouldn’t be used to make kitchen utensils or other products that contact people’s skin for a long time.
Pine is a common softwood that can be used for many different applications. It’s one of the most durable, affordable and sustainable types of wood available. Pine is relatively soft and easy to carve. Since pine trees grow quickly, pine is plentiful for woodworkers to use in their projects. Different types of pine have different colors to them, with some being yellow and others white.
Pine is generally an indoor wood unless it’s been treated for outdoor use. Pine can be stained, painted or finished. There are many different types of wood for furniture, and pine is an excellent choice. It’s commonly known as one of the best woods for beginner woodworking.
Redwood is fairly soft and has a reddish tint. It comes from redwood trees, which have a straight grain. The wood is easy to cut and form to the shape and length you require. You can usually find it carried by home stores at a moderate price.
Due to its moisture resistance, redwood is an excellent wood for outdoor projects. Typical applications include using it to build decks, garden borders and retaining walls. It can also be used indoors for cabinets, tables and veneers.
Commonly known as Douglas fir, fir is a wood with a reddish-brown tint. It’s inexpensive and relatively strong. The wood doesn’t have the most attractive grain pattern and can be hard to stain. Therefore, fir is often painted to hide the grain and make it more appealing.
Its tight wood grain gives it more strength than many other varieties of softwood. Due to its strength, it’s typically used for utility and construction projects.
Spruce wood comes in a light color, with a subtle, straight grain. Concerning its hardness, it’s about as soft as soft pine. Unless it’s been specially treated, the wood isn’t very weather resistant and swells easily, making it more appropriate for indoor projects than outdoor ones.
If spruce trees grow to peak maturity, they’ll often be harvested to create musical instruments, as mature spruce trees have excellent acoustic properties. You’ll find plenty of guitars, pianos and string instruments made out of spruce. Spruce can come in the form of lumber, which is primarily used for framing interior walls and utility purposes. Spruce, pine and fir lumber are sometimes collectively called SPF lumber.
A wide variety of hardwoods are available for woodworkers to use. Hardwood also has many different applications, meaning you can select a type hardwood best suited for a project you want to complete. Knowing the differences between the kinds of hardwoods will help you understand which one matches your budget and project requirements.
Review some of the primary types of hardwood below:
Mahogany has a tint ranging from reddish-brown to deep-red. It’s fairly soft compared to other softwoods. The wood has a straight grain and a medium texture. Many woodworkers love using it due to its beautiful appearance and easy workability. The wood is often used to produce musical instruments like pianos and guitars.
A downside to mahogany is that it typically isn’t grown in sustainable forests. This lack of sustainable forests means that you probably won’t find it at your local home store. You’ll have to go to a lumberyard to get it, and it’s going to be expensive. If you’re a new woodworker looking to practice, it’s probably a better choice to stick to more affordable woods.
Cherry is a very popular type of wood that can be finished and stained easily. Cherry’s sapwood has a whiteish color, and its heartwood has a reddish-brown color. Its hardness is similar to mahogany, and it is easy to work with.
You can often use cherry wood for architectural woodwork, furniture and cabinets. It’s harder to find cherry at home stores, so you’ll likely have to purchase it from a lumberyard. It’s one of the more expensive hardwoods due to an increased demand for it.
Oak is a harder wood that’s still easy for woodworkers to work with. It comes in white and red colors, with the white variety of the wood more widely used for furniture since it’s more attractive. Red oak is a bit softer than white oak and is usually easier to find at home stores.
Oak is also rot-resistant, and, with the right sealing and treatment, can be used for outdoor projects. The wood can last for many generations, making it perfect for creating heirloom pieces. Besides furniture, you can also use oak for flooring and cabinets. You should know oak regularly shrinks and swells due to moisture and temperature conditions, meaning you have to let the oak acclimate to your workshop before using it.
Maple is a beautiful hardwood that comes in two main varieties: hard maple and soft maple. Soft maple is the preferred choice of many since it’s not as hard on tools. Both types of maple are harder than other kinds of woods. Their fine, straight grain offers exceptional stability, and maple is relatively inexpensive compared to other hardwood. Due to its greater stability and attractive grain, maple is sometimes considered the best wood for furniture.
Since hard maple is more challenging to cut and hard on tools, it’s primarily used for hardwood flooring. In contrast, soft maple is one of the best woods for furniture. Home stores typically don’t carry maple, so you’ll have to go to a lumberyard to purchase it.
As one of the softest hardwoods, poplar is very easy to shape and cut. It’s inexpensive compared to other hardwoods as well. Poplar isn’t the most attractive wood, with a white appearance streaked with brown or green. Larger home stores will often carry poplar, but you can usually find a higher-quality selection at lumberyards.
Since the wood isn’t very attractive, it’s typically only used for furniture that’s going to be painted or for parts that aren’t visible, such as the interior parts of dresser frames and drawer slides. It’s also regularly used to build models and craft projects. When you use the wood, be aware that its softness makes it easier to knick or indent.
Birch is one of the harder types of hardwood, with yellow and white varieties. White birch has a lighter color and looks similar to maple. Yellow birch has a pale yellow appearance, with a reddish-brown tint in the heartwood. Both types of birch are easy to craft and not as expensive as other hardwoods. They’re also very stable and robust, with many different applications.
One thing to watch out for with birch is that it can be challenging to stain because the wood can get blotchy. Therefore, birch is best for projects you plan to paint. Birch is commonly used to make high-end furniture, toys and toothpicks.
Ash comes with a white to pale brown tint and features a straight grain. It’s one of the harder hardwoods, but it’s still simple to work with and easy to stain. It’s very similar to oak, with close characteristics and strength.
The big challenge to working with ash is that it’s getting progressively harder to find. You probably won’t be able to buy it at a local home store, but lumberyards often carry it. Despite it being more difficult to locate, it typically comes at an affordable price. You can use ash for various projects, like furniture, hockey sticks, bats, curved boat parts and tool handles.
Walnut’s deep brown and dark coloring makes it a premier choice. It’s a fine-grained wood that can be stained easily and looks great when polished. Though it’s one of the more expensive hardwoods, its beautiful appearance makes it worth the price for many woodworkers. It’s also at the higher end of the hardness scale, but not difficult to work with.
Many woodworkers use walnut for inlays and accents to add extra detail and visual appeal to a project. The wood is also used to create furniture and musical instruments like violins and guitars. It’s even used for gun making, since walnut’s fibers are dense, giving it the ability to absorb shock. You can usually only find this wood at specialty lumber stores.
Teak is one of the most exotic hardwoods on this list, with a golden-brown color. In terms of hardness, it’s in the mid-range, but you may have to replace or sharpen your blades while working with it more regularly. When it comes to price, teak is one of the most expensive woods due to its long growing cycle. Since it takes so long to grow, it’s usually only found at specialty stores and lumberyards.
Teak is often used to craft outdoor furniture, as it’s very weather-resistant and attractive to the eye. It’s been traditionally used for boat building, a practice that continues today. The wood has a natural oil finish, which can make it harder to glue or stain. Due to the potentially irritating oils in the wood, teak isn’t usually used for utensils or other types of projects that will contact people’s skin for long periods.
What’s the Best Wood for Beginner Woodworking?
Choosing the best wood for you will come down to personal preference and the type of project you want to complete. In general, however, if you’re beginning woodworking and expecting to make mistakes, it’s usually best to choose some of the least expensive woods, like soft maple, poplar, pine and fir. You may also want to select wood identified above that is easy to work with and won’t wear down your tools quickly.
Choose LUXITE® for Woodworking Blades
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