Woodworking Wood: Which to Choose for Your Project?
There are two basic types of woodworking wood: hardwood and softwood. You’ll also find “manufactured” woods, such as plywood and particle board. What you decide to use for any specific project depends on a number of factors: availability, color, hardness, durability, grain characteristics, cost, strength and stability. Let’s have a look at different types of wood and their uses in woodworking.
Different Types of Wood and Their Uses in Home Carpentry
Softwoods are from coniferous (cone-bearing) or evergreen trees. Common varieties are pine, spruce, fir, cedar, redwood and hemlock. These woods are used mostly in the home-construction industry. Redwood and cedar would be fine choices for outdoor projects. Many who like “early American country-style” furniture like to use pine for their projects.
Beginner woodworkers usually start out with a soft wood such as pine. Aside from being soft, it’s readily available at timber yards and home-improvement centers. It’s also easy to work and you don’t need to have expensive tools to get good results. In furniture-making, pine does, however, have its limitations: as it is a soft wood, it can easily be damaged by bumps or scuffs.
Tip: Most softwoods (including pine) would absorb and lose moisture more readily than hardwoods and are therefore not as stable. Purchase your lumber at least two weeks before starting your project and keep it indoors.
You will find softwoods sold in standard widths and thickness: for example, a 1 x 4 will be 3 1/2 inches wide and 3/4 inches thick, similar to construction materials. They usually price the materials per linear foot, with the price increasing accordingly for wider boards.
Hardwood lumber comes from deciduous trees, the kind that shed their leaves in winter. Those commonly used for domestic purposes include birch, oak, walnut, ash, cherry, poplar and maple. Of these popular hardwoods, you’ll usually only find poplar and red oak stocked in lumber yards and home centers; the others you’ll have to obtain from speciality stores.
The hardwood material stocked at lumber yards and home centers is usually available in similar dimensions to softwood. However, they sell hardwoods in random lengths and don’t mill them to specific dimensions, such as with pine.
It’s quite different working with hardwoods, compared with pine. You won’t be able to drive a screw through hardwood without first boring a pilot hole. You also need extremely sharp tools for cutting and planing hardwoods.
It’s good to use hardwoods when constructing furniture.
Ash and oak are known as open-grain woods. These species have areas of dense wood that alternate with open-grained areas (that are relatively porous). When stained, the open-grained areas absorb the color more readily than the harder areas. This accentuates the grain patterns, creating a dramatic effect.
Birch, maple and cherry are closed-grain woods. They display a more uniform texture throughout a board. Poplar has an unusual coloration, ranging from beige to olive green; it often has purple highlights to add to the mix. For this reason, they rarely use it for making furniture pieces that require a clear finish. It’s best to use it if you intend to stain or paint the item.
Being a less expensive wood, poplar would also be a good choice for framing hardwood projects.
“Manufactured” Wood Sheets
The two most common manufactured wood sheets used in furniture making are medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and particle board. Each of them is made from wood particles that are combined with glue and bonded under pressure. MDF has finer particles than particle board and therefore produces a stronger and smoother finished product.
MDF also machines very well; carpenters often use it for molded components on painted furniture. The main disadvantage is its weight: it’s very heavy compared with regular, solid wood.
These boards are extremely stable in all dimensions, thanks to their laminated construction. Since the veneers on any given panel are usually cut in succession from the same log, the grain and color of the panel should be uniform. It can be difficult to match the grain pattern of solid wood to the generally uniform grain pattern on the panels. However, if you plan carefully, you can produce a good match in the most visible areas of your project.
Manufactured sheets do have their limits. Whenever you use them, you have to hide the edge, regardless of the core. Because the veneers on the surface are so thin (often less than 1/32 inch), the fragile surface has a tendency to split out, especially on the back side of a saw cut. For the same reason, oversanding can quickly work through the veneer, exposing the unsightly core beneath.
As we have said, what wood you use depends on the type of project you are undertaking. For making furniture, you might choose something that will finish well, such as oak or cedar. For projects that you intend to paint, you can simply use MDF.
Purchasing Your Lumber
Before you go out and pick your lumber, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
At the lumber store or yard, you’ll find stacked-up piles of wood boards according to wood type, quality grade, thickness, length and other categories. Even though you might see piles of boards grouped together as being “the same”, there are sure to be differences in quality from one board to another.
Here are some simple tips for choosing boards that will work for your woodworking projects:
- Don’t take boards that you don’t want! People who are new to dealing with lumber yards may feel compelled to accept the first boards that are presented to them. You don’t have to! You have the right to examine each board closely and to reject any that don’t meet your criteria. Why pay for a warped or damaged board that won’t work in your current project?
Rejecting a board is not an insult; you need to accept wood that you can use, so get into the habit from the start.
- Check for straightness. Hold the board at eye level at one end, with the other end resting on the ground. Look down the length of the board to see if you can spot any twists or curves. For some projects, a curved board might not be an issue. However, for a beginner, working with a curved board might be too complicated.
- Check for warping and splits. Examine both sides of the board to see if there are any warped edges or long splits. Warps and splits can reduce the amount of usable wood for your project so bypass those boards that would result in unnecessary waste.
- Knots and knotholes: These can be attractive accents in some woodworking projects so if you don’t mind a knotty piece of wood, that’s fine. Otherwise, check your boards for large knotholes or loose knot pieces. They could cause weak areas or gaps in your cut pieces.
- If your project needs a straight, even grain, you might like to use quarter-sawn lumber. It offers even wood graining but is more expensive than regular, plain-sawn lumber. Decide whether your project is worth the extra expense or not, before choosing your boards.
- Check each board to see if there are any wormholes or other damaged areas. Also, check for pen markings or lumber chalk that may not come off easily. Is the board color even enough for your project?
Re-using Old Lumber
Used boards collected from old barns or other projects can be interesting to work with. However, when choosing or buying reclaimed lumber, check for signs of rot. If the board is soft or spongy or shows signs of fungus, it may not serve well as project wood.
If you are building an outdoor project, such as a deck, ask for treated lumber. Chemically-treated and pressure-treated lumber are better able to withstand changes in moisture and temperature. For other projects, untreated boards are a better choice.
As a beginner woodworker, you should probably start out using softer woods such as spruce or pine. They are easier to work and you can gradually move up to harder woods such as oak and cedar.