How to Select the Right Wood for Woodworking Projects

Lumber Selection

Once you’ve stocked up on hand tools and power tools, you’ll need the right wood to use them on. Selecting the right types of wood for your woodworking projects requires knowledge and understanding of the different types available. If you want to get the most out of a particular type of wood, you need to know how it works and what its key features are. Different projects require entirely different types of wood, so it’s good to get to grips with the basics, but also some specifics.

In this chapter, you’ll learn all about wood grain, selecting and buying the right wood for your project, and which defects to look out for.

The Basics: How Wood Works

Before diving headfirst into woodworking it’s worth spinning the narrative a little and asking the question, how does wood work? Having an understanding of the basics will enable you to let the wood work for you, no matter what project you’re undertaking.

In a nutshell, there are three major principles when it comes to understanding wood:

  1. All solid wood has grain.
  2. Wood movement is greater across the grain than along it.
  3. Wood is stronger along the grain than across it.

These principles can all help you choose the right type of wood for your needs. We’ll look more closely at the second and third points in the next chapter, ‘Project Planning and Measuring Tips’. For now, let’s take a deeper look at wood grain.

Understanding Wood Grain

Wood grain can make some lumber difficult to work with, but is ultimately one of its most attractive features. It will largely appear different depending on how a board is sawn. However, the way in which the trees grow also plays a large role. As such, every piece of timber has a clear grain direction of some sort.

In technical terms, ‘figure’ is the word used to describe the grain pattern based on how the wood is sawn. Meanwhile ‘wood grain’ describes the appearance, alignment, and texture of the wood fibers themselves, based on how they grew. This sounds a little confusing at first, but bear with us!

Making the Cut

The majority of woodworking lumber is cut from the trunk of a tree rather than the branches, as this is where the strongest wood is. As trees grow, they create long, thin fibers that form annual growth rings. How the planks are cut in relation to these growth rings dictates what type of grain you’ll have on the face of the board.

Looking at the end of the plank, it can be cut tangent to growth rings or radial to them. Each cut provides a different type of board. Below are the two most common commercial examples:

1. Plain-sawn = cut tangent to the growth rings, these boards show mostly flat grain on their faces. The face of the board generally features a distinct and decorative elliptical figure.

Plain-sawn wood

2. Quarter-sawn = cut radial to the growth rings, these boards show mostly quarter grain on their faces. The face of the board reveals a straight figure, sometimes called a vertical or comb-grain.

Quarter-sawn wood

Some plain-sawn planks feature more than one type of grain on their faces, typically flat grain in the middle, quarter grain on the edges, and rift grain in between.

Different Grain Types

Wood grain technically refers to the orientation of the long, thin fibers that wood is made from. Your lumber is likely to have one of the following grain types:

  • Straight grain runs along the length of the board in a single direction. Largely free from knots and other defects, it’s generally stronger and easier to work with than other grain types and is considered the best wood for construction. Such boards are cut radial to the growth rings, aka quarter-sawn.

Straight Grain Wood

  • Interlocked grain is the result of a tree whose fibers in each growth layer align in a different direction. Interlocked grain can be challenging to work with, especially with regard to planing the wood.
  • Irregular grain occurs when, rather than running straight, the wood fibers continue to run mostly vertical, but occasionally vary, typically around knots.

Irregular Grain Wood

  • Wavy grain is when the direction of the fibers constantly changes along the length of the board, creating an attractive wavy effect.

Wavy Grain Wood

  • Spiral grain occurs if the tree trunk twisted during growth. The fibers spiral round with either a right or left-hand twist.

While not all of these grain types are sound for construction, they do provide stunning decorative features and can be used in numerous applications. More on that later.

Wood Texture

The width and arrangement of wood grain gives lumber its ‘texture’. The texture of your wood will affect the appearance of your finished project and whether you need to use filler to create a smooth surface on completion.

Different kinds of wood fall into two main categories; fine-grain and coarse-grain.

  • Fine-grain wood has cells that are small, even, and close together, with fewer pores. Common examples include maple and white oak. Most softwoods are also considered fine-grained.
  • Coarse-grain wood has broader, more irregular cells and more pores. Common examples include red oak and ash.

If the lumber has no visible pores it’s called ‘closed-grain’, while ‘open-grain’ wood will have large, visible pores. All of this slowly starts to dictate which kind of wood is best for each project, and how best it should be used.

How Wood Moves

While the lumber you’re working with is no longer living, it is still in constant motion. Wood swells as it takes in moisture during humid weather, and shrinks as it releases that same moisture when the air becomes drier.

Generally speaking, a 5% change in relative humidity results in a 1% change in the moisture content of the wood. However, how that change affects the wood is slightly more complicated. It all depends on grain direction:

  • Along the grain/length: Wood is pretty stable parallel to its grain direction, resulting in very little movement along its length, generally around 0.1% along an eight-foot board.
  • Across flat-grain: There’s a lot more expansion across flat-grain, with as much as 8% movement across its dimension.
  • Across quarter-grain: Meanwhile, quarter-grain wood will only move about 4% across its dimension.

This is one of the main reasons that quarter-grain wood is considered a much more stable wood, and is generally better for construction. As wood shrinks or swells, it can warp, twist, bow, or cup, rather than laying flat. Plain-sawn, flat-grain boards tend to bow much more, and shrinkage is generally two times greater.

Beware of planks with mixed grain on the face, as these will warp and twist in different directions much more as they dry out.

Wood Strength Indicators

The strength of a piece of wood is dictated by much more than grain direction alone. Different species of wood have different qualities and are stronger in different ways.

The following indicators of strength can be used to select the ideal type of wood for a host of projects.

  • Density (specific gravity) is a common measure of wood strength, the density divides the weight of a volume of wood by the weight of the same volume of water. The higher the ratio, the denser, and typically, stronger, the wood is.
  • Compressive strength is a measure of the pressure required to break a board as it is applied parallel to the grain. The higher the value, in PSI, the stronger the wood. This is an important factor for things like table and chair legs.
  • Bending strength is a measure of the pressure applied perpendicular to the grain before it breaks. The higher the value, in PSI, the stronger the wood. Also known as modulus of rupture, this is a good factor to consider when choosing the wood for tabletops, or even oars and paddles.
  • Stiffness, also known as modulus of elasticity, this is a measure of how flexible a board is. It measures how much pressure is required to make the board bow. The higher the value, in PSI, the stronger the wood. This is worth considering when choosing the right wood for making shelves, but also items that benefit from a bit of flex, such as fishing poles or bows.
  • Hardness measures the pressure required to embed a 44 caliber steel ball halfway into the piece of wood. It’s worth considering for any items that are likely to take some abuse, such as workbench tops, kitchen countertops, or even hockey sticks.

The values you’ll find online are only averages, but they give you a good idea of where you’re at with a particular type of wood.

Sourcing Affordable Lumber for Woodworking

The price of different wood species tends to change over time, just like any other commodity. Your wood will generally fall into one of three key groups, which will determine its price.

1. Domestic Woods

Because transportation costs play such a large role in the price of lumber, wood that is harvested locally is generally the cheapest. Most construction lumber is made from domestic wood. Cheaper domestic woods include Aspen and Poplar. Other domestic woods, like Black Cherry, can be a little more expensive.

2. Imported Woods

Imports will generally cost more than domestic woods, with the cheapest imported species often costing around the same as the more expensive domestic species. Woodworkers based in the US can often source South American woods like Jatoba and Cumaru for relatively low prices. More exotic hardwoods will tend to be more expensive.

3. Figured Woods

An additional pricing layer is added by the inclusion of a special grain figure. Examples include “curly” and “quilted” wood grains and wood cut from exceptionally large, old trees. These special wood grains can make lumber that’s normally affordable quite pricey, and lumber that’s already pricey astronomically expensive.

Lumber Dimensions: Actual Vs. Nominal Sizing

When you go to buy wood with a tape measure on hand, you’ll quickly notice that the dimensions by which lumber is sold (nominal measurements) do not reflect the actual size of the wood. That’s because the measurements shown are based on the size of the wood prior to treatment and shrinkage.

And to add an extra dollop of confusion, hardwood is sized differently from softwood. Your best bet is to measure your lumber before you buy it so that you know exactly what you’re getting. Failing that, check the charts in this link.

Where to Buy Lumber for Woodworking

You can buy workable, dry wood in most hardware and DIY stores, especially the larger branches. That said, you’ll generally get to choose from a larger selection and typically find nicer pieces if you go to a lumberyard. A simple online search will tell you where your nearest lumberyard is – try searching for something like “hardwood lumber” or “lumberyard near me”.

If a lumberyard or DIY store isn’t an option, you may find you can buy lumber online with surprising ease. If you buy from a reputable seller, they should provide descriptions, photos showing off that gorgeous straight grain, and measurements of the actual planks you’re buying, so you should get a good idea of the wood before it arrives.

Tip: head to your local joinery workshop to ask for free wood. They’ll often have a variety of off-cuts and you might even find boards for your next construction project.

The Best Wood and Lumber Types for Different Woodworking Projects

Many woodworkers like to try a lot of different projects. So, what’s the right type of wood for outdoor furniture? What about carving? Let’s find out.

  • Indoor furniture works best with strong, attractive wood types like oak and cedar.
  • Decks, patio furniture, and other outdoor projects require strong woods like redwood and Douglas fir that are resistant to rot and decay.
  • Building projects like houses and even small sheds require strong woods that can be bought in large quantities. Spruce and Yellow Pine are readily available and commonly used for stud-wall construction.
  • Carving works best with softer woods. Basswood is a popular choice that is soft enough to carve easily, yet holds up well over time.
  • Household items benefit from soft, workable woods like poplar. But if an attractive wood grain is desired, something like teak or cherry can look fantastic.
  • Tool handles need to be made from hardy wood types like hard maple or hickory so they can endure ongoing use.
  • Flooring is often made from oak as it is hard-wearing but attractive. Certain exotic woods such as Sapele Mahogany are also great for flooring.
  • Drawers need to be hard-wearing for ongoing use, but their design means an attractive wood grain is not as important as in other kinds of furniture. A softer hardwood like poplar works, but something a bit tougher, like cherry, will last longer.
  • Accents and inlays can be added to any project to make the finished piece more decorative. An attractive wood species like walnut is often used for this purpose.

Check out the table below to find the best wood type for your next woodworking project.

 

Furniture Decks Building Patio Furniture Carving
Cedar

Fir

Pine

Ash

Birch

Cherry

Mahogany

Soft Maple

Hard Maple

Oak

Walnut

Bamboo

Cedar

Redwood

Massaranduba

Cumaru

Red Tauari

Tigerwood

Ipe

Philippine Mahogany

Cedar

Fir

Cedar

Redwood

Oak

Teak

Pine

Soft Maple

Household Items Tool Handles Flooring Drawers Toys
Soft Maple

Poplar

Hard Maple Oak Poplar Poplar
Accents & Inlays
Walnut

Softwood vs Hardwood

These are the two major scientific categories used to separate tree types. Softwood timber comes from coniferous, or cone-bearing, trees, while hardwood timber comes from deciduous trees. So, rather than its physical properties, lumber is categorized using these scientific groupings.

Having said that, the majority of hardwoods are indeed harder than softwoods, though there are exceptions. Balsa is the softest timber you’ll find commercially, yet it belongs to the botanical hardwood group.

Hardwoods tend to come in a wider range of colors, while softwoods are typically fairly pale yellow in color, with the darkest exceptions featuring reddish-brown coloring. However, both softwoods and hardwoods can be used in a wide variety of woodworking projects.

Popular Wood Types

Most woodworkers will only use a few types of wood in their projects. And, some of the best woods for the job are also among the most common. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular wood types you can expect to use in next woodworking project.

Poplar

For woodworking projects involving paint, the utilitarian poplar is one of the best types of wood to choose. This lumber is durable and fairly cheap but doesn’t look as good as some other species without a lick of paint. For anything from door frames to racks for tools, poplar is a good choice.

While poplar is a hardwood, its wood is fairly soft compared to other hardwood trees. It has a finer grain and a more pleasing appearance than softwoods, but its actual hardness is similar to that of cedar or pine. So, if you want to create furniture that is longer lasting, it’s worth seeking out a harder wood.

Oak

The texture of oak can make this species a little difficult to work with, but its distinct appearance makes it very popular in furniture making. The many varieties of oak – which include white oak, red oak, English oak, and American oak – all have similar qualities for woodworking. Woodworkers will find that patience and finesse – rather than brute strength – will allow this lumber to produce great results that offers excellent durability.

Maple

With its light color, maple is a hardwood whose durability and distinct look make it popular for furniture building. It can be temperamental, but making sure you buy properly-seasoned lumber will make all the difference. Hardwood is harder to work with and a powerful saw like a miter saw (with stand), circular saw, table saw (cabinet style), or chop saw, will make life much easier.

Pine

Pine is a softwood like spruce and fir. Its softness will vary from variety to variety, and some pine woods, like longleaf pine, are stable enough for fine furniture-making. Indeed, pine tables and outdoor furniture are an affordable alternative to hardwood versions and add a rustic element to any home. And don’t forget, many log cabins are built from pine so it’s plenty strong enough for an array of outdoor projects too. Pine trees quickly grow tall and straight, making them extremely commercially viable.

Common Wood Defects To Be Aware Of

When sourcing your lumber, it’s important to understand wood defects. Any tree can suffer from a variety of defects as it grows, while it’s machined, or during storage, and it’s not uncommon to uncover some when searching for lumber.

For the most part, a lot of defects can be worked with, and some are even considered decorative. However, others make the wood difficult to work with or reduce its overall strength. It all depends on the project you have in mind as to which defects should be avoided or not. Here are the most common types.

Natural Defects

There are many defects that can occur as trees grow, caused by anything from bad weather to birds, insects, or even fungi. Here are the ones you’re most likely to come across when buying wood.

  • Knots are the most common natural wood defect. They’re caused by branches growing out from the trunk and look like dark, hard rings. The grain around them is disturbed and goes around the knot rather than running straight, causing a slight weakness.
  • Tight Knots are encased in the grain and cannot be pushed out.
  • Loose Knots can normally be pushed out, leaving a hole that will usually need to be filled later.
  • Shakes are splits running along the length of the wood between the growth rings. It might not be completely visible and can run beneath the surface of a board. If you’re looking for an attractive face, shakes should be avoided.
  • Splits go all the way through the board, reducing strength and the amount of wood that can be worked with.

Seasoning and Conversion Defects

Lumber that hasn’t been sawn, stored, or dried correctly can suffer an array of defects.

  • Bowing indicates a warp along the length of the wood that sees the ends raised higher than the middle. Normally caused by inadequate support while storing. For example, storing long lengths leaning up against a wall will often cause the wood to bow.
  • Cupping indicates a warp across the width of the wood that sees the edges raised higher than the middle. A common issue with plain-sawn planks as they dry.
  • Twisting indicates a warp along both the length and across the width, causing the plank to twist like a propeller. A common issue with planks featuring different grain types on the same face.
  • Crooking indicates a warp along the length in which the board remains flat, but the ends pull away from the center, forming something like a large C-shape.
  • Wane describes the presence of bark or a lack of wood at the edge or corner of a plank.
  • Machine burn is often caused by blunt tool blades that have overheated during machining. It results in dark burn marks.
  • Diagonal grain describes a piece of wood in which the annual growth rings run at an angle to the axis of the plank, rather than running parallel. Caused by incorrect sawing, this type of wood is not considered safe for construction lumber or structural applications.

Manufactured Boards

Traditionalists might like to shun man-made panels and boards, but there’s no doubt that they can be used for a huge range of projects. We won’t focus on them too heavily here, but it’s worth knowing the basics.

  • Plywood is made from several thin veneers of either softwood or hardwood, glued together. Available in different plywood grades, it comes in a range of thicknesses and types that make it a versatile board to work with. Generally, plywood should be used as an indoor building material as it’s prone to rot, although rot and moisture-resistant marine boards are used in boat construction.
  • Chipboard is made from chips of wood that have been pressed and glued together. It’s considered the weakest of the bunch, though a grading system rates different types and board strengths. As the cheapest manufactured board it’s common in IKEA furniture, as well as kitchen countertops.
  • MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is made by breaking down residual soft or hardwood fibers and mixing them with wax and a binding resin. This creates a dense, defect-free board without any kind of grain pattern. It glues and finishes well, is easy to work with, and is often used for shelves, cabinet making, and furniture. It doesn’t shrink or expand anywhere near as much as solid wood.

Always wear a mask and safety glasses when working with MDF, as the fine dust, which contains adhesive, can irritate the eyes and result in breathing problems.

Woodwork Project Planning

Now that you know all about wood and grain types, you’re ready to choose your first woodworking project and start planning. Find out all about the planning process of woodworking projects in the next chapter.

 

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