How to Select the Right Types of 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 what makes it special.

In this chapter, you’ll learn all about wood grain, selecting and buying the right wood for your project, working with different types of wood.

Understanding Wood Grain

Wood grain can make some lumber difficult to work with, but is ultimately one of its most attractive features. The wood grain will appear differently depending on how a board is sawn, but the way in which wood grows means that every piece of timber has a clear grain direction of some sort.

Selecting the right wood for woodworking projects

In technical terms, ‘figure’ is the word used to describe the pattern created by grain orientation – which we’ll discuss below in our note on Figured Woods – while ‘wood grain’ describes the appearance, alignment and texture of wood fibers.

Your lumber is likely to have one of four main grain types:

  • Straight Grain runs along the length of the board in a single direction;
  • Cross Grain is less straight, forming when cells grow from the center of the tree outwards;
  • Spiral Grain occurs if the tree trunk twists as it grows;
  • Interlocked Grain occurs when misaligned grain develops in an already twisting trunk.

Wood with straight grain is generally the strongest, easiest to work with and best for construction, but other grain types are more attractive and interesting to look at.

The width and arrangement of wood grain gives lumber its ‘texture’, with fine-grain wood having a grain that’s small, even and close together and coarse-grain wood having broader, more irregular grain. If the lumber has no visible pores it’s called ‘closed-grain’, while ‘open-grain’ wood will have large, visible pores.

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.

Sourcing Cheap Lumber for Woodworking

Different wood types 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. Cheaper domestic woods include Aspen and Poplar. Other domestic woods, like Black Cherry, can be a little more expensive, but this wood type is often imitated using another hardwood like Yellow Poplar and a reddish wood stain.

2. Imported Woods

Imported woods 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, and those that can’t stretch to imported woods may try imitating Jatoba with domestic Cherry wood and wood stain.

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.

With practice, woodworkers can learn to imitate special wood grains through graining, a decorative technique which we will discuss in Chapter 13 (coming soon).

Popular Wood Types: Oak Lumber

Oak wood texture 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 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.

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.

This is confused further by the fact that hardwood is sized differently to softwood.

Your best bet is to measure your lumber before you buy it to avoid disappointment. Failing that, the following charts will help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Softwood Lumber Sizing Table

Nominal Measurement (inches) Actual Size
1 x 2 ¾in x 1 ½in (19 x 38mm)
1 x 3 ¾in x 2 ½in (19 x 64mm)
1 x 4 ¾in x 3 ½in (19 x 89mm)
1 x 5 ¾ x 4 ½in (19 x 114mm)
1 x 6 ¾ x 5 ½in (19 x 140mm)
1 x 8 ¾ x 7 ¼in (19 x 184mm)
1 x 10 ¾ x 9 ¼in (19 x 235mm)
1 x 12 ¾ x 11 ¼in (19 x 286mm)
2 x 2 1 ½ x 1 ½in (38 x 38mm)
2 x 3 1 ½ x 2 ½in (38 x 64mm)
2 x 4 1 ½ x 3 ½in (38 x 89mm)
2 x 6 1 ½ x 5 ½in (38 x 140mm)
2 x 8 1 ½ x 7 ¼in (38 x 184mm)
2 x 10 1 ½ x 9 ¼in (38 x 235mm)
2 x 12 1 ½ x 11 ¼in (38 x 286mm)
4 x 4 3 ½ x 3 ½in (89 x 89mm)
4 x 6 3 ½ x 5 ½in (89 x 140mm)
6 x 6 5 ½ x 5 ½in (140 x 140mm)

Hardwood Lumber Sizing Table

Nominal Measurement (thickness) Actual Size

(surfacing on one side)

Actual Size

(surfacing on both sides)

½ inch ⅜in (9.5mm) 5/16in (7.9mm)
⅝ inch ½in (13mm) 7/16in (11mm)
¾ inch ⅝in (16mm) 9/16in (14mm)
1 inch ⅞in (22mm) 13/16in (21mm)
1 ¼ inches 1 ⅛in (29mm) 1 ⅙in (27mm)
1 ½ inches 1 ⅜in (35mm) 1 5/16in (33mm)
2 inches 1 13/16in (46mm) 1 ¾in (44mm)
3 inches 2 13/16in (71mm) 2 ¾inches (70mm)
4 inches 3 13/16in (97mm) 3 ¾in (95mm)

Is Maple a Hardwood?

A: Yes! 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 you need a powerful saw like a miter saw (with stand), circular saw, table saw (cabinet style) or chop saw.

Where to Buy Lumber for Woodworking

You can buy workable 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 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 and measurements of the actual planks you’re buying, so you should get a good idea of the wood before it arrives.

Popular Wood Types: 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.

While poplar is a hardwood, its wood is fairly soft compared to other hardwood trees. It has a finer grain and more pleasing appearance than softwoods, but its actual hardness is similar to that of cedar or pine.

The Best Wood and Lumber Types for Woodworking Projects

The best types of wood

What’s the best wood for outdoor furniture? What about carving?

  • Indoor furniture works best with strong, attractive wood types like oak and cedar.
  • Decks and patio furniture require strong woods like redwood 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.
  • Carving works best with softer woods as these are more easily workable with hand tools.
  • Household items benefit from soft, workable woods, but if an attractive wood grain is desired a softer hardwood like poplar is perfect.
  • Tool handles need to be made from hardy wood types like hard maple so they can endure ongoing use.
  • Flooring is often made from oak as it is hard-wearing but attractive.
  • 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. The same is true of toys, which must endure rough play but can be painted to disguise any unattractive grains and textures. Poplar is ideal for these projects.
  • 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 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

Is Pine a Hardwood?

A: No. Pine is a softwood like spruce and fir. Its softness will vary from variety to variety, so some pine woods like long-leaf pine are stable enough for furniture-making.

Identifying Wood

Before you start your woodworking project, you need to know what wood you’re working with so you know how best to treat it. Ideally, you will have bought your lumber from a reputable seller who could give you exactly the type you were looking for. This will not always be the case, however.

The following resources are invaluable to anyone who needs to identify their lumber type.

Resources

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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