Wood Species Guide
Alder, Red (Alnus rubra)From Alaska to California, red alder is the most common commercial hardwood. This cousin of birch and aspen generally prefers wet climates and usually grows in groves along stream banks or on moist hillsides. Red alder grows like a weed, doing especially well on logged-out or burned land. It often overtakes the efforts of foresters trying to replant softwood species like fir and spruce. Alder's ability to resist the ravages of forest fires also has contributed to its abundance.
It could be called a chameleon wood, for it is widely used to imitate some mighty pricey competition including walnut, mahogany, and cherry. Its ruddy coloring and indistinct grain pattern allow a creative finisher to mimic the hues of these other species, and its hardness makes it a suitable wood for furniture and millwork. Also popular with turners, particularly mass production shops, it requires little sanding and has a uniform grain pattern, which reduces tear-out on the lathe.
Uses: The top choice of clog-makers for hundreds of years, alder has left a unique footprint on history, and its role can still be described as pedestrian. Alder often makes up the core material in high- quality plywood like Baltic Birch and is widely used for industrial purposes like pallets, broom handles, and commercially made toys.
American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic poem "The Village Blacksmith" immortalized this tree. Around the turn of the century, it was commonplace to find chestnuts towering 90' tall with trunk diameters of 6'. Tragically, it is now near extinction, due to a catastrophic blight first noticed in the Bronx Zoo in 1904. A shipment of chestnut trees imported from China and Japan came with an unfortunate stowaway, a fungus that cuts off the flow of sap, causing the tree to die above ground. Ironically, the fungus can't live in soil, so initially the root systems of chestnuts often survived, sending up shoots that lasted only a few years until they were stricken by the blight themselves. A crossbreeding effort at restoration, with some promising results, is being led by the American Chestnut Foundation located in Bennington, Vermont.
Uses: Chestnut timber has myriad uses, from fences to fine furniture. Its high-quality timber and flavorful nuts were important commercial resources. Lighter than oak, it is very strong, with an attractive golden- brown color and open grain. Woodworkers prize it for excellent machining, finishing, and gluing properties. As a testament to their exceptional decay resistance, chestnut trees are still harvested decades after their death. Most newly harvested chestnut wood is riddled with wormholes, which are now considered character marks.
Ash (Fraxinus americana)The most common species of ash used for woodworking is generally referred to as white ash, a species that has assumed a legendary role in major league baseball parks. When a batter takes his swings at home plate, he is usually relying on a bat made from white ash. It's a superior choice for bats because of long fibers, which bend a little upon impact with the ball. These same long fibers make ash an excellent choice for woodworkers who are planning projects that will involve bending and laminating. Although quite hard and strong, ash offers excellent working properties in the shop. When using properly sharpened cutting tools, ash is rather easy to plane, saw, drill, and chisel. However, its tendency to splinter when dull tools are being used is less forgiving than with many species. Ash also offers outstanding staining and finishing qualities. The wood is comparable to oak in many respects, particularly appearance. The open grain texture shared by both species often fools the casual observer. Furthermore, oak and ash have almost identical hardness ratings.
Uses: An excellent choice for cabinets and fine furniture, ash is one of the most available domestic woods and rarely warps or twists. Because it has low resistance to decay, it should be used only for indoor applications . . . unless your surname is Ruth.Back to Top
Beech (Fagus grandifolia)The beech is a unique-looking tree with grayish bark that is remarkably smooth from its twigs to its trunk, giving romantics a palette to carve their names. Rebecca Rupp, in her book of tree folklore titled Red Oaks and Black Birches, mentions the Presidents' tree of Takoma Park, Maryland, which is, in fact, a beech. The wood is distinguishable by its evenly distributed tiny red-brown flecks. Even- textured with small, consistently spaced pores, it has superb machining qualities. Beech accepts finishes well and polishes to a nice sheen. Steam bending and laminating both work wonderfully, making it a top choice for bent chair parts. It has poor decay resistance. It is quite difficult to dry and prone to significant shrinkage and warping during the process. Once dry, however, the wood is relatively stable, if not subjected to extreme swings in humidity.
Uses: A national beer brewer boasts that its flagship brand is "beech wood aged." The irony is that what beech offers for this purpose is really what it lacks, a strong taste or odor that might taint the flavor of foods and drinks. While other species like walnut, cherry, and oak grab the limelight for their looks, beech (a relatively plain wood with a reddish hue) often is employed for hidden structural parts in furniture. It also is a favorite for hand tools, workbench tops, flooring, visible-l-inlines, and counters, since it resists wear as well as nicks and dings.
Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)Birch is a species of contradiction. The white bark boldly stands out from all other trees in the forest, but in the shop the species has one of the subtlest appearances. Complementing its whitish color, a faint pattern sweeps across this closed-grained, evenly textured wood—a desirable characteristic when the project's design needs to dominate the wood's appearance. In the shop, birch works well with both hand and power tools, particularly for a wood that falls between oak (harder) and cherry (softer) in hardness. It saws, planes, and turns well, with relatively little tearing and splintering. Birch experiences significant shrinkage while drying, but once properly seasoned it offers good stability and resists warping and twisting. It is unequaled when it comes to accepting a clear varnish or polyurethane finish but is much less suitable for staining because of its tendency to become blotchy.
Uses: Birch is a suitable choice for structurally critical parts in furniture because it compares to oak and maple in strength and beats both of those species quite significantly when it comes to shock resistance. For use in a bending project, birch offers excellent elasticity, somewhat similar to ash. However, keep in mind that outdoor applications are simply out of the question for this species because it is highly susceptible to decay.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea)Butternut is overshadowed by the highly popular black walnut, its closest relative. Yet this is a quality wood worthy of attention in its own right. Known also as white walnut, a term describing the creamy tan color of the wood, this is a relatively soft species with a hardness rating about half that of its cousin. Figuratively speaking, butternut cuts like butter for sawing, planing, and routing. Even though the wood is easy to cut, butternut's long fibers and softness require that blades be exceptionally sharp to prevent tearing and splintering, especially for turning. A thin application of sanding sealer can help quite a lot when eliminating butternut "hair," which is composed of fibers that are difficult to sand. Carvers will find that the wood is easy to work and holds its shape, for excellent results. The open grain accepts glue, stains, and finishes well. Adhesives deeply penetrate this ring-porous wood for strong bonds, and the texture and natural oils in butternut combine to create a rich lustrous appearance when it is stained or finished.
Uses: Since it is in the same weight class as basswood, some woodworkers turn to butternut when trying to reduce the weight of large pieces. However, because of its strength limitations, butternut is not recommended for structurally critical components under stress. In addition, lack of decay resistance makes butternut suitable for indoor applications only.Back to Top
Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)Butternut is overshadowed by the highly popular black walnut, its closest relative. Yet this is a quality wood worthy of attention in its own right. Known also as white walnut, a term describing the creamy tan color of the wood, this is a relatively soft species with a hardness rating about half that of its cousin. Figuratively speaking, butternut cuts like butter for sawing, planing, and routing. Even though the wood is easy to cut, butternut's long fibers and softness require that blades be exceptionally sharp to prevent tearing and splintering, especially for turning. A thin application of sanding sealer can help quite a lot when eliminating butternut "hair," which is composed of fibers that are difficult to sand. Carvers will find that the wood is easy to work and holds its shape, for excellent results. The open grain accepts glue, stains, and finishes well. Adhesives deeply penetrate this ring-porous wood for strong bonds, and the texture and natural oils in butternut combine to create a rich lustrous appearance when it is stained or finished.
Uses: Since it is in the same weight class as basswood, some woodworkers turn to butternut when trying to reduce the weight of large pieces. However, because of its strength limitations, butternut is not recommended for structurally critical components under stress. In addition, lack of decay resistance makes butternut suitable for indoor applications only.
Cedar, Port Orford White (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)A beautiful medium-grained and close-pored softwood, this cedar is actually a member of the "false cypresses." In fact, one of its common names is Lawson cypress, after the Scot who introduced the species to Britain. The lumber has working characteristics that are similar to pine, but it is somewhat harder and takes finishes without the same blotching tendencies. It also releases a pungent fragrance during machining that may be objectionable to woodworkers with allergies to other cedars. The tree grows up to 180' high along the Pacific coast in northern California and Oregon, and can reach a diameter as wide as a man is tall. The cones are small, at less than 1⁄2" across. Due to several factors, including a Japanese fungus that has attacked the trees of late, plus juniper scales and spruce mites, supplies of Port Orford white cedar are currently quite limited.
Uses: Once prized for building Japanese Buddhist temples, Port Orford white cedar's current uses are in boatbuilding, caskets in the Orient, arrows, outdoor furniture, cabinetry, and the making of musical instruments. It seasons with predictable and acceptable shrinkage and has an even, workable grain that reacts well to sharp hand tools and carbide cutters. It also takes a polish beautifully. Most of the prime heartwood is now exported to Japan.
Cedar, Spanish (Cedrela huberi)Making its home on the islands and coast of the Caribbean, Spanish cedar also is known as cedrela. This deciduous tree (unlike other cedars, which are coniferous) grows particularly well in areas of rich, well-drained soil. Cedrela can reach heights of 100' or more, given the right conditions. For perhaps half of that height the trunk is straight and true, with diameters up to 6'. It is somewhat resistant to decay and insect damage, and very resistant to the harmful effects of weather. The heartwood has a fragrant scent due to secreted oils, which appear as small pockets of sticky resin. This fragrance augments the natural flavor and aroma of fine cigars. The sapwood is pale pink or beige, while the heartwood warms to a pink or reddish brown when fresh. At times it is remarkably similar in appearance to mahogany. As it ages, the color mutes to a dull reddish brown with hints of purple.
Uses: Spanish cedar is used in boatbuilding, xylophones, fine cigar humidors, and even millwork. It takes adhesives well, especially polyurethane glues in outdoor applications, and as such it can be used in curved work that uses thin, built-up laminations. It is valued as a carving species and also in marine applications. Because of its aromatic qualities and resistance to decay, it is an important element in wardrobes, chests, and other cabinets that are used for storing fabrics.
Cherry (Prunus serotina)
A member of the rose family, cherry is an attractive wood with distinctive characteristics and excellent working properties. A relative of the small orchard variety, the tree that produces most commercially available cherry wood is a native American species reaching a mature height of 60' to 90'. The tan color of freshly cut cherry sometimes has a hint of pink. However, cherry quickly develops a warm reddish- brown patina. All wood develops a patina with age, but Christian Becksvoort, the author of In Harmony with Wood, claims that cherry develops it faster than any other native species. This attractive patina makes cherry an excellent choice for clear finishing. Cherry is popular in the workshop, too, because of its outstanding workability. The moderate hardness and weight of cherry is similar to black walnut. In fact, hand tool enthusiasts often adopt cherry as a favorite because of its easy working qualities. Once a cherry project is completed, expect it to last for generations. This is one of the most stable woods to be found, and it rarely warps or twists. Uses: Cherry enjoys the distinction of being perhaps the most popular choice among cabinetmakers and furniture builders. Its moderate hardness makes cherry a suitable choice for furniture and cabinets, while being considered one of the easiest woods to machine.
Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa)When a cocobolo log is freshly cut, it reveals a rainbow of purples, reds, oranges, and yellows. The colors eventually mellow to a rich reddish orange, accented by waves of crimson and black, making cocobolo one of the greatest treasures in woodworking today. The tree grows along Central America's Pacific seaboard, where it is harvested for both local use and export. Cocobolo is part of the rosewood family, but its unique colors set this wood apart from other family members. For a highly dense and hard wood, cocobolo is relatively easy to work with both hand and power tools. Care is required when handling the sawdust as, like many tropical woods, it contains toxins that can produce allergic reactions. Dust masks should definitely be worn. The oiliness of the wood presents a gluing challenge, but using an epoxy or a polyurethane adhesive will improve your rate of success.
Uses: Due to a combination of heaviness and high value, cocobolo is generally used only for small applications. An unlikely choice for large projects, it can add a distinctive touch when used as an accent. The wood is generally featured in small, highly polished items like brush and cutlery handles, music boxes, carvings, and turnings. It is possible to sand and finish cocobolo as smooth as polished stone, which makes it perfect for use as jewelry.Back to Top
Uses: Because the trees are so small, ebony lumber is generally available only in very small dimensions. Since ebony is becoming rarer, use of the wood is limited to accent pieces and small projects, which works out just fine, since its weight and lack of structural strength makes ebony inappropriate for most larger applications anyway. Ebony is a good candidate for any project requiring accents with a highly polished luster.
Elm (Ulmus americana)A favorite of western settlers for their wheel hubs and rims, this shock-resistant species has a wildly twisting and interlocking grain pattern. Elm resists splitting better than any other common domestic species, which makes it a poor choice for firewood. However, elm is an excellent choice when another wood member is being pounded into it, such as when back spindles are pounded into a Windsor chair seat made from elm (a very popular choice for this application). Dutch elm disease, a fungus carried by bark-boring beetles accidentally introduced from Europe, has ravaged nearly the entire range of elms in the United States. Supplies of elm lumber and veneer are still widely available, but this disease will undoubtedly make elm much more scarce in the future.
Uses: The reddish-tan color of elm makes it an attractive choice for furniture, accessories, and trim. Carvers and turners find it to be relatively friendly, but chiseling often results in uncontrolled splintering. Elm poses no special problems for straight-line cuts made with power tools. When storing elm, be sure to protect your wood from humidity and moisture because it is highly susceptible to distortion. Like most species with a coarse, open-grained texture, elm glues, stains, and finishes exceptionally well.Back to Top
Hickory (Carya ovata)Andrew Jackson earned the nickname "Old Hickory" for his exceptional toughness as a general during the War of 1812. The name was quite fitting because hickory is one of the toughest and strongest woods among our domestic species. It exceeds ash, oak, and maple in both strength and hardness and has more than twice the shock resistance of those species. Among domestic species, hickory can't be beaten for bending properties. Before the introduction of synthetic materials, hickory was commonly used for skis and toboggans. Today, craftsmen employ hickory when a design calls for bent pieces in chair backs. On the down side, hickory's hardness and density do create some workability problems. Cutting is a slow process and blades tend to dull quickly. It is not a good turning wood because of its coarse and splintery texture.
Uses: Exceptional elasticity has made hickory the wood of choice for hammer, ax, and other tool handles that experience harsh and sudden impacts. In the early days of baseball, hickory was used for bats, but its use declined because of excessive weight. It continues to find broad applications as structural members in lightweight projects like Windsor chairs, but the weight factor makes it less suitable for larger furniture assemblies.Back to Top
Koa (Acacia koa)Shortly after reaching the Hawaiian islands in the late 1800s, Portuguese sailors discovered koa, a wood with high resonance qualities that was perfect for making four-stringed ukuleles. In addition, its beautiful grain could be sanded to a glassy smoothness and finished to a lustrous sheen, making it a modern luthier's favorite, too. The most highly figured wood comes from Hawaii's mountains, growing to about 70' with trunk diameters from 5' to 8'. Koa is an evergreen with yellow springtime flowers. The heartwood is golden brown with wavy streaks of red, orange, black, or yellow. An interlocking grain is responsible for much of koa's dramatic figure (often a fiddleback pattern), and contributes to the wood's high shock resistance and good bending characteristics. These qualities make koa a favorite for gunstocks. The Hawaiian name Koa-ka (valiant soldier) aptly describes this extremely decay-resistant wood. Screwing or nailing into koa yields excellent results, with very little splitting or splintering.
Uses: Beyond musical instruments, koa is a fine wood for carving and turning, making it popular for jewelry and art objects. Working with koa reminds many people of walnut. The wood is slightly open- grained, even textured, and has a moderate weight. It's one of the easiest woods to dry by kiln or air, and once it is dry, koa is quite stable and exhibits relatively little movement.
Lacewood (Cardwellia sublimis)The term lacewood has long been applied to the quartersawn wood of American sycamore, London plane, and most specifically Australian silky oak (the scientific name given above). The first two are related, while the third is not a true oak at all. Sycamore, also called buttonwood (its seeds were used by early settlers as crude buttons), has held only a minor role in domestic woodworking, even though it grows over much of the eastern half of the United States. A reputation for significant shrinkage and warping is one reason for its infrequent use, but this is only deserved by plain sawn sycamore. Quartersawn stock offers average to good stability. Generally good working properties are typical with lacewood, but be sure to use very sharp cutting edges to minimize binding. To really highlight the figure, try finishing lacewood with a few coats of oil and then follow with a coat of wax. When ordering any of these species, make sure the wood has been quartersawn, or you won't be getting lacewood.
Uses: Sycamore should only be used indoors since the wood has little decay resistance. London plane has similar properties, but it is slightly darker and heavier than sycamore. Australian silky oak is a considerably more expensive version of lacewood, with a dramatic appearance, and is probably best saved for small projects, or as an accent wood on larger pieces.
Lyptus (Eucalyptus grandis et urophylla)The name Lyptus is a registered copyright of the Weyerhaeuser company, which developed this premium Brazilian plantation-grown hardwood. The wood is a natural hybrid of two species of eucalyptus and exhibits many desirable woodshop characteristics, including exceptional workability and machining properties, sound density, good finish tolerance, and overall strength. Lyptus is produced in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner, interspersed with indigenous trees to preserve natural habitat. It can be harvested in about 15 years, much sooner then other premium hardwoods grown in colder climates. Lyptus is reversing the loss of tropical forests as it is grown on previously barren land in a mosaic pattern interspersed with reintroduced indigenous trees to preserve native ecosystems and create biodiversity.
Uses: Lyptus it well suited to furniture building, cabinetmaking, flooring, and architectural millwork. Weyerhaeuser Building Materials offers the species as high-grade hardwood in dimensional lumber sizes, and also as plywood and flooring. It is used where the beauty and appearance of mahogany or cherry is desired. With natural figure similar to quartersawn oak, it oxidizes similarly to cherry and will develop a beautiful patina in a very short time.
Mahogany, Crotch Veneer (Swietenia macrophylla)According to legend, pirates of the high seas buried their treasures on Caribbean islands. What they couldn't know was that another treasure lay hidden right before them, a small amount of beautifully figured wood hidden deep in the crotch of mahogany trees. Mahogany, although not the only tree that produces a desirable crotch grain pattern, offers some of the most spectacular results. Nearly all harvested crotch wood is sliced into exceptionally thin veneer in order to stretch the rare material to its absolute limits. While each specimen is unique, names like plume, flame, feather, and rooster tail generally apply to this kind of grain pattern. Crotch veneer is cut perpendicular to the V created by the spreading branches in the log. Each slice has a wild grain pattern going in all directions, much like burl veneer does. Of course, this usually means that no matter how you glue it to a core material, eventually the veneer will crack and split.
Uses: Its primary use is as a decorative veneer on casework, boxes, humidors, furniture panels, and clocks. Due to its irregular grain patterns, crotch veneer is often wrinkly, making it necessary to flatten it prior to gluing. Planing is almost impossible, and crotch veneer has random areas of exposed end grain that absorb stains and finishes unevenly. Mahogany crotch veneer is relatively expensive, fetching five times the price of plain sliced veneer.
Mahogany, Honduras (Swietenia macrophylla)When New World explorers landed on the shores of Central America in search of bounty for their homelands, they discovered an unexpected treasure. By the early 1700s, shiploads of mahogany were being sent to the old countries, where it had caught the fancy of Europe's royalty and governing classes. Central American–grown mahogany, which consists of several species commonly referred to as Honduras mahogany, is still an excellent wood for today's woodworker to discover. The grain, which can grow in a straight, interlocked, or irregular pattern, offers some attractive surprises. Mahogany is a friendly wood to use in the shop. It cuts, planes, and turns with ease and resists shrinking and warping. Turners also claim that mahogany holds its shape better than many species. It is similar to cherry in weight and hardness, and its strength exceeds hard maple and oak.
Uses: Because of its premium value, mahogany is generally reserved for fine furniture applications today, but in past centuries this wood was used for shipbuilding because of its excellent resistance to decay. Woodworkers often use a clear finish on mahogany to preserve its characteristic reddish hue. While it polishes beautifully, resins in the wood have been known to react with glues and cause an undesirable staining effect.
Maple, Hard (Acer saccharum)Also known as sweet, rock, and black maple, this durable and abundant species was a popular choice among woodworkers during colonial days. True to form, many of their projects can now be found in antique shops, little worse for the wear and featuring the rich patina of age. Working with hard maple requires very sharp, well-tuned tools. Nothing beats a planed maple surface, and stain will take to it easily. When sanding maple, it is recommended to stop at 150 grit. Any finer sanding will polish the wood to a point where it won't accept stain very well, especially oil stains. Water-based aniline dye stains are the most effective colorants for maple. Hard maple parts may crack to relieve the stress of a tight joint. Due to the wood's hardness, it is all too easy to break a brass screw driven into a pilot hole. To reduce this, find a steel screw that matches the brass screw in size and thread count and drive it into the hole first (after dragging it over a block of beeswax). After withdrawing the steel screw, safely drive the brass screw into the threaded hole.
Uses: In addition to furniture, hard maple has been (and still is) used for farm equipment, shoe lasts, tool handles, and other items that needed to withstand a great deal of wear. It turns well, can be carved, and is a good choice for workbench tops, as it withstands impacts.
Maple, Soft (Acer rubrum)Like most families, the maples have their tougher, hardscrabble members (sugar and black), which are 25% to 40% harder than their mellower cousins. Soft maple trees grow faster than hard maples, making them easier to saw, shape, plane, and drill. Generally, soft maple is about as hard and as light as cherry. One feature common to all maples is their low resistance to decay, making them appropriate for indoor use only. The bluish-gray streaks commonly found on soft maple lumber (called spalting) occur when impurities enter the tree through wormholes or other injuries. The streaks don't affect the mechanical properties of the wood but do give it an unusual appearance. Curly figure also is common to soft maple and looks similar to that found on harder maples. Sometimes difficult to glue, it works well with resin adhesives like yellow and white glues, Resorcinol, and urea resin. For an economical wood with a light color that is as easy to work as cherry, soft maple is an attractive alternative worth exploring.
Uses: Popular for cabinets and furniture, soft maple also is fairly easy to carve, and its even, closed-grained texture holds small details and under-cuttings superbly. Since the grain of maple is subtle, it never dominates the details of the carving, and the wood can be polished to a lustrous shine, which is why it is favored by many carvers for their best sculptures.Back to Top
Oak, Red (Quercus rubra)Having an open grain, red oak accepts stains well, although nowadays more people are using clear finishes to preserve its natural color. Moving outdoors, however, where decay resistance is a concern, red oak is not a good choice. White oak is much better suited to facing the elements. To distinguish red oak from white, look for color, pore distribution, and the presence of tyloses, which is a bubblelike cell structure that fills the pores of white oak, giving it an ability to retain and keep out water. A magnifying lens will reveal that the pores of red oak are empty. While looking for tyloses, one may also note that red oak has larger but fewer pores than white oak. Of course, the most recognizable characteristic of red oak is its pinkish hue. For a fairly hard wood falling between sugar maple (harder) and walnut (softer), red oak machines quite easily, and hand tool enthusiasts appreciate how well it planes. Turners, however, report that red oak tends to tear on the lathe. It has excellent bonding properties, but its tannic acid content can cause unsightly black stains when iron clamps contact glue lines.
Uses: Red oak is legendary as a fine furniture wood. It also makes excellent flooring, paneling, and moldings, and is extensively used by the domestic kitchen cabinet industry as dimensional stock and as veneers on sheet stock, milled for casework.
Oak, White (Quercus alba)Whenever the old song "Roll Out the Barrel" is heard, white oak should come to mind. In days of old, most of those barrels were made from this sturdy species. That's because the pores of white oak are filled with tyloses, a substance that gives the wood watertight and water-resistance properties. The name refers to numerous species with similar characteristics, all of which are woods worth singing about, especially when considering their natural beauty and good working properties. Oak once had a reputation for dulling tools quickly, but modern power tools and machinery make it an easy wood to work today. Generally speaking, white oak offers somewhat less dimensional stability than red oak, but it is a relatively minor problem for both. Quartersawn white oak offers more stability than plain sawn lumber, a factor that played a huge part in its selection by Gustav Stickley for his Arts and Crafts furniture. However, quartersawn white oak is limited in availability and generally more expensive.
Uses: Beyond barrels, white oak is used extensively in fine furniture. Tannic acids, which protect the wood from insect and fungi attacks, make white oak a good choice for outdoor applications, too, where decay resistance is essential. Its hardness, strength, durability, and easy-to-finish nature have made it an enduring favorite of woodworkers.
Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera)Woodworkers have long looked to the tropics for exotic woods that add unique colors and textures to their work. However, today's concerns about rain forest resources have sparked an interest in finding unusual temperate-climate woods. Osage orange, a novel species with a bright yellowish-orange heartwood, is one of the finest examples of an exotic domestic, one that may actually grow in your own backyard. Osage orange was native to a small area of drought-ridden, windswept prairie in Texas and Arkansas. Today its range extends throughout much of the southern United States. Osage Indians, the wood's namesake, often carried hunting bows and clubs made from this species, which was an excellent choice given its outstanding bending strength and shock resistance. It is more than twice as hard as hard maple, offers better stability than black walnut, and weighs more than hickory and teak. Extreme hardness and density make the wood challenging to machine and glue, but sharp blades and epoxy resin overcome potential problems.
Uses: Like tropical exotics, Osage orange is often used for smaller projects and as an accent wood. It exceeds the bending strength and shock resistance of most other species. Settlers found its decay resistance was unequaled, especially as lumber for fence posts.Back to Top
Padauk (Pterocarpus dalbergioides)Native to Africa and the Andaman Islands, padauk is known as vermillion for its unique reddish-orange color. When exposed to sunlight, it develops a dark, reddish patina as it ages. For an exotic, padauk offers relatively good stability and machining properties, with an exceptionally low shrinkage rating. With a degree of hardness that falls between hard maple (softer) and hickory (harder), padauk saws, planes, turns, and machines well. The strength of this wood exceeds all commonly used domestic species. When the wood is machined or sanded, toxins are released into the air, possibly causing skin, eye, or breathing irritation to those in the shop. Padauk has oils that can inhibit the penetration of yellow and hide glues. Being somewhat coarse textured, padauk accepts finishes well and can be polished to a high luster. Most oils will darken the wood, changing it from orange to red. Ironically, staining padauk is usually the only way to maintain its distinctive orange color for years to come.
Uses: In the past, padauk was a favorite wood for boatbuilding, including structural elements, because of its superb decay resistance, luxurious appearance, and durability. Today, padauk is generally reserved for small projects and as an accent wood because of its high cost and also out of respect for rain forest preservation efforts.
Pine (Pinus familia)Christopher Columbus described the pines of the New World as "trees stretching to the stars with leaves that never shed." What a spectacular sight it must have been to see seemingly limitless forests reaching beyond the horizon. Being so plentiful, pine became one of the woods that early settlers depended on most for furniture and house building. A number of firms are now salvaging southern yellow pine from old buildings about to be razed. Beams, joists, and other timbers are milled into trim, moldings, flooring, and cabinet stock. Pines are softwoods, meaning they are coniferous trees. However, there are hard and soft subcategories. A few pines are actually harder than some deciduous trees. To distinguish hard pines from soft pines, look at their needle formations. On hard pines the needles are usually grouped two or three in a bunch, while soft pines have bundles of five.
Uses: Eastern white pine is one of the most widely used soft pines for carpentry and construction. Southern yellow is a term used to describe several hard pine species (shortleaf, slash, and loblolly) sharing similar characteristics. The wood from these species is relatively heavy, hard, strong, stiff, and shock resistant. Southern yellow pines shrink quite a bit while drying, but the wood is quite stable once it has been seasoned.
Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)Known by several names, including tulip poplar and yellow poplar, this staple of the modern wood shop is one of the least expensive and most readily available hardwoods. In fact, it's one of the few hardwoods carried by nearly every large home center (the other two being maple and red oak). Poplar trees grow very quickly, sporting tuliplike flowers in the spring, and when harvested dry easily by kiln or air-drying methods with very little shrinkage or warping. Among the lighter, softer hardwoods, poplar is straight-grained with a medium to fine texture and very few knots. It works extremely well with both machine and hand tools, glues well, and resists splitting when nailed or screwed. Poplar is light in color, with a slight yellow or greenish cast and occasional streaks of purple. Because of these color variations, and because it is extremely prone to blotching when colored with a pigment-based stain, poplar used for visible components is often painted. Durable and shock-resistant, poplar is highly stable.
Uses: Poplar is an excellent choice as a secondary wood for drawer boxes, cabinets, and furniture components, and for molding and millwork that will be painted. Because of its fine texture and lack of knots, it's also a favorite for carving, turning, and wood sculptures.
Purpleheart (Peltogyne paniculata)Native to Central and South America, this is a very strong, heavy wood without annual rings, rays, or grain. The color is usually a uniform purple, but some pieces have vivid white streaks. In the shop, there are four primary problems with purpleheart: splintering, its effect on tools, color changes, and toxicity. Purpleheart is a very hard, somewhat brittle wood. Going too fast when ripping or crosscutting will cause it to splinter. Routing the wood can also cause splintering. This usually occurs at the beginning or end of the cut. One way to prevent this is to butt two pieces of wood against the edges of the board you are routing, to provide a continuation of the cut. Purpleheart will change color for several reasons, including excessive heat. When pressure accrues on a spot while sanding or routing too slowly, it darkens, as though a deep purple ink had been spilled on it. After purpleheart is finished, it may turn a dark reddish brown from the ultraviolet rays in sunlight. A sealing finish like spar varnish or tung oil is a good choice, and purpleheart refinishes beautifully.
Uses: Used primarily as an accent in fine furniture and casework, purpleheart is quite beautiful and can remain that way, but it is definitely an indoor wood. A piece of this species that is exposed to the elements will, unfortunately, turn black.Back to Top
Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)Redwood is ideal for outdoor projects because its heartwood is naturally resistant to attack by decay-causing fungi and wood-destroying insects. This species grows only in the fog belt of extreme southwestern Oregon down into central California, along the coast. In most areas of the country it is not available at local home improvement centers but can be found or ordered at larger lumberyards. A mature redwood can grow to 325', with a trunk diameter of up to 15'. The heartwood varies in color from light cherry red to dark reddish brown. Sapwood is almost white or pale yellow. Redwood, like most softwoods, cuts easily, but one should always drill pilot holes before nailing or screwing. Redwood splinters easily, but this can be remedied by gluing the splinters in place before sanding, to prevent catching. Redwood is rated good for planing, turning, boring, mortising, and routing, although it is a good idea to make several passes with a router to reduce tear-out and splintering. Though it holds screws and nails poorly, its gluing characteristics have been rated excellent.
>Uses: Heart redwood is used extensively in construction as sill material where a frame construction meets its foundation. It is a popular wood for outdoor furniture, siding, fences, decks, porches, and other architectural elements that will be subjected to the vagaries of weather.
Rosewood (Dalbergia familia)The name rosewood applies to a group of trees spread over the world's tropical regions, each having its own characteristics and all of them rich in appearance. In the West, rosewood's popularity dates to the 1700s when affluent Europeans imported it to adorn their opulent homes. Beginning in the 1800s, some species were overharvested. Most notable was Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), a species that now is quite scarce and extremely expensive. Honduras rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii) has a lighter color than Brazilian and is the most commonly available species today. Due to hardness it is a difficult wood to machine. Another rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) comes with forenames like Indian, Indonesian, and East Indian. It is exceptionally hard, and the interlocking grain can cause tear-out when planing. This species has good bending qualities, takes finishes well, and offers excellent dimensional stability. Because of its oiliness, rosewood can be difficult to glue, making epoxy the best adhesive choice, and all species contain irritants that can cause allergic reactions.
Uses: Rosewood is generally reserved for small projects and special accents. Veneer is its most cost-effective use. High prices and limited availability have inspired man-made substitutes using common domestic veneers that are compressed and dyed to look like rosewood and machine and finish well.Back to Top
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)Due to limited growth, sassafras generally is not used in large volumes, especially by the furniture or cabinet industries. The largest stands today are in the southern states of Missouri and Arkansas. The wood is very similar to ash in grain appearance. It works more easily than ash but is not as strong. Sassafras is usually light yellow, tending toward reddish brown, but some trees yield a greenish- yellow color. It bears an aromatic herblike odor, which is substantially reduced in kiln drying. Some questions as to carcinogenic properties have been raised in recent years but not proven. As with all wood dust, protection is a good idea. Sassafras is priced in the same range as ash but more limited in availability. Traditionally, the wood was used in the manufacture of juvenile furniture, especially from 1880 through the 1920s. This was perhaps motivated by folklore that claimed the scent was a deterrent to childish nightmares. Since then the wood has been chiefly used as drawer siding in dressers. Sassafras is a great wood for chip carving and turning.
Uses: The roots and underlying bark of sassafras are used to distill oil that is used in flavoring candy, as a scent in soap, and for folk medicines. In some parts of the United States, tea made from sassafras bark and roots has been used as a substitute for imported tea for years.Back to Top
Walnut, Black (Juglans nigra)Some old, abandoned barns provide interesting surprises in the form of black walnut that has been hiding under years of weather-beaten exposure. Although hard to comprehend today, black walnut was commonly used for barn construction generations ago because of its exceptional decay resistance and abundant supply. Today the law of supply and demand has made black walnut one of the most expensive of all domestic species. The chocolaty brown color of this species brings a warm, comfortable look to any room, while its strength and durability ensure that assemblies are likely to last for generations. The hardness of black walnut falls between cherry (softer) and oak (harder). In the workshop, black walnut works quite easily with both power and hand tools, and its outstanding stability prevents woodworkers from getting bent out of shape with frustration. It planes, carves, and turns beautifully, with very infrequent tearing and ripping. While it has excellent gluing properties, allergies are common. The rich color is perfect for clear finishing, and it polishes beautifully.
Uses: Woodworkers are willing to pay a premium price for black walnut to complete their finest projects. Considering the price, it is generally reserved for fine indoor applications nowadays such as architectural millwork, cabinetry, and fine furniture.Back to Top
Yew (Taxus brevifolia)For centuries, the yew tree has symbolized life and death. Early Egyptians honored it as the tree of life, while the Greeks associated it with Hecate, queen of the underworld. In England, yews guard cemeteries as symbols of everlasting life, and researchers are finding that the bark of yew contains a substance that may prove effective in the fight against cancer. For woodworkers, yew is one of the most desirable softwoods. Its orange-brown coloring with reddish- brown bands makes a striking appearance. It is one of the hardest and densest softwoods, exceeding many hardwoods. The close grain stains fairly well and polishes to a highly lustrous sheen. Yews are cone-bearing evergreens, with deeply fluted trunks that contain many knots, reducing the amount of usable timber. Working with yew can be a little tricky, for irregularly grained pieces are difficult to plane and frequently tear. Because yew is so hard, preboring nail and screw holes is a must. In addition, yew's slightly oily character can cause occasional gluing difficulties.
Uses: Yew steam-bends well, making it a favorite choice for the hoop backs of Windsor chairs. Figured yew, with wavy grain that is dotted by little black knots, is highly prized by carvers and turners. It makes good outdoor furniture, exterior trim, and fences. Historically, yew was preferred for archery bows, because it is so elastic.Back to Top