A Few of the Most Popular Woodworking Woods

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Alnus spp.
Type: Hardwood  Origin: North America
Weight:2.75  Cost: Inexpensive
Color: Light brown, fine grain, even texture.
Common Uses: Interior cabinetwork and joinery, plywood, kitchen utensils.
Working Properties: Moderate hardness, easily worked.  Glues and finishes well.  Can be stained to look like cherry.

Alder used to be considered a weed tree, but it has been gaining respect in recent years as a useful substitute for cherry, and as a hardwood suitable for furniture and millwork.

Ash, White

Fraxinus americana
Type: Hardwood Origin: Canada & U.S.A.
Weight: 3.50 Cost: Inexpensive to Moderate
Color: Light brown to white, coarse grained
Uses: Baseball bats, oars, tool handles, furniture, and veneers.
Working properties: Excellent bending properties, moderately hard, accepts finishes well.  Easily stained to look like oak.

White ash is the classic American sporting wood.  This tough, shock resistant wood has been used for everything from snowshoes to tennis rackets, and is still in widespread use in baseball bats and hockey sticks.


Taxodium distichum
Type: Softwood Origin: Southeastern U.S.
Weight: 2.63 Cost: Moderate
Color: Yellow brown to dark brown, moderately fine grained, oily texture.
Uses: Chemical vats and tanks, boat building, outdoor furniture.
Working properties: Fairly easily worked, the wood's oiliness should be taken into account when gluing and finishing. Old growth cypress is particularly decay resistant.

Though not related to true cypress (Cupressus spp.), baldcypress is a very durable softwood for projects that must stand up to exposure outdoors.


Ochroma pyramidale
Type: Hardwood Origin: Central and South America
Weight: 0.92 Cost: Moderate
Color: White to light brown, moderately coarse texture, soft feel.
Uses: Model airplanes, water sports equipment, theatrical props.
Working properties: Lousy bending properties, fuzzes unless cutters are quite sharp, will not hold nails well, due to low density. Absorbs a great deal of finish.

The lightest commercially useful wood, balsa is used for model making, filler in flotation devices, and other applications where its unusually low density can be useful.  This wood is generally considered too soft for use in furniture or carving, and is perishable outdoors.

Basswood, American

Tilia americana
Type: Hardwood Origin: Eastern Canada and U.S.A.
Weight: 2.17 Cost: Inexpensive to Moderate
Color: Creamy white, fine texture, slight musty smell.
Uses: Carving, toys, crates and boxes, pattern making.
Working properties: Easily worked, slight dulling of cutters, does not bend well, takes finishes moderately well, but may blotch when stained.

Basswood, known in the U.K. as limewood, comes from the linden tree.  It is often considered the best wood for carving, as it posesses the best balance of soft, even grain and just enough hardness to hold details.

Beech, American

Fagus grandifolia
Type: Hardwood Origin: Eastern U.S. and Canada
Weight: 3.83 Cost: Moderate
Color: Medium reddish brown, prominent rays, fine texture.
Uses: Tool handles, cabinets, bentwood furniture, mallets.
Working properties: Fairly hard wood, but excellent bending properties, accepts finish well. May be difficult to stain, much like maple.  Rather high tendency to warp during drying, but fairly stable in use. Also, see toxicity report.

Beech might be considered the "invisible" wood.  It finds very widespread use in barrels, turned spindles, millwork, flooring, and tool handles, but it gets very little glory the way oak, maple and cherry do.  Beech looks great with a clear finish, but it can also be stained to mimic cherry.

Birch, Paper

Betula papyrifera
Type: Hardwood Origin: U.S. and Canada
Weight: 2.86 Cost: Inexpensive to Moderate
Color: Light brown, with wide creamy white sapwood, fine texture.
Uses: Small turnings, dowels, toothpicks, plywood, and veneers.
Working properties: A fairly hard wood, quite stiff, strong, and stable. Accepts finishes well.  A close substitute for maple, and can also be stained to resemble cherry.

Birch is another very widely used, but little respected wood.  It is best known as the stuff of tongue depressors and popsicle sticks, but it is very widely used for veneers, turned spindles, millwork, furniture, flooring, dowels, and so on.

Bloodwood / Satine

Brosmium paraense
Type: Hardwood Origin: South America
Weight: 5.25 Cost: Somewhat Expensive
Color: Crimson to orange red.  Its color is more lightfast than padauk or redheart.
Uses: Furniture, turnings, inlays.
Working Properties: Very hard, and slightly oily, but usually machines well if cutters are kept clean and sharp. Very stable in use.

This wood is rock hard, and good samples are blood red and hold their color well.  These features make it a favorite for such uses as decorative feet, knobs, and inlays in fine furniture and accessories.


Cordia spp.
Type: Hardwood Origin: Central America
Weight: 4.00 Cost: Somewhat Expensive to Expensive
Color: Brown to yellow with black markings, moderately fine grained.
Uses: Veneers and inlays, fine furniture and turnings.
Working properties: Hard wood, dulls tools somewhat, but finishes well.

One of many rosewood-like species from Central America, bocote has the peculiar property of smelling like dill pickles when cut.


Guibortia demeusei
Type: Hardwood  Origin: Central Africa
Weight: 4.58  Cost: Somewhat Expensive to Expensive
Color: Golden reddish brown with darker, often purplish stripes.
Common Uses: Knife handles, decroative veneers - often called kevasingo.
Working Properties: Works fairly readily for an exotic wood. Wood may have gum pockets which make gluing more difficult.

Bubinga is a massive tree which frequently develops beautiful figuring such as ribbon stripe, beeswing, quilting, and waterfall patterns.  Used as a rosewood substitute, but quite a valuable timber species in its own right.

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Understanding Wood; A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology, R. Bruce Hoadley, Taunton Press, 1980

Time Life Books - The Art of Woodworking Series - Encyclopedia of Wood, St. Remy Press, 1993

All photos © David Tilson