A Few of the Most Popular Woodworking Woods

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Centrolobium oroincense
Type: Hardwood Origin:
Weight: 4.42 Cost: Somewhat Expensive
Color: Light yellow brown with reddish to dark red and brown streaks
Uses: Furniture, turnings, veneers, musical instruments.
Working properties: Good bending properties, fairly easily worked, takes finish well. Frequently has pitch defects. Good decay resistance and stability.

Cherry, Black

Prunus serotina
Type: Hardwood Origin: U.S. and Canada
Weight: 3.00 Cost: Moderate
Color: Light reddish brown to deep reddish, deepening with age, fine texture.
Uses: Furniture, turnings, veneers, musical instruments.
Working properties: Good bending properties, fairly easily worked, takes finish fairly well. Frequently has pitch defects. Good decay resistance and stability.  Has an annoying tendency to blotch when staining, due to variations in the porosity of the wood surface, as well as to pitch pockets.  Popular for ebonizing, due to ebony-like grain texture.

Cherry is one of the great classic hardwoods for fine furniture construction.  Its pale pinkish heartwood darkens with age and exposure to a rich reddish brown, and its often irregular grain highlights its fine, lustrous sheen.


Dalbergia retusa
Type: Hardwood Origin: Western Central America
Weight: 5.67 Cost: Expensive
Color: Dark reddish and yellow hues with fine black markings, fine grained.
Uses: Veneers and inlays, turnings, knife handles.
Working properties: Very hard wood, dulls cutters, difficult to glue, but takes most finishes well.  Also, see toxicity report.

Cocobolo is a variety of rosewood that is readily available and somewhat affordable these days due in large part to its hardness and density.  It appears that Central American loggers had to wait to cut these trees until carbide toothed tools and heavy-lifting logging equipment were invented!  It is highly prized today for its rich coloring, its hardness and ability to take a high polish.

Douglas Fir

Pseudotsuga menziesii
Type: Softwood Origin: Canada, Western U.S., and Europe
Weight: 2.75 Cost: Inexpensive
Color: Medium reddish brown, moderately coarse grained.
Uses: Plywood, construction, some furniture and flooring.
Working properties: Extreme difference between the hardness of the earlywood and latewood make douglas fir difficult to carve, but it machines well, and takes finishes fairly well.  The irregulatrtexture of the growth rings causes stains to blotch if not pre-treated.

The most common West-coast construction timber, higher grades of Doug fir also find use in furniture and interior millwork.  Advanced staining techniques such as wash coat, then dye, then sealer, and glaze can yield remarkably even staining on this otherwise uncooperative wood.


Diospyros spp.
Type: Hardwood Origin: India and Africa
Weight: 5.42 Cost: Very Expensive
Color: Jet black to very dark brown with black streaks, fairly fine texture.
Uses: Turnings, veneers and inlays, musical instruments, piano keys, etc.
Working properties: Difficult to work due to density and brittleness, blunts cutters, but accepts finishes well. Extremely decay resistant.  Also, see toxicity report.

The classic black wood, ebony is becoming increasingly scarce.  Try African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), or synthetic substitutes such as Ebon-X or ebonized cherry as a substitute.

Ebony, Macassar

Diospyros spp.
Type: Hardwood Origin: India
Weight: 4.17 Cost: Expensive to Very Expensive
Color: Dark brown with black streaks, moderately fine texture.
Uses: Turnings, veneers, furniture.
Working properties: Very hard and somewhat brittle, tending to splinter.  Finishes very well. Also, see toxicity report.

A less-black version of ebony, derived from a different, but closely related species of trees.  There are also related species and figures known as dot ebony, black & white ebony, and brown ebony.

Hickory / Pecan

Carya Spp.
Type: Hardwood Origin: USA
Weight: 3.43 Cost: Moderate
Color: White, with light brown heartwood.  Looks very similar to ash, but hickory's pores are slightly yellowish, and it is denser.
Uses: Flooring, tool handles, furniture, barbecue fuel.
Working properties: A very tough wood, but machines easily with power tools.  Glues and finishes well.

One of the stiffest native hardwoods; until steel and carbon fiber took over, hickory was the wood of choice for golf club shafts.  It still has its proponents, who feel that steel's stiffness (or, rather, lack of springiness) is both a technical disadvantage and a hindrance to the development of a skillful, well developed swing (kind of like bowling on the lane with the kiddie-rails).


Dalbergia cearensis
Type: Hardwood Origin: Brazil
Weight: 6.04 Cost: Very Expensive
Color: Brown to yellowish with black to purplish black markings.
Uses: Veneers and inlays, turnings, fine furniture.
Working properties: Fairly hard, but works and takes finish well, wax finishes work particularly well. Extremely decay resistant. Also, see toxicity report.

Another of the rosewood family, kingwood is aptly named, as anyone working extensively with it will quickly find their hands stained royal purple.

Lacewood (Australian & Brazilian)

Grevillea robusta & Cardwellia sublimis
Type: Hardwood Origin: Grevillea comes from Australia, while Cardwellia comes from Brazil
Weight: 2.83 Cost: Moderate to Somewhat Expensive
Color: Medium brown with very prominent rays, moderately coarse texture.
Uses: Veneers, turnings, fine furniture.
Working properties: Fairly readily worked, but rays on quartersawn surfaces may tend to separate during milling or sanding. Takes finishes well.  Also, see toxicity report.

Called lacewood for the lace-like pattern the medullary rays produce on quartersawn faces, lacewood primarily finds use as a decorative wood or veneer.

Lauan (a.k.a. Philippine Mahogany, Shorea, Meranti)

Shorea spp.
Type: Hardwood Origin: Philippines
Weight: 2.39 Cost: Inexpensive
Color: Silvery white to light tan, with high luster, coarse grained.
Uses: Plywoods and veneers, inexpensive furniture.
Working properties: Easily worked and carved, though slightly soft, and may tend to fuzz if tools are not sharp. Takes finish well.

Philippine mahogany is not a true mahogany, and does not posess the durability or hardness of the real thing.  It is, however, the wood of choice for Chris-Craft boats.

Mahogany, African (a.k.a. Khaya Mahogany)

Khaya ivorensis
Type: Hardwood Origin: Africa
Weight: 2.92 Cost: Moderate
Color: Reddish brown, coarse texture.
Uses: Veneers and plywood, cabinets, boat building, furniture.
Working properties: Does not bend well, may fuzz when milling, takes finishes very well.

A true mahogany, African mahogany is slightly coarser-grained than the American varieties, and it does not posess their highly lustrous grain.  Nevertheless, it is a durable and beautiful wood.

Mahogany, Honduran (a.k.a. Central American Mahogany)

Swietenia macrophylla
Type: Hardwood Origin: Central America
Weight: 3.08 Cost: Moderate
Color: Dark medium brown to reddish brown, coarse grained.
Uses: Pianos, fine furniture, veneers, paneling, carving.
Working properties: Works easily with sharp tools, moderate bending properties and decay resistance. Takes all finishes very well

Harvesting of the Central American mahoganies has slowed in recent years due to a diminishing supply, but this beautiful, lustrous, durable, relatively easily-worked wood is still available to those who seek it out.

Maple, Hard (a.k.a. Sugar Maple, Rock Maple)

Acer saccharum
Type: Hardwood Origin: U.S. and Canada
Weight: 3.50 Cost: Moderate
Color: Creamy white to light reddish brown, very fine grained.
Uses: Turning, flooring, furniture, butcher blocks and counter tops, musical instruments, plywood,
veneers, and much more.
Working properties: Not easily worked with hand tools, dulls cutters somewhat, but has good bending properties, and takes finishes well.  If sanded with too fine a grit, or burnished with dull sandpaper, maple may not accept stains very well.  This can be easily avoided by using dyes instead of stains on maple, especially if a dark color is required.

Maple is one of the more broadly-figured woods, coming in grain patterns and figures that include wavy, curly (or fiddleback, or tiger), blistered, quilted, birdseye, burled, spalted, ambrosia spalted, pith flecked, and, of course, straight  grain; including comb grain and cathedral or landscape figure.

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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