A Few of the Most Popular Woodworking Woods

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Oak, Northern Red

Quercus rubra
Type: Hardwood Origin: Eastern U.S. and Canada
Weight: 3.33 Cost: Inexpensive to Moderate
Color: medium brown, usually pinkish, moderately coarse grained.
Uses: Furniture, flooring, plywood, and veneers.
Working properties: Somewhat hard, but easily worked with power tools, bends well, finishes and accepts stain well.

Not as water-tight as white oak, red oak has become favored for interior millwork and cabinets due to its lower cost.

Oak, White

Quercus alba
Type: Hardwood Origin: U.S. and Canada
Weight: 3.92 Cost: Moderate
Color: Medium brown to light yellowish tan, moderately coarse textured.
Uses: Barrels, flooring, furniture, paneling, plywood and veneers, cabinets, and boat building.
Working properties: Good bending properties, typical workability for a hard wood, takes finish and stain well. Good decay resistance.  Quartersawn figure is best highlighted by dyes rather than stains.

The material of choice for barrels, boats, and Arts & Crafts "tiger oak" furniture, white oak reserves were a major source of every western nation's international influence and trading ability from Roman times until the advent of steam.

Padauk, African

Pterocarpus soyauxii
Type: Hardwood Origin: West Africa
Weight: 3.75 Cost: Moderate to Somewhat Expensive
Color: Bright orange red, sometimes darker, with dark streaks, fading to reddish brown on exposure to light. Somewhat coarse textured.
Uses: Furniture, veneers and inlays, and turnings.
Working properties: Fairly good, sometimes slightly brittle, takes finish well. Extremely decay resistant.

Pine, Eastern White

Pinus strobus
Type: Softwood Origin: Eastern U.S. and Canada
Weight: 2.33 Cost: Inexpensive
Color: Light brown or reddish brown, even grained.
Uses: Furniture, boat building, plywood and veneers, carving, and construction.
Working properties: Easily worked, does not bend well, rather soft, takes finish and stain well, but may need a stain controller for even staining. Quite stable.

New England's massive stands of tall, straight white pines were a major reason for the interest of the English crown in North America.  At the time, England had been importing many of her masts from abroad, which would have led to major problems with supporting a navy in the event of war.  Today, white pine is a favored wood for all sorts of carving and millwork.

Pine, Southern Yellow

Pinus spp.
Type: Softwood Origin: Southeastern U.S.
Weight: 2.83 Cost: Inexpensive
Color: Reddish to yellowish light brown, moderately uneven grained.
Uses: Plywood and veneers, construction, furniture, paneling.
Working properties: Gums up power tools, needs a wash coat of shellac before finishing to prevent pitch from seeping through the finish.  Glues well, stains and finishes fairly well with pre-treatment.

Poplar, Yellow

Liriodendron tulipifera
Type: Hardwood Origin: U.S.A.
Weight: 2.71 Cost: Inexpensive
Color: Light yellowish green, sometimes with purple stain, and wide creamy white sapwood, fine even texture.
Uses: Plywood, carving, furniture, cabinets, and musical instruments.
Working properties: Very easily worked with sharp tools, accepts finishes well, and stains well if a stain controller is used. Quite stable.  May be stained to resemble a dark cherry.

Poplar is a go-to wood for secondary parts in furniture; it machines very easily, glues very well, takes paint very well, and costs little.


Peltogyne spp.
Type: Hardwood Origin: Brazil
Weight: 4.50 Cost: Moderate
Color: Dark purplish brown when fresh cut, changing to brilliant purple on exposure, moderately coarse texture.
Uses: Veneers and inlays, indoor and outdoor furniture, tool handles.
Working properties: Very hard, somewhat brittle, but works well with sharp power tools, finishes best with lacquer. Extremely decay resistant. Fading of the natural bright purple color can be drastically slowed by treating the wood with a UV inhibiting finish, or by applying suntan lotion to the wood before coating with an oil finish (no kidding!). Also, see toxicity report.

Very few woods are naturally purple, and fewer still stay that color for long upon exposure.  Aside from its vivid color, purpleheart is distinguished for its durability, both indoors and out; it could be considered the white oak of Brazil.

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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