I prefer to work with species that are native to North America, but I do often get requests to work with imported and exotic species. As long as a wood can be sustainably grown and harvested, I’m willing to experiment with just about anything. Below are the woods I use the most.
A beautiful tree, with mythological significance in many Northern cultures, Ash is a very tough and resilient wood, making it perfect for long bows and tool handles. The grain is open and porous, rather like Oak, but I find it finishes much better. Its strength and flexibility make it ideal for many types of furniture. Once very common, harvestable populations are becoming rarer, driving prices up.
Fraxinus, the genus which includes Ash, sports many varieties of ornamental trees and shrubs – they’re even related to lilacs and olives (thanks, Wikipedia). For woodworking purposes, the most common you’ll run across is English Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), White Ash (Fraxinus americana), and Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra). You might happen across Olive Ash if you’re lucky, and this isn’t a separate species of Ash, but a description denoting dark streaking or burl in any Ash species heartwood. Ash is widely dispersed throughout much of Europe, Asia, and North America, but because of threats like the emerald ash borer and the Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (a type of fungus), entire populations of Ash have been lost or are endangered.
Baltic Birch isn’t a specific species of Birch, but rather a plywood made from very thin layers of Birch wood. It’s generally considered to be some of the best plywood around, and I prefer to use the Finnish variety, which has a very low instance of gaps and voids, and very high quality front and back faces. Baltic Birch is excellent for structural pieces where stability and strength are important, such as drawer boxes, cabinet gables and shelves, and slab doors – anywhere that expansion, warping, and twisting is a risk. The alternating banding along the exposed edges can be a distinctive design feature if planned well.
The famous colour and smell of Cedar makes it a popular choice for many projects. I also really enjoy how soft and easily carved the wood is – and when it’s woodburned, the smell is amazing! If left unfinished, the smell can easily infuse any room, and when it fades, there are cedar oil products that can continually reinvigorate the scent to keep it going.
Aromatic Red Cedar, or Eastern Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is usually the tree people think of when they think of Cedar. However, there are a couple of other red cedars, and a score of white cedars, most of which have only a small fraction of the olfactory-pleasing power of Aromatic Red. White cedars lack the dramatic red flames and streaks, but the wood is just as easy to work, and both are generally available in smaller quantities, as clear boards are very difficult to find.
Once very popular, use of Cherry has dropped off quite a bit recently. I still love it for its beautiful colours – a mix of pinkish brown heartwood and creamy sapwood – and excellent handling. The grain forms waves, flames, and spots easily, giving Cherry a distinctive look that lends itself to furniture and carved pieces. It’s one of the unusual woods that darkens dramatically with age, so I find that pieces made of Cherry mature through time, adding an extra dimension to the work. The ways in which Cherry can accent and compliment other woods is limitless.
Prunus serotina is our native Cherry species. It is comparable in price to Walnut, and often less expensive, so it’s always a good wood to stock up on and have on hand.
Maple is a great all-around hardwood. It’s resilient enough to hold up in furniture and strong enough to provide excellent structural support. Its tight, smooth grain texture makes it a beautiful choice for any finish, including woodburning – and the sugars present in the wood make it smell like caramel! Maple often presents as Curly, especially when Quartersawn. I personally enjoy using Maple because it’s a Northern tree (only one species of Maple grows in the Southern hemisphere) and has cultural significance in the area I grew up in, as well as where I live now!
Maple is most often sold as Hard Maple and Soft Maple, and they can be hard to distinguish unless they’re labeled on the rack. Hard Maple is usually harvested from Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) trees, and is more consistently pale, with clear planks, and straighter grain. Soft Maple tends to display a wider range of colour, ranging from pale to rosy, and sometimes green or brown.
Through the ages, Oak has been a sturdy, reliable wood for furniture and cabinetry, and it continues to be very popular – especially with Boomers. Because of its highly porous nature, it is often used in veneer form now when flat panels are required, but it is still an excellent material for traditional steam bending, tool handles, and solid furniture. I don’t recommend it for carving or detail work, because the large pores make keeping a smooth surface impossible, but I do like the distinctive texture of finished Oak. It also takes stains and oils very well.
Oak is distributed throughout the Northern and Eastern United States and Southern Canada, is easy to get, and is usually in the middle of the road as far as pricing. White Oak (Quercus alba) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) are often used interchangeably, though White Oak can be a more consistent tan colour, while Red Oak can be more pink. White Oak costs slightly more, though honestly, the colour variation within both species can range through the extremes of each, so it pays to choose boards in person if you want everything to match.
Pine is a softwood – a collection of trees from the Conifers, which do not lose their leaves seasonally, like Deciduous trees (the hardwoods). It is often used in structural carpentry, for support where looks aren’t a consideration. Pine’s fast growth rate and straight growth habit make it an ideal option for a wide variety of building projects. Clear Pine is a board with very few knots, and is most often used for furniture, but I prefer Knotty Pine, which is – as the name suggests – full of knots! I enjoy the personality and unique patterns of Knotty Pine.
The genus Pinus contains over 126 species, and most Pine boards for sale will not specify which tree they’re from. Sometimes Fir trees are included as Pine. Pine is readily available almost anywhere. It is excellent when finished with oils, stains, or lacquers, but painting it can be tricky, as the resins in the wood will slowly work their way through the paint, discolouring it. This is especially true for wood with knots in it and also for lighter paint colours.
Poplar is often used in woodworking when a painted finish is going to be applied to visible surfaces, or for interior supports that won’t ever see the light of day. Its low cost made it the ideal practice wood when I was in school, and it continues to be an industry staple. The wood is very soft, and in fact there are a lot of softwoods that are harder by comparison, but it easy to use for almost anything, including shaping and carving. Colours range from creamy white to pale yellow with grey or brown veining, often with green streaks. Every once in a while, I run across a board that is streaked with brilliant rainbow colours – a result of the tree having taken up minerals while it was growing – and these are my favourite to feature prominently in a special project. The greens that are so common in this wood are also beautiful when featured, and I enjoy using Poplar where it can be seen, rather than hiding it away.
With a wide distribution throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, and relatively quick growth, Poplar is easy to source and one of the cheapest hardwoods. Most commonly, Liriodendron tulipifera is the species referred to as Poplar.
Wood Veneer is a thin sheet of wood that’s glued to a solid base, which is usually particle board, MDF, or plywood. Using solid wood for all aspects of a piece of furniture limits what you can do to an extent. Wood expands and contracts with temperature and humidity, and there is no way to stop this, so furniture must be made to accommodate these constant size changes. Taking a thin slice of wood and applying it to a stable base, like particle board for instance, reduces the expansion/contraction of the wood immensely. Flat panels and doors cease to warp, and less bulky joinery can be used to beautiful effect.
Veneers also allow very expensive or rare woods to be used more efficiently and affordably. A solid piece of Mahogany would be expensive, but a Mahogany Veneer could be used to cover more area and make a piece more affordable. Cutting sheets of Veneer from the same log can also guarantee the same colour, texture, and grain pattern throughout a large project.
Black Walnut is one of the most popular hardwoods I work with. The rich, chocolate brown colour of the heartwood is distinctive and incredibly beautiful. The grain tends to be very straight, and the wood is durable and dense … all things that have contributed to its popularity and higher price. I enjoy making tables, cabinets, and sculpted pieces with this wood because of its excellent strength, and the way it responds to carving blades. The lighter, beige to tan sapwood also makes this wood an excellent choice for live edge projects.
Also called Eastern Black Walnut, and by its scientific name Juglans nigra, Black Walnut grows throughout eastern North America – from southern Ontario, west to southeast South Dakota, south to Georgia, northern Florida and southwest to central Texas. It is readily available through most specialty lumber suppliers.
Juglans regia, or the Persian Walnut, English Walnut, Circassian Walnut, or Common Walnut, is related to the Black Walnut discussed above, but grows native throughout Europe and China. It is often found through the same suppliers as its New World cousin – or in place of it. As an import, it can be just as expensive as Black Walnut, but with wide cultivation throughout the world, including the Americas, it is quite often cheaper.
Though colour variations within the two species can make identifying them difficult once they’re milled, I find English Walnut to be lighter in general, with less of a dark chocolate colour and more within the golden brown range. The wood is still sturdy and straight-grained, with the lustre Walnuts are known for, and are still a great option for furniture of all sorts.
Willow wood is one of my favourites to work with. The colours of Willow range from golden to reddish browns, interspersed with tan to cream sapwood bands. The fibrous nature of Willow can lead it to resemble animal fur in look, and I find that the range of colour within even a single board adds endless dimension to boxes, table top borders, and small panels. Willow is fairly cheap, so you can often see it stained or dyed to resemble Walnut, but it is a much softer wood, making it unsuitable for projects that require Walnut’s strength and durability.
There are around 400 species within the genus Salix, to which Willows belong. They range throughout the Northern Hemisphere, but suppliers of quality material seem to be rare for some reason.