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Types of Wood Guide

All woods are different, but these differences can range from very subtle to extremely obvious. Ensure your furniture features the right wood for your use.

 
 

Oftentimes, the kind of wood that makes up a piece of furniture is an afterthought to the customer, but it shouldn’t be. It’s important that you know what wood best suits your needs. Hardwood or softwood? Heavy or lightweight? What about the colouring? Dark, light or medium brown? Every type of wood has its own characteristics, differences, pros and cons, grain styling, and colour which distinguishes it.

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Hardwood vs. Softwood

Wood can be easily broken down into two key categories: hardwood and softwood. But don’t let the names fool you, not all hardwoods are "hard" and not all softwoods are "soft". The definitions actually have more to do with what grows on the trees than anything else: hardwoods are flowering trees (with leaves); softwoods are coniferous or evergreen trees (with needles). Although most hardwoods are harder than most softwoods, there are exceptions. In very general terms, hardwoods are usually more expensive than softwoods due to availability. Hardwoods tend to be stronger and more stable, whereas softwoods are ideal for wood carvings as they are able to handle intricate designs.

Types of Wood

Below is some basic information about the more popular woods used in furniture making. The majority of the furniture you will look at will be made of at least one of the woods listed.

Ash

Ash is a hardwood that is popular due to its ability to be bent for furniture-making. It's strong and tough and its colours can range from light to dark. It’s also less expensive that some other hardwoods.

Beech

Beech is another hardwood that is used for bends. It isn’t used as frequently as ash however, because it's not as pleasing on the eyes. Due to this reason, it is often used in pieces of furniture but in hidden places, so it may be used as the frame of some fabric-covered pieces. It is a tough, strong, inexpensive wood that is usually pale in colour.

Birch

Birch is a common hardwood that is light-brown with a yellowish tinge. It’s a moderately expensive wood that is used in almost all types of furniture (from cabinets to flooring to doors) due to the fact that it is strong, hard and heavy. It also features a striking grain pattern that many people like.

Cedar

Cedar is a very popular, lightweight softwood. Due to its distinct and pleasant aroma, cedar is often used for chests and cabinets. It’s renowned for its moth-repelling properties and has red-tinged medium- to dark-wood colour and a pleasing grain. It’s also resistant to decay and is moderately-priced. Ensure you keep the inside of your piece unfinished in order to reap the full insect-repelling benefits of the wood. You may also find chests or other pieces made of less-expensive woods that have a cedar lining in order to take advantage of the pleasing smell and other aspects. Cedar is high in beauty and durability.

Cherry

Cherry is a very valuable and expensive hardwood used in the making of fine furniture. It is another of the woods that’s often used merely as a veneer over less-expensive woods. As the name suggests, the wood has a slight reddish tinge. Given the makeup of the grain, cherry wood is resistant to warping.

Elm

Elm is another hardwood lauded for its bendability and is expensive due to its often rarity. It’s used in both indoor and outdoor furniture for any number of pieces and can range from light to dark brown.

Fir

Fir is a very versatile wood used in almost all types of furniture creation. It is brown and slightly golden in colour with distinct patterns that can be accentuated with the right type of stain.

Hickory

Hickory is a hardwood that is extremely hard and durable. The colouring is brown, sometimes with a slight reddish tinge. It is moderately-priced and is sometimes used as a veneer. Pieces made of hickory are very heavy and tough.

Mahogany

Mahogany is a very expensive hardwood used in most fine furniture (like cabinetry), many veneers and even in boat making. The colour varies from medium to dark- browns with red inlays and features lovely, distinct grain patterns that are ideal for all types of furniture. It’s a strong, durable wood that resists warping and shrinking.

Maple

Maple is a strong, dense, heavy hardwood with many uses – furniture, flooring, even bowling alleys. It’s an expensive wood that is light brown in colour.

Oak

Oak is also a strong, durable hardwood that is vastly abundant and features many uses, from furniture to veneers and flooring to cabinets, and even boat making and fence posts. Oak is a dull-brown colour, sometimes with a reddish tinge and an eye-catching, attractive grain pattern. It is a very popular wood due to its moderate price, bending abilities, durability and hardness.

Pine

Pine is an inexpensive, strong softwood that is light, almost creamy in colour. It provides straight, close grains and you’ll notice it’s quite “knotty”, which can add an air of warmth in some pieces. It’s commonly used for many types of furniture, such as cabinets, or in house construction (moulding, doors, paneling), and even for making wooden boxes.

Poplar

Poplar is a softer hardwood. Its primary use is in inexpensive furniture, or in combination with more expensive woods. It’s a lightweight wood that has a yellowish-brown colour with a green hue. It takes stain very well and the grain is non-descript. Look for it in children's playgrounds and also in cabinets, panelling/siding and mouldings.

Redwood

Redwood is a lightweight, moderately hard softwood that resists both decay and insects. As a result, it’s often used for outdoor furniture, fences and siding. The price is variable.

Rosewood

Rosewood is prized, expensive hardwood. It features dramatic colouring - dark browns with rich black and red streaks. Rosewood has many, far-reaching uses, such as veneer, musical instruments, art and furniture.

Teak

Teak is a durable and expensive hardwood used in furniture, veneers, doors and flooring. The colour varies, from golden brown to dark brown. It is moisture-resistant and holds up against cracking, warping and even decay.

Walnut

Walnut is a very expensive, strong hardwood used in furniture, veneers and paneling. It has a deep brown colour, often with dark streaks running throughout. Its grain is attractive and distinctive.

Other Wood Products

In addition to furniture pieces made exclusively of wood, there are a number of manufactured wood products that are available. It’s important not to disregard these products because quite often they are top-quality pieces - well-manufactured and pleasing to the eye. Also, with the right veneers, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between real wood and manufactured wood products. And some manufactured woods are even stronger than true wood.

MDF

MDF stands for “Medium Density Fibreboard” and is made from hardwood and softwood fibres that have been broken down and bonded together with resin, glue and/or wax. It is then compressed at a high temperature to form the sheets, thus creating a product that is stronger and denser than regular wood, plywood and particle board. It’s also very heavy. It’s an easy product to work with because it cuts, sands and finishes very easily. It’s often used for cupboards and shelving.

Particle Board/Chipboard

Particle Board (or chipboard as it is sometimes called) is a cheaper, hard composite material made from wood chips, sawmill shavings or even saw dust that are pressed together using synthetic resin or glue. The process to make it is very similar to MDF but it’s made from actual wood chips. It’s widely used for kitchen furniture and also as low-cost flooring. Veneers are often used on particle board to give it the appearance of real wood.

Plywood

Plywood is a type of manufactured wood board consisting of layers of wood veneer glued and pressed together. In order to increase strength, the direction of the grains alternate and there is usually an odd number of layers. It’s strong, but at the same time flexible and is often used in the building industry due to its strength, resistance to cracking, shrinkage, twisting or warping.

Veneer

A wood veneer is a thin decorative layer of nice-looking wood applied to less-expensive wood or other material, like plywood or particle board. Veneer is usually thinner than 3mm and is applied with glue. It’s taken from trees in one of two ways, via “peeling” a tree trunk or thinly slicing large rectangular blocks called “flitches”. Veneers are a great way to provide an attractive finish to what may be unattractive woods.