There’s nothing better than eating breakfast while sitting at a dining room table you built yourself. But before you get to experience that idyllic feeling, you have to put in the effort to make the furniture. As you might imagine, that kind of work doesn’t start in the woodshop. Instead, you have to begin by choosing the best type of wood for the furniture pieces you want to create.
Ultimately, you can use pretty much any kind of wood to bring your ideas to life. However, you should know the features of the wood you’re working with before you utilize it. Choosing the wrong wood for the project you’re working on can result in pieces that age unpredictably or even lose their shape. So, before you start building that wardrobe, consider the following questions:
- Where is the wood originally from? Is it easily accessible? Is it expensive? Now, the cost isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker but it can affect the project.
- What’s the quality of the wood? Has it been properly prepared for woodworking?
- How dense is the grain of the wood? Are the planks too hard to easily manipulate, or too soft to hold their shape?
- What kinds of finishes will you be able to apply to the wood? Can you stain it or paint it?
However, when it comes right down to it, most of your choices will be lead by the softness, or rather hardness of the wood. So before we go any further, let’s talk about how working with softwood differs from using hardwood.
Softwood vs. Hardwood
Believe it or not, some softwood and hardwood can have similar density and hardness. So the terminology can be a bit confusing. In fact, those terms merely point to the kind of trees the wood came from.
Softwood generally comes from evergreen trees like pine, spruce, cedar, juniper, or redwood. These trees usually grow tall and straight, making them ideal for larger projects. They’re often less dense than hardwood, though there are exceptions to the rule.
Furthermore, softwood is usually light in color as well as in weight, which makes them less expensive overall. These kinds of trees don’t usually have vessels, so they’re non-porous.
On the other hand, we have hardwood, which comes from flowering trees like maple or oak. Generally, hardwood is denser and heavier than softwood. It also has a more complicated texture — it has close grain, but it usually also feels pretty rough to the touch. Most hardwood is also porous, to the point that some of it can’t even float.
Overall, softwood is better for most kinds of furniture because it’s easier to manipulate. However, you can still use hardwood to make all sorts of stuff or even for detail work on softwood pieces. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s break down some of the best softwood and hardwood you can use to make furniture.
Top 12 Best Kinds of Wood for Making Furniture
As promised, the following list will lay out the most important features of the different kinds of wood you’ll most likely use to create furniture. To begin with, let’s see what softwood has to offer before we move on to hardwood.
Different kinds of pine are found all across the Northern Hemisphere — though some grow in countries like Brazil, which hardly qualifies as Northern. Due to its general availability, pine is relatively cheap to acquire.
Wood that comes from these trees is usually pale, ranging from white to light brown shades with a yellow or red undertone. Pine planks are usually knotty and rustic-looking, resulting in wonderfully charming pieces. Basically, pine is the wood you think of when you imagine furniture in a cozy country cottage. And there’s a good reason for that.
Ultimately, pine is the perfect wood for making furniture, whether you’re a seasoned professional or completely green. Most kinds of pine are fairly sturdy and hard, especially for a softwood. That allows it to keep its shape incredibly well — which is a great thing if you’re working with nails.
Eastern white pine trees, which are found in America, can develop a golden patina over time. But hey, that can only add to the charm of the piece!
Cedar trees grow in the eastern United States. They’re straight with many knots that show through their lovely violet-red wood.
As a softwood, cedar is incredibly malleable — perhaps even too much. It’s certainly much softer than pine, and can even have problems holding on to nails or screws. However, it does have all sorts of advantages as well.
For one, cedar has an aroma that can act as a natural bug repellant, which is why some people use it to line closets and make storage chests. However, those are about the only indoor uses for this wood.
Generally, people use cedar to make outdoor furniture and things like fence posts and birdhouses. The reason for that is simple — cedar is also naturally waterproof and resistant to decay. Of course, you can waterproof any kind of wood if you want to use it to make outdoor pieces. But if you use cedar for those projects, at least you won’t have to worry about that.
Technically, bamboo is a type of grass, not a kind of tree. Still, it is becoming increasingly popular due to its eco-friendly nature. Basically, you can harvest this wood without replanting the tree, and it’ll grow back at an astonishing pace.
However, even though bamboo grows ten times faster than most hardwood trees, woodworkers consider it hardwood due to its strength and durability. Bamboo wood is great at maintaining its shape — it’s much stronger than conventional construction wood.
The natural color of the bamboo wood is fairly pale. However, it can also become warmer and darker until it’s a reddish-brown shade. That gives you plenty of options if you wanted to use the natural color of the wood for your furniture. On the other hand, you’ll also be able to paint it, as you can see from this bench on Amazon.
Cherry trees exist all over the world, but the ones you’ll use will likely come from the eastern United States. The wood has consistently straight and even grain, which makes it look quite polished when you finish it.
Its progressively darker reddish-brown color makes it one of the most desirable materials for making historic-looking pieces. However, it can be a bit more expensive, especially if you’re planning on making a big piece. In that case, you might want to use cherry as a veneer over other kinds of wood.
Still, cherry has plenty of other qualities, aside from its color. The relative hardness of cherry wood makes it scratch-resistant but also pretty easy to work with. That’s why cherry furniture tends to last for generations. So if you want your piece to become a treasured family heirloom, cherry is the way to go.
Now, oak is the gold standard for making hardwood furniture. The wood comes from trees in the eastern and central United States. Interestingly, the most famous piece of oak furniture actually sits in the Oval Office. The president’s desk was a gift from Queen Victoria herself, which proves the longevity of this wood.
Since oak is a hardwood, it has a visible wavy, striped grain. The wood comes in various shades ranging from a light brown (which has a tendency to become more yellow over time) to a pinkish-red (which tends to be more expensive). Because of these interesting characteristics, most people don’t stain oak. Instead, you can just apply a clear finish and enjoy the shifting color of the furniture over time.
Because of the durability of oak wood, it’s perfect for flooring and various kitchen furniture. Knowing that, you can finally go ahead and make that kitchen counter you’ve always dreamed of!
Birch trees are grown in the American Northeast, around the Great Lakes and throughout the Appalachian region. Due to the abundance of trees, birch wood is pretty affordable.
One of the most famous uses of this material is the fact that it was used to construct Howard Hughes’ famous H-4 Hercules flying boat. The aircraft was originally supposed to be used during World War II, though it wasn’t finished until 1947. But the H-4 Hercules wasn’t just the largest flying boat ever made. It also had the largest wingspan of any aircraft that ever took flight — until another airplane broke that record in April 2019.
One of the things that made birch such a fantastic material for the construction of an aircraft is its incredibly strong nature. Its close grains make birch wood fantastically durable.
Even though yellow is the most common color of birch wood, it also comes in light brown, reddish, and cream shades. However, birch also stains easily, so you’ll be able to adjust the color, anyway. Overall, birch plywood is especially great for building cabinets, benches, and tables.
There are 16 species of the ash tree just in the eastern United States, which are known for heavy and strong wood. Indeed, ash is ideal for building structural frames and other heavy-duty projects. However, it’s also moldable, so if you wanted to play around with the steam bending technique, ash is the perfect material.
Of the different kinds of ash, white ash is the most common, and therefore the most accessible. The wood is famous for its smooth, straight grain and pale color, which stains easily. You can also use glue on ash. Overall, the finished results are always predictably great.
Most of the time, ash wood is perfect for flooring and millwork. However, its toughness also makes it an excellent choice for tool handles and baseball bats.
Hickory is one of the hardest materials you can possibly use, which is why you might have had a chance to stomp across a few hickory floors in your life. But that’s not all hickory is good for: it’s also a fantastic choice for building furniture that lasts. But really, hickory is that perfect mix of strength and thinness that makes it ideal for home construction. In past centuries, it was even used to make carriage wheels.
Nowadays, hickory is known as the material of choice for Amish craftsmen. Its knotty texture and light color give it a rustic appearance. So if you want to create a cozy atmosphere in your home, you can attempt a hickory build. However, prepare for a rocky road — hickory is a bit stiff and stubborn. It’s not a great material for beginner woodworkers.
In the United States, walnut trees grow all over the place, from Vermont to the Great Plains, to Louisiana and Texas. It comes in a wide range of colors, from white to a very dark brown. American black walnut is famous for its rich color, as well as for its swirling texture — or burl.
Walnut wood is straight-grained, so it’s pretty easy to manipulate. However, it’s also incredibly hard and durable. That’s why most airplanes during World War I had walnut propellers.
If you’d like to use walnut for a project, you should know that it doesn’t generally come in large boards. Still, you’ll be able to use it for accents and inlays.
Beech trees grow across Europe, Asia, and North America, so it’s pretty easily accessible. It’s wonderfully easy to work with despite its hardness. Additionally, the wood has small pores and large, visible medullary rays which contribute to its clean and natural look. On top of that, beechwood tends to age incredibly well, maintaining that fresh appearance.
Generally, beechwood is fairly light in color, ranging from light pink to a creamy brown. It takes all finishes, so most woodworkers love to use it in various projects. Most often, they use it to make musical instruments, chairs, pallets, flooring, and various kitchen dishes and utensils.
Originally from Asia, maple trees can now be found in Europe, North Africa, and North America. The tree can come in a range of colors, though it usually has a pink or reddish-brown tone. In fact, there are all sorts of different kinds of maple with different grain patterns. Overall, maple wood is impressively strong but not too hard to work with.
Furthermore, you can layer almost any kind of finish on top of your project, which allows for infinite variations. So you can make pretty much any piece of furniture using maple wood. In fact, it’s even non-toxic, which makes it ideal for making cutting boards.
Everyone knows the value of mahogany for furniture builds. This tropical tree, native to Central and South America, is famous for its pinkish-brown to deep red color. Generally, it has a fairly straight grain and a medium texture. It’s also not too hard, so you’ll be able to manipulate it easily.
Despite its rich color, the wood also stains beautifully. However, it also looks good with just a simple oil finish. If you choose to stay with the natural color of the wood, you should know that it will darken over time. But then again, that’s why it’s such a popular choice for furniture and even exterior doors. Still, mahogany harvesting isn’t really sustainable in the long run.
So What Type of Wood Should You Use to Make Furniture?
Admittedly, these are only some of the most popular choices of wood you can use to make furniture. However, there are definitely more options out there, all of which come with their own benefits and disadvantages. As long as you keep some of the qualities I’ve mentioned here in mind when you’re doing your research, your projects will turn out alright.
Still, I’d like to leave you with a few more tips before you go build your masterpiece. In woodworking, expensive or prestigious wood doesn’t necessarily guarantee the quality of a piece. For example, you don’t want to make your cabinet out of mahogany if you’re planning to paint it white to match the rest of your decor. That kind of wood deserves to breathe!
Instead, when in doubt, just use good old oak. In fact, if you’re planning to paint over your wood furniture, you can use any cheap but durable wood. You don’t have to use the same kind of wood for the entire project, either.
If you’re making a wardrobe, you can use plywood in the back, cedar for the interior, and finer materials for the frame and doors. Ultimately, your choice of wood will depend on the specific project you want to build.