hard knocks and soft feels

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

if there was an alternative title to be a bit more descriptive, it would be “so i’m building a project — what wood should i use?” — and the answer isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as we might like. but there are a few things to consider. let’s start with the basics.

there are, when it comes down to it, two types of trees. that doesn’t quite equate to two types of wood but we’re going to talk about it that way. trees can be either coniferous or deciduous — evergreen or leafy.

i know we all studied this as children but nobody really remembers what they did in third-grade biology so here’s a refresher. especially as it’s so incredibly relevant to our craft. actually, it’s pretty relevant to everyone’s daily lives. the trees around us have such a huge impact on our moods and emotions in the moment, i can’t imagine how people function without at least some awareness of what is towering over them or what they’re leaning on.

deciduous trees have leaves, usually large ones compared to the size of the branches. they change color in the fall and, as the name of the season suggests, give in to gravity and start getting up-close-and-personal with their dear friend ground. they spread seed using flowers rather than nuts or pods. some common examples are maple, oak, cherry, walnut, beech and ash.

coniferous or “evergreen” trees are very different. they have pins or needles, not leaves, that are much smaller and these don’t change color. they remain on the tree year after year and it’s often possible to see damage to the needles even a decade or two later while, if a leaf is hurt on a deciduous tree, it will be replaced the next spring. conifers spread their seeds in pods, cones or nut-clusters. common examples of coniferous trees are pine, spruce, fir, redwood and cypress.

while these terms are a little misleading maybe 1% of the time, as people will constantly remind you, these map directly to hardwood and softwood.

  • hardwood comes from deciduous (leafy) trees.
  • softwood comes from coniferous (evergreen) trees.

yes, there are a few species of “softwood” whose wood is relatively hard and durable (cedar, for example). it is, after all, wood. these are relative terms. and, yes, there are a few species of “hardwood” that are relatively soft and easy to break (basswood and balsa come to mind). but, as a general rule, hardwood is hard and softwood is soft. there’s a little overlap in the middle but if you take a spectrum of hardness and put all the species on it, the hardwoods are concentrated on the “hard” side and the softwoods are bunched together on the “soft” so it’s accurate enough as a general guide and there’s no need to get technical about it, especially when you’re just trying to get the basics figured out.

let’s take a look at this hardness before we go on to other properties of the wood, actually. it’s a good place to start. there is a hardness measurement used across different species (and non-wood substances, actually, though this is less relevant for our purposes) called the “janka scale” (yes, named after gabriel janka). i’ll give the hardness numbers for different types of wood and a higher number just means the wood is harder but you can think of them in several different categories. i think there are five, though these are my own and you can divide them in other ways if you like — light softwoods, heavy softwoods, weak hardwoods, strong hardwoods, extreme hardwoods.

light softwoods (<600)

the first category is, from my perspective, not very useful for us as woodworkers. some of these are usually used for carpentry because they’re light, flexible, easy to cut, cheap to source and transport and very readily-available.

  • white cedar (320)
  • western red cedar (350)
  • eastern white pine (380)
  • western white pine (420)
  • cypress (510)
  • larch (590)
  • alder (590)

you will often see these sold as dimensional lumber. yes, there are certainly projects you can make with them but they’re simply not going to hold up well for complex joinery or the thin/delicate construction that is typical of furniture. if you want to make mission-style furniture or pieces with thick structural parts, these are totally fine. if you’re looking for thin wood that will give you the strength you expect, you’ll be disappointed in this category.

heavy softwoods (>600)

this group is where softwood really does come to be useful in fine woodworking. these woods are harder and stronger and tend to work much more easily as furniture components because of this strength. actually, they feel in many ways like the weak hardwoods both in how they are worked and how they stand up to abuse once they’re turned into furniture.

  • douglas fir (660)
  • shortleaf southern yellow pine (690)
  • shedua (710)
  • longleaf southern yellow pine (870)
  • eastern red cedar (900)

there are some serious advantages to building with these softwoods. the biggest one, practically-speaking, is that you get a lot of wood for very little money, especially if you’re in an area where they are locally-grown. longleaf pine and eastern red cedar are particularly good for building strong furniture and cedar has the added benefit of being extremely good at resisting outdoor elements. you can build a piece of furniture from cedar and leave it outside all year and, while the color will certainly change, it will stand up to the rain and wind like even the strongest hardwoods can’t.

of course, if you select these species you have to be aware that what you’re buying will not look like a hardwood. the structure of the grain is different. hardwoods have pores to transport moisture through the tree. softwoods don’t. this means softwoods have light grain while hardwoods tend to have much more significant grain lines that can be seen in the finished piece.

but the real answer to your question is to ask a different one — what are these woods good for building or what have they been traditionally used for?

practically speaking, the place you’re most likely to find this category useful is making something you’ll use every day — your bench. workbench construction can certainly be done from something stronger, denser, harder and more beautiful. but there are myriad benches made from longleaf pine or eastern red cedar, even douglas fir. if you have access to good, straight boards of any of these species and you need to build a bench, it will give you a relatively-heavy structure without having to spend a fortune and it’s easy to work. don’t give it a second thought — just get yourself the wood and make the bench. this is probably a good way to think of this wood. it’s functional and useful where the visual appeal is irrelevant.

so you can continue this way of thinking. these all make excellent secondary woods for furniture. the hidden components of casework, drawers and backs, for example, can be made cheaply without compromising on quality using these species without anyone ever having to see them. and you will see this trick used over the last few hundred years as hardwoods became more and more expensive but less readily-available and cabinetmakers tried to keep costs low while providing quality furniture for their clients. if you want a nice dresser, you may want the outside to be cherry or maple but all the inside structure to be southern yellow pine, for example.

the other place these woods shine is structural furniture both in and outside the shop. if you’re building a toolchest or storage units, they’re fantastic choice. picnic tables that will sit out in the open or chairs, swings and play-furniture for children are frequently made from cedar (even the really soft cedars but it’s usually advisable to use the stronger species if they’re available). this means they’ll resist the weather but be strong and functional. practically-speaking, if it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how it feels when you touch it, you can build almost anything from these species until the joinery gets small and delicate, where more compact strength is required.

weak hardwoods (<1200)

there are some weak hardwoods that are really not very functional for structural use — i’m simply going to ignore balsa because it’s far closer to paper than useful wood. basswood can be used for decorative work (kumiko panels, for example, are often made from it) but i would be very careful imagining it’s strong enough for actual furniture components. it’s beautiful and the grain is almost invisible but that doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s very, very weak compared to most other hardwoods.

  • basswood (410)
  • yellow poplar (540)
  • chestnut (540)
  • silver maple (700)
  • mahogany (800)
  • red maple (950)
  • cherry (995)
  • walnut (1010)
  • eucalyptus (1125)
  • teak (1155)

poplar is the usual example given for “it’s a hardwood that’s softer than softwoods” and, while this is true, the grain structure of poplar means it’s generally strong enough to build furniture from without cracking and this is where i would suggest starting — go any weaker than this and you’re probably asking for structural failure in your finished piece with use. that being said, if you’re used to working with construction lumber, poplar will probably feel like a step up in quality and strength and it’s usually quite inexpensive. on the negative side, though, most people don’t find it very pretty — ok, most people find it blatantly ugly and either dye or paint it, which works well. poplar is often referred to as “paint-grade” and this reflects the tendency to cover it. you can easily dye it with ink and it will look like a black or gray wood with visible grain. it takes milk-paint well, too.

moving on down the list, though, we get to the traditional woods for furniture construction. while not all these woods are available everywhere, much of the traditional furniture you see is made from maple, mahogany, cherry, walnut and teak. these are all in a relatively-easy-to-work middle area where they are hard enough to have excellent structural properties but soft enough to work easily with handtools or to work with powertools and not have excessive dulling and replacement of blades and bits.

if you’re a handtool woodworker in particular, these are the woods you should be trying to focus on — silver maple, cherry and walnut. they have very different visual properties but all work similarly under the tools.

we should probably talk about those pores before we go on, though. trees can be divided in three categories based on how their pores are structured — ring, diffuse and mixed, which is between the two. ring-porous species have large rings in the earlywood and few in the latewood. diffuse-porous species have no real difference in size through the wood. the ones in the middle have far more subtle differences from early to late between the rings. these are very visible differences and impact the workability, too. generally-speaking, this category is mostly diffuse-porous (poplar, maple, cherry) or at least close to it in the mixed category (walnut). while there’s not a direct connection between the pore difference and hardness (maple, for example, can be very hard but remains diffuse), most of the harder woods have more pronounced rings.

silver maple is very light in color with a relatively-mild visible grain structure. this color doesn’t last. no, don’t ask how to keep it white. you can’t. unless you want to hide it from the sun. it will darken with age as long as there’s light (even artificial light) so assume it’s not going to remain its initial color unless you want to refresh it every year or two with a plane. cherry is considerably darker to start with but it continues to darken with age to be a rich, reddish-brown color fairly quickly once it’s finished and left to age. walnut is very dark to begin and actually lightens with exposure to ambient light, something that can’t be said about many species of wood.

these visual differences aside, though, they are all soft enough to work with sharp handtools without causing serious problems. they are far less likely to split or crack than harder wood (oak, for example, which is notorious for splitting, cracking and brutal tearout). they also tend to take finish relatively well because of their inherent small-pore uniform structure. eucalyptus and teak are on the harder side of this category and are relatively uncommon. mahogany and chestnut work like cherry or soft maple but, especially in the americas, have become less available with time and it’s probably easier to simply use cherry, maple and walnut for your projects.

there is nothing in the standard furniture group that can’t be made with this trio of woods. you can certainly make parts a bit thinner and more visually-light with white oak, hard maple or even ash but this is rarely a significant problem and these are excellent woods to start with, even if you intend to move to harder woods later in your woodworking journey. i suspect, though, once you start working with cherry and walnut, their beauty will give you plenty of reason not to have much desire to switch.

strong hardwoods (1200-1550)

if you’re looking for denser, stronger wood for your furniture, however, especially if you don’t want to rely on thickness for strength, these stronger hardwoods may be what you seek.

  • red oak (1290)
  • beech (1300)
  • ash (1320)
  • tasmanian oak (1350)
  • white oak (1360)
  • hard maple (1450)
  • sapele (1510)

of course, much as in the previous category, i’ve only selected the most common (generally in north-america) to put on this list for discussion. there are certainly thousands of other species that can be classified and if you find there are common woods in your area and you want to know how they might serve you for furniture you can look them up to check their structure and hardness. if they have similar looks and hardness to others on this list, you can probably swap them in — you may, for example, find “victorian ash” if you’re in australia but this wood is a somewhat generic hybrid and varies wildly from place to place. it can generally be swapped for any similar-looking dense hardwood. i have family in the coffeetree-growing region and, while not usually seen elsewhere, this is about the same hardness as hard-maple and can be a beautiful thing to work with.

much traditional american furniture has been made with oak, both red and white. these are quite different species both in how they look and how they work (and not even similar to live oak in a lot of ways) but we can treat them as a pair. they are very ring-porous, especially white oak. and they are easy to split (great for building with a froe or axe but not so wonderful for chisels and saws if you’re trying to keep the wood together) but strong along their grainlines in ways cherry and walnut simply can’t compete with. furniture built in white oak is likely to last generations and it is strong enough to build very thin and visually-light. it also bends relatively well, though it’s a very splintery wood to turn (because of its tendency to split). if you want to work with green construction methods in particular, red and white oak might be exactly what you’re looking for. they will, white especially, dull your tools much faster than woods in the previous category so be aware your tools need to be sharp and will need to be sharpened probably about 40-50% more often when working in oak.

beech and ash are more subtle-looking alternatives but are also excellent for casework and structural pieces. when you get to hard-maple and sapele, you’re starting to get into the territory of tool-killing woods. they’ll work great but you’ll spend a lot more time sharpening if you’re doing the work by hand. something to keep in mind about hard-maple is that it is almost visually identical as lumber to soft-maple so if you want the look without the hard work you can certainly substitute the softer version. hard-maple, though, will give you the strength to make your parts significantly thinner and have a more refined aesthetic. while pieces in white oak tend to be bulky and heavy both physically and visually, hard-maple construction can be more subtle and refined. this, of course, can be managed in oak, cherry, walnut, ash or beech, too. but it’s easier as the wood gets harder and more structurally-solid.

the other thing woods in this category are great for is making tools — planes or tool-handles, for example. while you might want to build your bench from a heavy softwood or relatively-soft hardwood simply because the density and strength isn’t required, tools take a much harder beating. planes made from beech, ash or maple will stand up to years of wear while cherry or walnut will break down much more quickly and those made from fir or pine are realistically temporary. while there is a strong tendency (especially in the youtube/internet woodworking community) to use the extreme hardwoods for these purposes, the ones in this category are well-suited and have been used for centuries for tools without problems. not many eighteenth-century planemakers building with jarrah or ipe in north-america for obvious reasons. nothing wrong with using them, of course. and they can be very beautiful. but if you don’t want to spend the extra, don’t feel pressured to go beyond this category for anything — these woods are hard enough for everything you’ll ever make. harder is just … personal choice.

extreme hardwoods (>1550)

the extreme hardwoods are exactly that. wenge is very hard, osage orange incredibly hard and buloke realistically like touching metal. there are no particular tasks these woods are better-suited for than those of the previous category but they are often beautiful, especially as accent woods in projects. the thing to remember is that many of them, if not grown in your local area, are extremely expensive. i’ve only listed the ones that are commonly-available in north-america here (if not locally-grown, which some like koa, live oak, black locust and osage orange are in some states) but that doesn’t mean they’re available at anything approximating a reasonable price.

  • wenge (1630)
  • black locust (1700)
  • padauk (1725)
  • hickory (1820)
  • jarrah (1910)
  • bubinga (1980)
  • osage orange (2040)
  • koa (2160)
  • mesquite (2345)
  • jatoba (2350)
  • live oak (2680)
  • cocobolo (2960)
  • ipe (3684)
  • lignum vitae (4500)
  • buloke (5060)

when you’re selecting an extreme hardwood for a project, i caution you to keep a few things in mind. if you’re a handtool woodworker, these are going to dull your tools more quickly and require more force. if you’re a powertool woodworker, you’re going to be wearing out (and potentially breaking) blades and edges much more frequently. this might be worth it for the finished product and how it looks. it might not be. but it’s a decision you should make from a place of awareness and not be surprised by it. that slab of ipe or cocobolo you picked up in the offcuts bin at the local hardwood supplier might look absolutely amazing. but it might take you two, three, even ten times as long to shape it. you should definitely experiment with various species if you have access to them but remember most furniture for the last thousand years has been made with local species.

a concluding bark?

realistically, this is only a brief overview of the differences between species. when selecting a wood, go to your local hardwood dealer (or lumberyard, i guess, though i much prefer those that deal exclusively in hardwoods as that’s what i generally use) and look at the boards. touch them and get familiar with their grain structure and color. look at pictures of furniture built with those species and see how they age. remember you’re building a piece that will spend six months at the color of the board and sixty years at the color it changes to when it shifts so don’t neglect that and think your light piece from maple will be white for long or your walnut table will stay that dark unless you actually color it that way with dye.

the most important suggestion i can give you is actually a little odd when you first hear it. make a list of all the woods you want to work with (a short list) in the near future. go to the store and find a small offcut of each of them and bring them back to your shop. plane them. cut them. chisel them. get to know them. seriously, take notes. take pictures. see how smooth you can get them and how much tearout you get. do they chip or splinter or can you get them to feel like glass with minimal effort? this will tell you more than you can possibly read in an article or see in a video. you’ll quickly pick your favorites. now start designing with those. whether it’s maple and cherry (my favorites) or walnut and oak or even southern yellow pine that strikes you as the answer to your woodworking prayers, embrace the species and how it feels, looks and works. because that will tell you what you can build and how you should design it. i hope this has been useful. thanks for reading!

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