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A lumberyard with multiple wood species laid out for selection

Choosing a wood species

Choosing a wood species

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Choosing a suitable wood species is an essential part of any woodworking project. Different wood species have unique characteristics that can affect their durability, appearance, workability, and overall performance.

What to consider

Whether you are building furniture, installing wood flooring, or creating decorative accents, understanding the various factors influencing your wood species' performance can help you choose the right one for your project. Here are some areas to consider when choosing a wood species.

Janka Hardness Rating

The "Janka hardness rating" measures a wood species' resistance to indentation and wear. A higher Janka rating indicates a harder and more dent-resistant wood species. For example, oak has a Janka rating of 1290, making it a more dent and scratch-resistant wood. In contrast, pine has a Janka rating of 690, making it less dent and scratch resistant than hardwoods like oak.

Porosity

The porosity of a wood species refers to the ease of liquids, or moisture to absorb. A wood species with high porosity absorbs liquids more readily than one with lower porosity. High-porosity wood species stain and finish easier, while low-porosity wood is more challenging to get color/pigments to penetrate.

Appearance

Wood species vary in color, grain pattern, and texture. Some wood species, such as cherry and walnut, have distinctive colors and grain patterns, which makes them more desirable for decorative accents. Others, such as maple and oak, have a more uniform texture and subtle grain pattern that can work well for flooring and furniture.

Workability

Some wood species are easier to work with than others. Softwood species such as pine are easy to cut, while harder wood species such as hickory or black locust require specialized tools and techniques. In addition, some hardwood species may require pre-drilling to avoid splitting or may be prone to warping or cracking.

Top 10 wood species

Now that we've covered the areas to consider when choosing a wood species let's examine the top 10 wood species and their standout characteristics:

Oak

Close up shot of white oak wood grain

Unfinished white oak wood

A hardwood known for its strength, durability, and higher Janka hardness rating of 1290 - 1360. Oak is a medium-porous wood, making it suitable for stains and finishes.

Pros:

  • Strength, durability, and high Janka hardness rating: Oak is known for its robustness, making it suitable for high-traffic areas and areas prone to wear and tear.
  • Readily available: Oak is a commonly found hardwood, making it easily accessible for various projects.
  • Relatively affordable: Compared to some other hardwood options, oak is relatively affordable, providing a good balance between quality and cost.
  • Suitable for staining and finishing: Oak's medium-porous nature allows for effective staining and finishing, providing flexibility in achieving desired colors and finishes.

Cons:

  • May be difficult to work with: Oak can be challenging to work with due to its density and hardness, requiring sharp tools and potentially more effort during installation.
  • May require pre-drilling: Due to its density, oak may require pre-drilling for nails and screws to prevent splitting or cracking.
  • Tendency to yellow slightly over time: Over an extended period, oak wood may naturally yellow slightly, which could affect its appearance. Regular maintenance and finishing may be necessary to mitigate this.

Maple

maple wood close up

Unfinished maple wood

A dense, hard, and heavy wood with a uniform texture and subtle grain pattern. Its high Janka hardness rating of 1450 makes it extremely durable. Maple is a low-porous wood, which means that it requires more effort to stain and finish properly.

Pros:

  • Density, hardness, and high Janka hardness rating: Maple's density and hardness contribute to its exceptional durability, making it suitable for areas with high foot traffic and potential impact.
  • Uniform texture and subtle grain pattern: Maple's consistent texture and subtle grain pattern provide a sleek and modern look.
  • Highly durable: Maple's high Janka hardness rating ensures that it can withstand heavy use and resist scratches and dents.

Cons:

  • Low-porous wood: Maple, being low-porous, poses staining and finishing challenges compared to other woods. Its tight, uneven grain can result in blotchy color absorption even with water popping after sanding. Expertise and effort are needed to achieve desired results.
  • Limited natural color options: Maple's natural color tends to be light, which may not suit everyone's design preferences. Staining is often necessary to achieve darker shades or match specific color schemes.

Walnut

walnut wood close up

Unfinished walnut wood

A hardwood known for its rich, dark color and gorgeous swirling grain patterns in the burl sections. Its lower Janka hardness rating of 1010 makes it a moderately hard wood. It is prone to denting in high-traffic areas. Walnut is a medium-porous wood, making it suitable for staining and finishing.

Pros:

  • Rich, dark color and beautiful grain patterns: Walnut's distinctive color and swirling grain patterns, particularly in burl sections, create a luxurious and elegant appearance.
  • Moderately hard and durable: Despite having a lower Janka hardness rating compared to some other hardwoods, walnut is still reasonably durable and can withstand regular use.
  • Suitable for staining and finishing: Walnut's medium-porous nature allows for effective staining and finishing, enhancing its natural beauty.

Cons:

  • Prone to denting in high-traffic areas: Walnut's moderate hardness makes it more susceptible to dents and scratches, especially in areas with heavy foot traffic.
  • Higher cost: Walnut is generally more expensive compared to other hardwood options, which can be a drawback for those on a tighter budget.
  • Fade potential: Over time, prolonged exposure to light can cause the color of walnut to fade slightly.

Cherry

Cherry wood

Unfinished cherry wood

A hardwood with a warm, reddish-brown color and a fine, straight grain. Its medium Janka hardness rating of 995 makes it softer than some other hardwoods, but still durable. Cherry is a medium-porous wood, making it suitable for staining and finishing.

Pros:

  • Warm, reddish-brown color and fine, straight grain: Cherry's distinct color and attractive grain patterns add warmth and character to any space.
  • Moderate Janka hardness rating: Although softer than some hardwoods, cherry still offers good durability and can withstand regular use.
  • Medium-porous wood suitable for staining and finishing: Cherry's medium-porous nature allows for effective staining and finishing, providing versatility in achieving desired colors and finishes.

Cons:

  • Softer compared to other hardwoods: Cherry's medium Janka hardness rating means it is more prone to dents and scratches, requiring extra care and maintenance in high-traffic areas.
  • Color darkening over time: Cherry wood tends to darken and develop a richer patina over time, which may or may not align with the desired aesthetic.

Pine

Pine wood

Unfinished pine wood

A softwood that is known for its light color and knotty appearance. Its low Janka hardness rating of 690 makes it softer and less durable than hardwoods. Pine is a high-porous wood, which means it absorbs stains and finishes more easily.

Pros:

  • Light color and rustic appearance: Pine's light color and knotty appearance contribute to a rustic and charming aesthetic.
  • Low cost: Pine is generally more affordable compared to hardwoods, making it a budget-friendly option for various projects.
  • High-porous wood: Pine's high-porous nature allows it to absorb stains and finishes more easily, providing options for customization. The hardwood is very pronounced on some pine and can result in reduced pigment absorption, which may or may not align with the desired look.

Cons:

  • Softwood and low Janka hardness rating: Pine is softer and less durable compared to hardwoods, making it more susceptible to dents, scratches, and wear in high-traffic areas.
  • Knotty appearance may not suit all design preferences: While the knotty appearance of pine adds character, it may not align with everyone's design preferences or desired aesthetic.
  • The uneven density of Pine may cause a blotchy appearance of stain on certain Pine species.

Mahogany

Mahogany wood

Unfinished mahogany wood

A hardwood known for its rich, reddish-brown color and fine, straight grain. Its Janka hardness rating of 800-900 makes it durable and strong. Mahogany is a medium-porous wood, making it suitable for staining and finishing.

Pros:

  • Rich, reddish-brown color and fine, straight grain: Mahogany's color and grain patterns provide a classic and timeless look, adding elegance to any space.
  • Durable and strong: With a respectable Janka hardness rating, mahogany offers good durability and can withstand regular use.
  • Medium-porous wood suitable for staining and finishing: Mahogany's even, medium-porous nature makes it suitable for effective staining and finishing, allowing for customization and desired finishes.

Cons:

  • Moderate Janka hardness rating: While mahogany is durable, it may not be as hard as some other hardwoods, making it slightly more susceptible to dents and scratches in high-traffic areas.
  • Higher cost: Mahogany is generally more expensive compared to other wood species, which can be a limiting factor for budget-conscious inpiduals.

Teak

Teak wood

Unfinished teak wood

A hardwood known for its durability and resistance to moisture and insects, teak also stands out for its natural oiliness. This high oil content contributes to its exceptional weather resistance and makes it highly sought after for outdoor furniture and marine applications. Teak's warm, golden color and unique grain pattern further enhance its aesthetic appeal. With a Janka hardness rating of 1155, teak is remarkably durable. Despite being a medium-porous wood, it is relatively easy to stain and finish after you use a solvent to remove the oils from the surface, allowing for greater versatility in achieving desired results.

Pros:

  • Durability and resistance to moisture and insects: Teak's natural properties make it highly resistant to moisture, rot, and insect damage, making it an excellent choice for outdoor applications and humid environments.
  • Warm, golden color and unique grain pattern: Teak's distinct color and grain pattern add warmth and character to any space.
  • Extremely durable with a high Janka hardness rating: Teak's high Janka hardness rating ensures exceptional durability, making it suitable for areas with heavy use and potential impact.

Cons:

  • Higher cost: Teak is known for its quality and durability, but this often comes with a higher price tag compared to other wood options.
  • Medium-porous wood: While teak is relatively easy to stain and finish, its medium-porous nature requires proper sealing to maintain its resistance to moisture and prevent discoloration or warping over time.

Ash

Ash wood

Unfinished ash wood

A hardwood with a similar grain structure to oak but with a lighter/blonder color. Ash is a good alternative for oak if you're on a tighter budget, its Janka rating is 1320, so like oak. It is medium-porous with a more defined/open grain than oak and suitable for staining and finishing.

Pros:

  • Similar grain structure to oak with a lighter/blonder color: Ash provides a similar aesthetic to oak with its grain structure while offering a lighter color that can brighten up a space.
  • Good alternative for oak on a tighter budget: Ash is often more affordable than oak, making it a viable option for those looking for a similar look but with a lower price point.
  • Medium-porous wood suitable for staining and finishing: Ash's medium-porous nature allows for effective staining and finishing, providing options for customization.

Cons:

  • Medium-porous with more defined/open grain: The open grain of ash may require extra attention during installation and maintenance, as it can trap dirt and moisture more easily than wood with a tighter grain.
  • Lighter color may not suit all design preferences: While the lighter/blonder color of ash can be a pro for some, it may not align with everyone's design preferences, especially those who prefer darker wood tones.

Ipe

Ipe wood

Unfinished ipe wood

An exotic wood species that is sometimes selected for flooring and exterior decking due to its extreme durability. It has a very high Janka hardness rating of 3510, making it one of the hardest and densest wood species available. Due to this hardness, it is challenging for wood finishes to penetrate the wood’s surface.

Pros:

  • Extreme durability: Ipe is highly sought after for flooring and exterior decking due to its exceptional durability. It can withstand heavy foot traffic, and weather exposure, and resist rot, decay, and insects.
  • Very high Janka hardness rating: With one of the highest Janka ratings among wood species, ipe is incredibly hard and dense, providing long-lasting performance and resistance to impact and wear.
  • Exotic and unique appearance: Ipe's distinctive dark color, tight grain, and natural luster create a visually striking and elegant look.

Cons:

  • Difficult to work with: Ipe is extremely dense and is difficult to machine.
  • Challenging for wood finishes to penetrate: Due to its extreme hardness and density, ipe can be difficult for wood finishes to penetrate, requiring extra effort and expertise during the finishing process.
  • Higher cost: Ipe is generally more expensive compared to other wood species, mainly due to its exceptional durability and unique properties.

Cedar

Cedar wood

Unfinished cedar wood

A softwood known for its natural resistance to decay and insects. It has a distinct aroma and is often used for outdoor projects such as decking and siding.

Pros:

  • Natural resistance to decay and insects: Cedar's natural properties make it highly resistant to rot, decay, and insect damage, making it an ideal choice for outdoor projects like decking and siding.
  • Distinct aroma: Cedar has a pleasant and distinct aroma, which can add to the sensory experience in outdoor spaces.
  • Versatile and suitable for various outdoor applications: Cedar's durability and weather resistance makes it suitable for different outdoor projects, providing versatility in design and functionality.

Cons:

  • Softwood and low Janka hardness rating: Cedar is a softwood, which means it is less dense and less durable compared to hardwoods. It may be more susceptible to dents, scratches, and wear over time.
  • Color change over time: As with all wood species, cedar's natural color tends to fade to a silvery-gray patina over time when exposed to the elements. Some may find this natural weathering appealing, but others may prefer to maintain the original color through regular maintenance and finish.

Conclusion

In conclusion, selecting the right wood species for your woodworking project is crucial for achieving the desired results. By considering factors such as Janka hardness rating, porosity, appearance, and workability, you can make an informed decision that meets your project's specific requirements. Oak, maple, walnut, cherry, pine, mahogany, teak, ash, ipe, and cedar are among the top wood species worth considering, each offering unique qualities and characteristics.

Oak, with its strength and durability, is suitable for high-traffic areas, while maple's density and subtle grain pattern provide a sleek look. Walnut stands out with its rich color and swirling grain patterns, while cherry offers warmth and fine straight grain. Pine, known for its rustic charm, is a budget-friendly option, and mahogany adds elegance with its reddish-brown color. Teak excels in outdoor applications due to its durability, while ash provides an affordable alternative to oak. Ipe boasts extreme durability but requires expertise for finishing, and cedar's natural resistance to decay makes it ideal for outdoor projects.

In the end, the best wood species for your project will depend on your priorities, budget, and aesthetic preferences. Carefully considering these factors will help you make an informed choice and achieve the desired outcome for your woodworking endeavor.