There are tons of different wood species to construct your projects with. This can make selecting a wood option challenging for a beginner woodworker. Here’s our step by step process for choosing a specie for your project.
1. Identify What You’re Making
This might seem like a no brainer, but it’s probably the most crucial factor when selecting a specie for the project. What kind of project are you making? A cutting board, coffee table, dining table, showcase/wall art, etc.? This leads you to the next question of what kind of properties do you want the piece to have? These properties might be durability, color, decay resistance, etc. I’ll go more in-depth with this topic in point #3
2. How do you want your project to look?
The next question to consider is, what do you want the finished project to look like? Is there a specific color you want it to be? All species vary in color. Cherry is a reddish-pink, maple is white, and black walnut is a cholate brown. Will you stain the wood to a different color? Some woods stain better than others. Because some woods have a color associated with them, like cherry and walnut, it doesn’t make sense to stain certain species. The last question is, are you trying to match your project to something else? Maybe you are building a bookshelf, and you want to match the trim in your home.
3. Consider Density, Workability, and Hardness
Going back to point #1, there are specific properties you might want your project to have. All woods are different, which means they all have various features. The three most significant things to think about here are density, workability, and hardness. For example, if you are making a cutting board, you’ll want the lumber to be durable and not as easy to scratch. So, cutting boards are best made out of medium-high density hardwoods. Or, you might be making a carving. In this case, you would mostly want to stick with softer woods. If you want more information on density, workability, and hardness, check out this blog!
4. Get Familiar with Different Wood Options
Just like starting any other hobby, you want to do your research. Research is your best friend during the process of selecting a specie for a project. If you have a specie in mind, look it up and see if it fits the bill for your project. But the best way to do research is by trial and error. After you’ve Googled, all there is to know about different wood species, get your hands on the actual material. Buy lumber in small quantities and start making projects with them. Test different stains and finishes to see what you like best. We sell a Mixed Specie Value Pack that allows you to purchase four different species in just one value pack!
5. Our Suggested Starter Species
Woodworking is a learning process. I guarantee you will make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes mean you have to start over. So we suggest that when you are just starting to woodwork, start with
more affordable woods. Softwoods are great for learning. They are cheap, and you can find them at just about any home improvement store. But at some point, you might want to up your game and start working with hardwoods. Hardwoods usually are more expensive than softwoods. We go through most of these reasons in our blog, “Hardwoods vs. Softwoods.”
Price varies significantly between different species of hardwoods. Firstly, we suggest starting with American hardwoods because they are very affordable and sustainable. We also recommend using a specie that is very versatile. If you are making furniture, start with a specie like hard or soft maple, red oak, or white ash. They are easy to work with and affordable. They have attractive grain lines and tend to be reasonably straight-grained. They are easy to machine and aren’t too difficult to handle. The other great thing about these species is they accept stain fairly well, and they are easy to finish.
Once you get comfortable with these, you might want to experiment with species that are desired for their colors like cherry, walnut, and hickory. Cherry and walnut are just as simple to use as maple, red oak, and white ash, but they are more expensive. Cherry and walnut usually aren’t stained a different color, but sometimes stain is used to enhance the color. Hickory, on the other hand, can be a pain to machine because of its density. Hickory has beautiful color contrasts between the heartwood and sapwood.
After you feel comfortable with the species above, then you might want to try using figured woods. Figured woods are tough to machine. Working with figured wood uses different techniques than regular, straight-grained woods. If you want more info on figured wood, check out this blog!
If you want to get into turning on a lathe, once again, start with straight-grained woods. Then, you can move into figured woods. Burls would be the last “tier” to try. Burls have figured wood, but they also tend to have all kinds of bark pockets and voids. The change in density makes it more challenging to turn.
Carvers like to use low-density woods because they are easier to carve. This is where basswood shines. It’s closed grain, straight-grained, very uniform in color, and most importantly, it’s very soft, making it the perfect carving wood.
6. No Specie is Wrong for the Job
Picking the specie for a project can be challenging. Some projects, there is a clear winner, while others take a bit more thought. But our biggest tip of all is no specie is the wrong specie for a project. If you want to use maple because you like it and you’re comfortable with it, then go ahead and use maple. That’s the beauty of art. There are no rights or wrongs. Ultimately, the choice is up to you.