How to choose the perfect wood species for your DIY project

You’ve finally got enough time for your project list and now it’s time to buy supplies for your next woodworking project. With an endless selection of dimensional lumber, sheet goods and decorative woods, choosing the right wood species can seem like a daunting task. Our handy question and answer guide will walk you through how to choose the perfect wood species or wood product for your next DIY woodworking project. 

Will your project be weight bearing?

If your project is weight bearing, you’ll need to account for the weight of the materials as well as the weight of what it will hold. A deck for example will typically use pressure treated members in the main structure for strength and cedar for the deck surface for excellent resistance to weathering combined with relatively light weight. A bird house, however, won’t be responsible for as much weight and can be made completely out of cedar.

Is your project outside?

Certain wood species are better than others at standing up to the rigors of outdoor usage, such as the sun, water, insects and mold and mildew. Depending on your geographic location, there will be a variety of species that perform best in your conditions. As a rule, hardwoods last better in the outdoors, but some softwood species like cedar have unique oils that help protect them against mold, mildew and insects making them great lightweight alternatives. Pressure treated lumber has been treated specifically to resist weathering longer term. Extra care should be taken cutting cutting pressure treated lumber due to toxicity.

Is your project strictly functional or is it meant to show off the wood?

If the project is strictly functional, engineered wood products like plywood and OSB are budget friendly options, especially if your project is flat or box shaped. If you are building furniture, toys, instruments or a display of some kind you might be wanting to highlight the wood. In this case go for a species with beautiful grain patterns like maple, oak, cherry for interior projects or ipe, mahogany or cedar for exterior projects.

Which woods are sustainably sourced?

By now, most of us know the relationship between our forests and healthy ecosystems. We encourage you to choose responsibly sourced woods during your project planning process. Sustainable forestry is a process in which harvesting mimics the natural patterns of disturbance and regeneration and forestry balances the needs of the environment, wildlife and forest communities. In sustainable forestry, harvesting only occurs in established areas, trees are harvested responsibly with natural forest conservation in mind and management plans are in place that require reseeding and reduced impact logging techniques. Sustainable wood species include bamboo, white ash, oak, some mahogany species, maple, teak, black cherry, pine and Douglas fir as well as salvaged and second hand woods. In many cases you can find old growth, uncommon or unusual options that are no longer sustainably available. Revision Division, our brand of handmade home furnishings, has been ranked as a top scorer in the wood furniture scorecard, a ranking system that encourages sustainable practices in the furniture industry. If you are able to, consider using salvaged lumber. 

Wood species breakdown

  • Hardwoods – Hardwoods come from broad leaf trees that shed their leaves each fall and winter. Hardwoods are commonly used in furniture, cabinetry and flooring.  Hardwoods are often denser than softwoods, have a slower growth rate and are often more expensive. Hardwood is often hard and heavy with a rough texture and more naturally resistant to the elements.  
    • MahoganyCommonly used in finish woodworking, mahogany is known for its beautiful color and figuring. 
    • MapleA common North American species, maple can be found in bowling pins and pool cues and are often used as decorative species. Various maple variants are known for their decorative qualities such as quilting, birdseye and flame. Maple is also considered a tonewood and often found in musical instruments. 
    • OakCommonly used in flooring and cabinetry, Oak is often lighter in color and very hard. White oak species are resistant to rot, are suitable for water holding applications such as boat building and are commonly found in antiques. Red oak species are great for interior pieces such as flooring and furniture. 
    • TeakCare must be taken to find responsibly sourced teak. Favinha, Tatajuba, and Guariuba are good options. Teak is known for it’s beautiful figuring, hard nature and is commonly found on boats. 
    • WalnutWalnut comes in varying shades of light brown to dark chocolate. It is generally straight grained, but like maple has various figuring patterns. Walnut is often used in finish woodworking and furniture making. 
    • White ash – White ash is commonly found in baseball bats, hockey sticks and pool cues due to it’s shock resistant nature and light creamy color. It also works well in curved furniture pieces. 
  • Softwoods – Softwoods come from coniferous or evergreen trees that grow quickly and can be cut easily. Softwoods have a lower density than hardwoods, have a higher growth rate and are often less expensive. Softwoods are common building materials and are often used in framing and construction. Softwoods are often incrementally softer than hardwoods, are lighter weight and often are fragrant. 
    • Cedar Cedar is known as a soft, aromatic and fine grained wood. There are a variety of types like Red, Yellow and even an Aromatic Cedar used to line closets or trunks. The Aromatic Cedar is a natural repellent to moths. Red and Yellow Cedar are frequently used as outdoor siding on homes and as outdoor furniture. 
    • Douglas firAnother common North American wood, Douglas fir is often used in construction due to its large size and high strength rating. You can often find old growth Douglas fir at places that sell salvaged woods. 
    • Pine – There are a wide variety of pine species commonly used in woodworking. A fast growing wood, pine is used in everything from boat construction to furniture making. 

Wood products breakdown

  • Solid woods – Solid woods are as the name implies. Depending on the project, it might make sense to use solid wood for all or part of the construction and finish. In cabinetry, for example, engineered woods make up the box and solid wood makes up the doors and finish as veneer. High quality furniture is often made of solid wood, while lower quality furnitures are often made of engineered wood frames and veneer or solid wood drawer faces. Solid woods, especially softwoods such as pine and fir, are commonly used as building materials. 
  • Engineered or laminate woods – Also known as composite wood, plywood, OSB (oriented strand board) and MDF (medium density fiberboard) are some of the most common engineered and laminated woods. These wood products are often found as sheet goods and are made of various layers glued together. Commonly found in cabinetry, flooring underlayment and some table and counter surfaces, engineered woods are great at covering large spaces at a lower cost than slabs of solid woods. Engineered and laminate woods are also commonly found in flooring, beams and trusses. 
  • Veneer  – Veneer refers to thin slices of wood, often ⅛” or thinner that are glued to the exterior of doors, cabinets and furniture. Veneer is a cost effective option when you want your large project to look like solid wood without the price. Veneer is made in a variety of ways. Veneer is often found in plywood, with multiple layers glued with the grain at right angles to increase strength. For plywoods, veneer is made by a rotary lathe peeling the tree in a continuous roll. For furnishing projects, in which certain grain patterns are desired, veneer is made by slicing the wood in thin strips across the growth from larger blocks. The process of cutting veneer dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians who used veneers to mask less desirable timbers.