Shop Talk

How to Choose the Right Woodworking Materials for Your Next Project

Posted by Mallory Kramer on March 2, 2015

The Best Results Begin with the Right Woodworking Materials – Choosing the Right Wood for Your Woodworking Projects

Choosing the right wood type for your next woodworking project plays a huge role in the final presentation and functionality of that project. You may build the perfect piece, utilizing the best tools or techniques, but if the material is unsuitable, the aesthetic value, or the overall strength or durability of the piece can suffer. Before you begin your next project, then, start from the very beginning with a focus on choosing the right material.


Wood Types

What Materials are Available?

To be sure you’re selecting the right wood type, you must first be familiar with what types of wood are available (and, it’s a lot more than you’ll find at a standard home improvement store – so investigate local lumberyards, too). The most basic breakdown of wood types is between hardwoods and softwoods. Though softwoods will scratch and dent more easily than hardwoods, the difference between them, in terms of their relative strength or weakness, is not staggering. Instead, the greatest difference lies in the type of tree these woods come from, how these trees grow, and how that affects their appearance.


Hardwoods come from deciduous trees – leafing trees that lose their foliage in the fall and winter, and regrow foliage in the spring. There are hundreds of species of hardwoods offering a huge variety of colors and grain patterns for woodworkers to choose from. Owing to their unique and pronounced grain displays, hardwoods are often used for furniture and ornamental pieces. Because of their beauty and density, though, hardwoods are also more expensive than their coniferous counterparts, and because deciduous trees typically grow more slowly, many hardwoods are also considered rare. Limited availability of these woods makes them exotic, expensive, and in many cases, endangered. For this reason, when searching for good hardwoods, try to purchase those that are grown and harvested sustainably. Many species suffer deforestation and are nearing extinction; to ensure there are always beautiful woods to create your projects with, consume responsibly. Some hardwoods include cherry, oak, walnut, maple, mahogany, poplar, teak, ash, and birch.


Milled from coniferous trees, or trees with needles (i.e. evergreens), softwoods grow fast and are typically farmed more sustainably than hardwoods. Because these species are more readily available, they’re often easy to find and less expensive to work with. Softwoods are less dense and they offer less variation in color and grain appearance; these subdued aesthetic properties similarly lend to the woods’ low price point. In fact, the grain patten in some softwoods can be nearly indiscernible after the wood has been finished. While many characteristics of softwoods make them ideal for woodworking, its shapeability and the natural straightness of its growth, for instance, only about one-quarter of coniferous trees produce materiel suitable for woodworking. Some softwoods include pine, cedar, redwood and fir. Owing to their water resistance, many softwoods are preferred for outdoor furniture making. Similarly, their suppleness makes them a great option for carving projects.

Selecting the Right Wood Type

What Are You Building?

The first step to determining the right wood type for your project is understanding your build. You must know what you’re building, and you have to understand the full purpose of that piece before you can select the proper building material. Visualize the color, grain pattern, function, and ornamentation of the piece, and choose your wood accordingly. If you’re building a piece of furniture that will be used everyday, your material choice might be very different from one intended to be a strictly ornamental piece. Similarly, a piece of outdoor furniture should be constructed of a different material than a piece that won’t be exposed to the great outdoors.

As a rule, woods with water resistant properties like Cedar, Redwood,White Oak and Teak, are often used for outdoor furniture. Conversely, everyday indoor furniture is most often built with harder woods like Oak, Maple, Cherry and Walnut. When creating carved pieces, softwoods, like Pine, should be used, and, when creating ornamental pieces whose purpose is mainly decorative, many woodworkers prefer hardwoods that finish well and offer distinct or pronounced grain patters. Woods like Ash, Cherry, Mahogany, Teak and Walnut finish and stain very beautifully. On another hand, woods like Birch, Poplar and Fir don’t finish especially well and are more often used for projects that will be painted rather than stained.

Selecting the Grade of Your Lumber

While I try to be an equal opportunity wood lover, some wood is just plain better than others. Because I’m not the only one who thinks so, there’s a grading system in place to help you determine the quality of the hardwood you’re taking home with you. FAS ratings (which stands for Firsts and Seconds) were established by the National Hardwood and Lumber Association to designate the quality of piece of lumber. Accounting everything from the species of wood, the surface measurement of the stock, the percentage of clear wood available, notable characteristics or defects, and etc, here is a list of hardwood FAS ratings from highest to lowest grade: FAS, FAS 1-Face (F1F), Selects, No. 1 Common, No. 2A Common, No. 2B Common, Sound Wormy, No. 3A Common, and No. 3B Common. Using this system as a guideline will help you ensure you know exactly what you’re buying, and that you buy exactly the right material for each build.

Where soft woods are concerned, there is a little less to think about as, essentially, softwood is designated into only two basic camps: construction grade and remanufacture grade. Remanufacture grade softwoods are typically very difficult to work with as they are often rife with knots and splits. Construction grade softwoods, however, are what you’ll typically find at the lumberyard, and they’re a good quality wood. Depending upon what you’re building, though, avoid economy woods. They’re more difficult to work with and often present more obstacles than are worth the money saved.

How Much Do You Want to Spend?

The cost factor obviously goes hand-in-hand with the type of wood you choose to work with. While you might want to build all of your projects out of Teak, this may not be a financially supportable choice. As you determine the aesthetic qualities you want expressed in your project, consider how much you can spend to achieve that. As a rule, hardwoods are more expensive than softwoods and, the rarer the wood, the higher the grade, the spendier it gets.

Inspecting Materials Before You Purchase


There are certain inevitabilities in this world, and one of them is that lumber is going to warp. Where ever your lumber comes from, you’ve surely seen pieces of it that twist and bend rather than lying perfectly flat. A huge part of choosing the right materials for your next project, then, includes looking at your materials for defects and allowing your materials to acclimate to your environment before you begin working it.

Before you select materials, carefully inspect all sides of the piece for visual defects. Look for various types of wood warp as well as cracks or splits in the material. If it’s possible, inquire regarding the length of time the material you’re interested in has been in stock – this will give you a better idea of how long the lumber has had to acclimate to the climate. If you’re purchasing relatively green or fresh lumber, you may want to let the material set for a few weeks before beginning your project. You may also consider investing in a moisture meter to take with you to the lumberyard; this will show you how much moisture is still within the lumber allowing you to better gauge how much more movement may occur as the piece dries and adjusts to the environment.

Aesthetically Unique or Desired Qualities

As you inspect lumber for the characteristics you don’t want, also look for the qualities you do want. Look for complimentary grain patterns, swirls or even knots if your vision calls for it. While knots can present obstacles in woodworking, they can also create unique artistic features on a project. What might be considered a defect for one project may be exactly what you’re looking for in another one. For example, many “upcycling” projects utilize reclaimed wood to emphasize it’s unique (and perhaps defective) characteristics.


After all that careful consideration, you should be able to confidently select the best materials for your next woodworking project. Having a clear vision of what you want and need before you start building, allows you to better select the perfect building materials, and more effectually actualize your woodworking vision. Keep your eyes on the prize, and you’ll be prepared, productive and pleased with your results.