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Types of Wood to use for your tables, cabinets and other woodworking projects

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Whether you are a newcomer to woodworking that is still trying to figure out how to work with soft woods, or you’re a veteran to working with wood and you are looking to further your knowledge of grains, knots, grow patterns and finishes to use on various species of wood. Understanding how woods look, perform and take finishes is one of the marks of a talented woodworker.

Hardwoods Vs. Softwoods

Hardwoods generally come from deciduous trees, meaning that they lose their leafs every year. This is different than softwoods which generally come from evergreen trees.

Generally, hardwood trees grow more slowly than softwood trees. This means that the wood is more dense. Unfortunately, it also means that it is more expensive.

Difference between Hardwood and Softwood

Selecting Hardwoods

Hardwoods typically come from trees that do not produce either needles or cones. These trees are most commonly are known as deciduous trees. Therefore, hardwood trees reproduce by either leaves and seeds.

The most common hardwood species are oak, maple, cherry, mahogany, and walnut. Walnut and Maple are the hardwoods that most DIYers and woodworkers are familair with as they make great cutting boards and furniture. Contrary to what many newcomers may think, hardwood species are not always always stronger than softwoods.

There are also some woods which are considered to be hardwoods that are not deciduous trees, such as Bamboo and Palm. These scientifically known as monocotyledons and are typically not used on their own in woodworking or furniture making, although they can be processed into boards. These plants but have many of the same characteristics of hardwoods and are therefore often classified as such.

Selecting Softwood

Softwoods are the wood and lumber which are milled from conifer trees, also referred to as evergreens. Conifer trees are any trees which have needles or produce cones. These evergreens are popular in the United States and are fairly inexpensive and beginner friendly. Examples of popular softwood trees are  Pine, Cedar, Fir, Spruce, and Redwood. The most common of these is the Douglas Fir, which is very commonly used in house framing and other construction projects.

Are Softwoods Always Softer Than Hardwoods?

Contrary to what their name insinuates, softwoods are not named that because they are “soft”. The distinction between hardwood and softwood has little to do with the actual softness or whether one wood is harder to work with. There are many different species of hardwoods which are actually much softer than softwoods.

How Are Softwoods Used?

Most softwoods are strong and inexpensive. Because of this, they are commonly used in many different building applications. Spruce, Pine, and Fir are commonly sold under as dimensional SPF lumber at home improvement centers. These woods also happen to grow very tall and straight. This growth pattern lends itself to cutting straight, clean, long pieces of lumber.

Many of these woods, particularly softwoods from the cypress family are renowned for their ability to resist rot and insects. This makes trees such as cedar and redwood ideal for exterior projects and framing projects. For instance, these woods are commonly used for decking and outdoor furniture.

Engineered wood

Outside of softwoods and hardwoods, there are several wood based products or synthetic products that have been engineered to either save woodworkers money or solve a problem presented by either soft or hardwoods.


Plywood is several layers of cross laminated, thin veneers of wood that are glued together. Plywood is a great option for making cabinet boxes because it is both inexpensive and does not expand and contract throughout the year.

Plywood comes in grades A-D. If you’re looking to use it for cabinets, you need grade A plywood.

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Particle board and fibreboard

Particle board is made from small wood fragments that are mixed with resin and pressed together to make a solid board.

Fibreboard is a similar product but is made with sawdust that has been glued and pressed together at high temperatures.

What wood is best for cabinets

Cabinet boxes are generally constructed from plywood and can then be covered with a more aesthetic hardwood panel.

Because the front facing portion of cabinets can be scratched and dented, the face frames, doors and drawers are typically constructed out of hardwood.

If you plan on painting the cabinets, the wood won’t matter much and you’ll be able to go with whatever your lumber store has on sale. If you don’t want to leave a more natural appearance, by simply putting a coat of oil or polyurethane on the cabinets, simply pick a hardwood and finish that go well with your home interior.

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Selecting the best hardwoods for tables and other wood projects

Selecting the type of hardwood for your project primarily comes down to the look of the wood in my opinion. You’ll find woodworkers and craftsman that swear by one type of wood or another based on its grain pattern or how straight it is. At the end of the day, these factors all contribute to how it looks. In my experience, you can find straight hardwoods of almost any variety. My suggestion would be to walk around the floor of your local lumber retailer and find a straight, hard wood that you’re pleased with. Once you do that, the employees there will be able to help you in selecting a finish for that type of wood.

My personal favorite woods to work with are white oak and walnut and I finish almost every project with a coat of polyurethane. There are certainly more complex processes of selecting woods and mixing finishes, but unless you are making specialty tables for the palace of versailles, you won’t need to know much more than that.

Salvaged wood

One of the reasons people love wood furniture is how cool it looks as it ages. there is something special about grandpas old rocking chair. 

To achieve the aged look in your wood without waiting decades to achieve it, you can purchase salvaged or reclaimed wood. Salvaged wood can be a bit more costly due to the limited quantity of it. However, if you are going for the antique look, it is worth every penny.

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Conclusion and wood selection tips

As long as you build your furniture out of a hard wood, there really is no “wrong way” of building it. With some experience, you’ll find out what type of woods and finishes you enjoy working with the most and come up with your own favorite type of woodworking. Every skilled woodworker that I have come across has a couple woods that are his/her favorite and a few that they can’t stand. The only way for you to come up with your own preferences is to get some experience in the wood shop.

The below video does a good job of outlining the differences in wood types. I do believe it goes into a bit too much detail for beginners. Nonetheless, it is interesting and informative.