Choosing the right wood for your woodworking project can seem like a daunting task, but it is actually not as hard as it seems. Woodworking can be easy and a whole lot of fun. The most basic element is wood and here is all the information you need to get started to find the best lumber.
In the USA, there are over 1,000 species of trees. Of these, only about 100 are used for constructing and manufacturing wood products. From this group, it's best to pick the ones that are easiest to work with and most appealing to you.
There are basically two kinds of wood from which to choose- hardwoods and softwoods. In addition, there are certain characteristics that are common in all wood types. Here are some common terms and definitions you should know:
Hardwoods are the deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall. Among an abundant variety, only 200 are plentiful and pliable enough for woodworking. Much like our skin, hardwoods have microscopic pores on the surface. The size of these pores determines the grain pattern and texture. Because of this, hardwoods are classified by pore openings as either: Closed Grained (smaller pores), like cherry and maple; Ring Porous (larger pores), like oak, ash or poplar.
Softwoods come from coniferous trees, commonly referred to as evergreen trees. Only 25 percent of all softwoods are used in woodworking. All softwoods have a closed grain (small pores) that is not very noticeable in the finished product. The most popular softwoods are cedar, fir, pine and spruce.
Heavy woods like oak are identified by their weight and tight grain pattern, and resist wear, dents and scratches better than softwoods.
This is the wood property that determines the condition of the surface and stability. It plays an important role in deciding how a wood can be finished.
Defects in wood are natural and are appreciated by many woodworkers for the unique character they contribute.
Color contributes to the personality of wood. For example, red cedar will give you a very different look and character than white pine.
Two boards of the same species can look very different. Each tree has its own grain pattern. This is the direction in which the wood cell fibers grow. These variances in grain direction can have a significant impact on your project.
The grain direction is important to consider when building either structural projects or decorative projects such as furniture or crafts. For instance, when working on a structural application, a straight-grained board is generally the strongest. In more decorative projects, grain with varying characteristics can add beauty and personality to the project.
Grain pattern density determines strength. As you'd expect, a piece of lumber with a tight pattern is stronger than one with a loose grain pattern. And when building, a board's strength is maximized when other pieces run across the grain pattern - not parallel to it.
There are six general types of grain:
When a straight-grained log is not sawn along its vertical axis, diagonal grain is the result.
This type of grain results when the direction of wood fibers has constantly changed.
Boards with this grain result from trees whose fibers lined up in opposite directions in each growth year.
When trees grow twisted, spiral-grained logs and subsequent boards are produced. Fibers follow a spiral course with a twist that is either left- or right-handed.
The board's fibers run approximately parallel with the vertical axis of the log from which it originated.
Boards of this type have fibers at directions that are varying and irregular from the log's vertical axis (for example: fibers around knots).
Grading designation depends on the number of defects in a given length and width of hardwood boards. As with softwoods, a lower grade can be perfectly acceptable, depending on placement and usage. Hardwoods are graded by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. Here's a chart to help explain the grading system. Grades are listed from highest to lowest.
Minimum Board Size
% Usable Material On One Face
First and Seconds
6" x 8'
4" x 6'
3" x 4'
3" x 4'
Softwoods are divided into two categories: dimensional lumber, with a grade based on strength, and appearance boards, which are typically used for woodworking projects. Grading of softwoods is overseen by a number of different agencies, so you will be more likely to find some variations in terminology. Grades listed here are from highest to lowest.
|Grade||What It Means|
Almost completely clear of defects. Widely used for interior trim and cabinets.
Fine appearance, similar to C Select. May have dime-sized knots.
Best material for high quality pine with a knotty look. Knots will be tight, meaning they won't fall out and are generally small.
Tight knots, but larger than found in 1 Common. Often used for paneling and shelving. Very suitable for general woodworking projects.
Knots larger than in 2 Common. Also used for paneling and shelving, but especially well-suited for fences, boxes, and crates.
While lumber of the same species and size is at the mill, it is designated and separated by grade. It is then identified by a stamp and often inventoried by its grade and species. When selecting wood, be sure you look for its grading stamp because different lumberyards sometimes use different names for the same grade. (And remember, if you are having trouble figuring it all out, ask for help.) Grade designations depend on particular defects such as knots or wane. Keep your project final results in mind when selecting the grade of wood. Grade does not indicate consistency of color or grain patterns.
Manufacturer: Mill's number, name, or symbol. (ex. 12)
Certification mark: Symbol of agency providing quality-control supervision. (ex. WWP®)
Grade: Often abbreviated. 1 Common shown. (ex. 1COM)
Moisture content (MC): Abbreviation for MC when board surfaced. MC 15 is 15 percent or less; KD or S-DRY is 19 percent or less; S-GRN is green wood with more than 19 percent MC. (Ex. S-DRY)
Species mark: Symbol or abbreviation for types of tree. Example shown is Ponderosa pine. (Ex. PP)
Below, you'll find a list of common defects in lumber.
Warp on the face of a board from end to end.
Hollow across the face of a board.
Warp along the edge line, also known as crown.
A tight knot is usually not a problem. A loose or dead knot, surrounded by a dark ring, may fall out or may have already left a hole.
Crack going all the way through the piece of wood, commonly at the ends.
Multiple bends in a board.
Crack along the wood's annual growth rings, not passing through the entire thickness of the wood.
Separation of grain between the growth rings, often extending along the board's face and sometimes below its surface.
Missing wood or untrimmed bark along the edge or corner of the piece.