Most decent pieces of furniture are made of solid wood. The type of wood used is what gives the piece its personality and beauty as well as solidity and strength. If you’re into woodwork, or you fancy giving it a go, you’ll find this post interesting. We thought it’d be handy to take a look at a bunch of commonly-used softwoods and hardwoods, delve into their unique properties and research where to find them.
Softwoods and hardwoods – What’s the difference?
First, before we go into detail about specific tree types, why are they classified as either ‘soft’ wood or ‘hard’ wood? What’s the difference?
It isn’t about strength. Soft and hard woods are both very strong, soft woods aren’t the least bit weak. Soft woods come from coniferous trees, i.e. trees with cones, including cedar, fir and pine. They often have a red or yellow tinge and because they naturally grow straight and fast instead of curvy and slow, they’re usually cheaper than hard woods and are generally more sustainable. Which means you’re not contributing to deforestation by using them or buying furniture and flooring made from them.
Hard woods are loved by woodworkers because of their gorgeous colours, beautiful grain patterns and exciting textures. The only down side is the cost. Because hard wood trees grow so slowly, some exotic species are far too costly to use anywhere except in fine detailed work, veneers, inlays and fancy decorative finishes. If you want to work with a hard wood, make sure it comes from a sustainable source. Alternatively, you can always find a piece of old, non-antique hard wood furniture to take apart and re-purpose.
Common soft woods
- Cedar tends to be reddish in colour and it’s a relatively soft wood. It smells lovely, like freshly cut pine, has a nice, straight grain and is usually used outdoors. Cedar shingles are used to roof buildings in the USA more often than here – think of a mountain log cabin with cedar shingles and you get the picture – and it’s also useful for furniture, decking and other exterior woodwork projects. Cedar is great at resisting rot and is used widely in damp environments as a result. As well as being very beautiful, it is relatively inexpensive.
- Fir also has a straight grain like cedar, and is also reddish in colour. It’s a relatively cheap wood often used for building and isn’t great for furniture, because its grain is a bit boring and dull, and it doesn’t take wood stain very well. It does, however, take paint perfectly. For a soft wood it’s relatively strong and hard.
- Pine is the name used for all manner of trees, many of which are commonest in the USA. There’s the wonderfully named Ponderosa pine, for example, plus yellow pine and sugar pine, in the UK usually just labelled ‘pine’. It’s ridiculously easy to work with, very soft, really good for carving and perfect for furniture. And it takes wood stain well, provided you seal it first.
- Redwood is resistant to damp and is often used outdoors. It’s fairly soft with a clear, straight grain, so not the most interesting wood to look at. As you’d imagine, it has a red tint to it. It’s cheaper in the USA, where California Redwood comes from, and more expensive in Britain.
Common hard woods
- Ash might not be a common hard wood for much longer, bearing in mind the ravages of Ash Dieback Disease. But for the moment it’s still available, a stunning white to pale brown wood with a pretty, straight grain. It’s relatively soft and easy to work with, taking stain reasonably well. If you can’t find white oak, ash is a great substitute.
- Birch has two faces, either yellow or white. The yellow variety is a lovely pale yellow/white with a heart – the centre of the tree – of reddish brown. White birch is paler still. They’re both quite hard and, as a rule, are often cheaper than many hard woods. Ash is great for furniture, stable and easy to work with, but staining can be tricky because it can easily go blotchy. On the other hand it takes paint really well.
- Cherry is easy to work with, perfect for furniture and accepts wood stains well. It looks great finished with a wood oil. The heart is reddish and the outer part, known as the sap wood, is very pale, almost white. It’s less hard than birch and is readily available from sustainable sources. It tends to be more expensive than many other hardwoods, simply because it’s in greater demand.
- Mahogany is probably the most famous furniture wood. Brown to deep red in colour with a straight grain, it’s less hard than birch. It accepts wood stain beautifully and appreciates a wood oil finish. You may need several coats of oil but the end result is awesome, well worth the effort. One thing to remember – the wood is rarely available from sustainable sources, so buying new mahogany is down to your conscience. Luckily you can sometimes buy used mahogany from wood reclamation yards.
- Maple can be either a hard wood or soft wood, and the hard version is so hard it’s tricky to work with. The softer type of maple is fairly easy to work with in comparison, and because both have such a lovely fine, straight grain pattern they’re both very stable, more so than many other woods. Maple is relatively cheap, too.
- Oak comes in red and white and is probably one of the world’s most popular woods for furniture and hardwood flooring. It’s strong, hard and easy to work with. The white variety is the woodworkers’ favourite because the ray-like patterns in the grain are so attractive. It’s moisture resistant so is often used for garden furniture. And white oak costs less than many hard woods.
- Poplar is another relatively low-cost hardwood, quite soft and easy to work with. It’s usually very pale, more or less white, with greenish or brown streaks at the heart. The resulting strange and not entirely attractive pattern makes it less popular for furniture than oak so it isn’t used to make fine furniture very often. But it’s great for the inside of drawers, stable and cheap. It takes paint really well, much better than it accepts a wood stain. People often use it to make bowls, toys and small craft items.
- Teak is getting rarer but is still popular for good quality outdoor furniture. It’s extremely weather-resistant and very beautiful, as well as costly. It’s golden brown with an exotic, oily texture and is a medium-hard wood.
- Walnut is extremely hard, a rich, deep brown colour and easy to work with. Sadly it’s expensive and relatively rare. These days craftsmen use it for fancy stuff like inlays.
Where can I buy exotic hardwoods?
Rainforest deforestation in particular and deforestation in general is a no-no these days, and sustainable woods are used more often as a result. Luckily there are plenty of wood reclamation and architectural reclamation yards springing up all over Britain as the trend for re-purposing and recycling heats up. It’s amazing what you can find, everything from wonderful old oak railway sleepers to the pillars from old beach groynes and chunks of exotic woods like Sapele, which is the most stunning conker red colour and a joy to carve by hand.
If you need new hardwood, you could try British Hardwoods, a leading UK supplier of everything from timber to specialist planed hardwoods. You can even buy online. Softwoods are much more easily available – try your local timber merchant.
Amazing wood bargains for craft, furniture and woodwork projects
I found a lovely piece of Sapele, which I used for my first ever wood carving, inspired by seabirds. The wood only cost a fiver! At the same Brighton wood recycling yard we found a huge, silvery, worn mahogany block, about eight feet by two by two. They cut it into four chunks for us, which have been out in the garden for five years or more, and are still good as new and perfect for outdoor seating. The cost? £70. It just goes to show, if you’re dying to have a go at wood carving or woodwork, it needn’t cost a fortune.
We have a huge range of wood oils and stains to help you transform your next woodwork project and bring it into a state of sheer perfection. If you have any questions about which wood finish is best for the type of wood you have, just give our resident experts a call, they’ll be happy to help!