The choice of wood for a coffee table is determined by aesthetics, design, application, cost or preference of materials. The architecture of a room, or design of the table makes a difference. Wood for a coffee table can be broken into two basic categories: The use of hardwood provides elegance. Softwood provides rustic ambiance and economy.
Softwood is one of the most affordable wood species. Available softwoods include pine and fir, but because it is soft, poplar -- which is actually a hardwood -- should also be included with the softwoods. In descending order of hardness per the Janka Hardness scale, fir ranks 660, poplar ranks 540, and pine, the softest of the three, averages about 400.
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If you're building a table for a lodge, cabin or rustic cottage, pine is typically the best choice. It's got the knots, swirls and amber color that enhance the decor. If you're building the table in close approximation to architectural features containing a pole design, staircases for example, it should be pine.
Fir is a harder cousin of pine. It has less character than pine, with straighter grain, and fewer knots. It's stronger and more durable than pine. Use it for a sturdier table, but with a similar rustic ambiance. Slightly more expensive than pine, it remains less expensive than any type of hardwood.
Poplar is one of the straightest, most user-friendly woods available. It lacks the grain patterns of fir and pine, but its resilience makes it a pleasure to work with. Its whitish color and straight, closed grain lend it to paint-grade tables. It's about the same cost as fir, but sands smoother and is less likely to splinter.
Among commonly used hardwoods, oak, maple, mahogany, cherry and walnut are the most widely available.
Oak: Red and White and Blue
Oak is a common domestic hardwood. It's bold, flame patterned grain is easily recognized. Red oak, the most common, has a rating of 1,290 on the Janka scale. White oak is more exclusive and harder with a rating of 1,360. Use red oak to recognize traditional American woodworking, such as Shaker style. White oak is more expensive, and more exclusive. Use it more sparingly for designs such as Victorian or Queen Ann tables.
As one of the hardest domestic hardwoods, maple ranks 1,450 on the Janka scale. Use it for the most durable table you can imagine. It lacks the bold grain patterns of oak, but it's creamy consistency and glassy finish adds class to a coffee table.
Mahogany is widely available domestically, even though it's imported. Slightly soft, averaging about 800 on the Janka scale, depending on it's originating country, mahogany is somewhat pliable. With close, straight grain, mahogany has uniformity not found in other hardwoods. Mahogany is prized for it's warm, orange-to-reddish tint, and requires only a natural clear finish. Use mahogany if you plan on doing designs or carvings.
Cherry and Walnut
Cherry and walnut, although distinctively different in appearance, have always vied for the top spot among serious woodworkers. The light, delicate patterns and soft warm hues of cherry lend opulence to coffee tables. It ranks 950 on the Janka scale. Walnut is prized for its rich chocolate color. Easy to work with and easy on the eyes, walnut, ranks 1,010 on the Janka scale. Use cherry or walnut to impress.
Solid wood is typically not recommended for tabletops. Solid wood can move. It can warp, crack or split when tension created by differing humidity levels, pulls it in different directions. Plywood, made by overlapping layers of wood perpendicularly, doesn't suffer from same problem. Plywood is the best choice for a tabletop.
Use laminated wood for legs, braces and anything structural. Most coffee tables employ 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-inch-thick lumber, and it's not typically available without paying extra. It's typically not available to purchase, but anyone can laminate 3/4-inch-thick lumber together with glue and clamps to get the needed thickness. Laminated lumber is stronger and more warp resistant than a comparable piece of lumber that is not laminated.
Manufactured wood is typically avoided for coffee tables -- unless you're going for economy. However, some laminated products, such as MDL or medium-density-fiberboard, offer a realistic grain pattern that is water-resistant, but it lacks the character of plywood or solid wood. Use it for tables that might take a beating, such as in an office or work environment.