Choosing wood for a piece of furniture is somewhat like choosing a hairstyle: While the choice depends greatly on personal aesthetics, there usually are one or two that best suit the situation at hand. The list of wood species is long, but many make impractical choices for furniture projects because they are rare, expensive, difficult to work or unstable. Eliminating these still leaves a drool-worthy palette of raw materials for interior furnishings.
When pioneers first settled in America, they had an abundance of pine trees to fashion into floors, furniture and other projects, and any of their creations that have survived intact are valued as antiques. Pine is proof that wood does not have to be expensive to be valuable, and many woodworkers still choose it for tables, chairs and cabinets. Pine is easily damaged, but that's part of its charm. Whether on a floor or a tabletop, pine is inviting, and it doesn't take long for the wood to age and darken into appealing honey-colored hues.
The Hardwood Difference
Although it has a hardness rating almost twice that of pine, oak is easy to work and features the same range of hues, although it stains well. Walnut and cherry, two distinctive hardwoods in the same Janka range as oak, aren't as common and are more expensive. When it comes to durability and character, maple tops many woodworkers' lists of affordable domestic hardwoods. It's the hardest domestic species, and it can feature intricate grain patterns.
Trees that grow near Earth's equator tend to have dense, oily wood that is prized for durability and appearance. Because tropical species are valued, however, they are over-harvested, and many exotic species are rare or protected -- and expensive. Moreover, hard woods are difficult to work, and many woodworkers shun them in the interest of preserving their tools. Richly textured mahogany and vibrant, dramatic teak are two farmed species that are moderately priced, and easy to cut and fasten. Despite their dissimilarity in appearance, they are equally valued as materials for furniture and woodwork.
Best Quality Wood
The top-quality boards in a lumberyard are those with no knots or defects on either face, which the National Hardwood Lumber Association designates as First and Seconds, or FAS. Not many cabinetmakers can afford the expense of working with FAS lumber, however, and many choose either Select or No. 1 Common, both of which contain a limited number of defects. Experienced cabinetmakers generally choose their wood carefully to ensure the defects don't wind up being visible on the finished furniture. When building structural parts of furniture, they often choose No. 2 Common lumber, an even less expensive option.