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Hey guys,

I started woodworking about 3 years ago and caught the bug bigtime. Like most of us, I had no idea what to think at the beginning regarding what sort of woods to use in my projects. I thought that the harder the wood, the cooler my project was. So maple, ash, hickory, purpleheart, basically anything that works about like aluminum was "cool" in my head. Big mistake. I think many beginners likely feel this way and I'd like to have an open forum with some beginner, intermediate, and expert opinions, which this site is sure to provide. Hopefully this can give some insight to beginners about what sort of woods are good to begin with.

Please share your thoughts on this topic. I'd love to hear about some medium and especially soft woods that you folks out there like to use. And also, do you think HARDwoods are cooler that not so hardwoods?

I have learned that workability of the material is a huge determining factor in whether or not a project is a success and whether or not it is fun.
 

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I do believe a piece is much more beautiful when it's colors are from the wood and not stain but don't get me wrong I can't afford to build everything out of walnut and maple so a lot of my stuff is stained pine.
 

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What in particular do you feel is hard to work about some of those hardwoods you mentioned? I've been woodworking for just over a year and commonly use maple, walnut, mahogany, etc. Sure, they may take a little longer to feed through a saw or sand as compared to pine, but it doesn't seem like that much longer. Woods like cherry and purpleheart can burn easily so those do require more time.

Some others that you may want to consider are soft maple, cypress, and poplar (maybe more for painted projects).
 

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I make small boxes of eastern red cedar which is quite soft. I inlay soft maple images into the lids. I find that it takes a different finishing procedure than hard woods do, like oak or pecan. Lots more coats and an under coat of shellac is what I do.
 

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Remember that the term Hard vs soft wood is a scientific term which does not necessarily indicate the hardness or softness of a wood. Also, woods such as mahogany and purple heart are not hard or soft woods, they are exotics since they grow in regions which do not have 4 seasons yet only 2 (dry and wet).

Hardwood: wood from a tree which is a broad leaf tree. Deciduous. looses its leaves in the winter.
Softwood: Wood from a tree which is a conifer or needle bearing tree. Evergreen.
Exotic: Wood from a tree which is neither of the above because there is no winter in the region it grows. This is my cobbled together definition. Think central and south america and africa.

So hard and soft are misnomers. Hardwoods can be soft and soft woods can be hard.

I dislike softwoods as a species except for cypress because it has character (mineral deposits) if you find good cuts.
 

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If we are talking about woods and beginners, poplar I think fits the bill nicely: cheap, closed grain, not too hard, no widely varying hardness in the grain (like fir), etc. I use lots of exotics because I prefer building guitars, so that comes with the territory there.
 

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I guess I don't see your point, why do you need to get over hardwoods? They are beautiful and in many ways easier to work with than pine. There have been many projects posted on LJ that have been made from pine that would look great except for the blotchy finish. I think it is much easier to finish hardwoods than pine or other softwoods, especially for beginners. Really the key to getting started is to use what you can get cheaply, I think poplar is a good choice but so is oak and maple, ash , etc. A lot depends on what the project is, generally interior furniture should be hardwood, outdoor furniture is a different story, where softwoods or exotics come into play. Then there is shop projects where anything goes. Softwoods have their place and a lot of beautiful things can be made from them, but I don't necessarily think of them as "beginner" woods.
 

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I cut my teeth on pine. (back in the 70's, you can tell by the scanned grainy pics)
Mainly because I didn't know much about other woods and pine was readily available at the hardware stores.
They didn't have the big box stores then and I didn't know about lumber suppliers.
Pine was always easy to work with and I loved the smell. Staining wasn't a problem because I didn't know what splotching even was.
It was also cheap, I remember paying .38 ft for 1×12's

Now, I think alder would be a good wood for beginners. Poplar can splinter easily when routing profiles.

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For beginners the terms hardwood and softwood often lead you to think about the wood's quality, when it really means the wood's source. Balsa wood comes from a hardwood, Yew from a softwood, yet there is not a WW alive who would tell you that Balsa was "hard" or that Yew was "soft."

Workability is only half or maybe two thirds of why a certain wood might be selected. As a WW I am concerned with how the piece will both look and function once it is complete. Softwoods have less figure and less variety of colors available. And most softwoods are not as hardy from a structural perspective. In addition softwoods have higher levels of sap, even when properly dried, and can therefore be a burden of sorts to work with as the residue builds up on your tools. I agree that workability is important, especially when you are not using machines for the heavy work. But there are plenty of hardwoods who work very well.

As stated already poplar is a good beginner wood. I also like cherry and butternut, they are very easy to work but are still attractive and take a finish. I use a lot of walnut, maple, and oak too. I do get into exotics now and then, but I think of them as small feature parts rather than primary carcass pieces.
 

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My summary is this: Use your favorite local wood whether it is hard, soft, or whatever. Spend time with one or two particular species that you like and master them. Then your work will become more efficient and more beautiful. You will learn how to mill them without tearout. You will learn what grit to sand them to for a perfect finish. You will learn what finishes make them beautiful. You will know what pieces to use on what projects.

You can guess from my name that I love Cypress. I live in Louisiana and it is available for a good price. I love the closed grain and the smooth finish I can get with it. I know which boards are going to cup and twist (usually). I love the grain patterns. It is my "go-to" wood.

Through experience you will find the species that you love to work with.

Jacob
 

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Many years ago I asked my mentor at the time..Charles Neil why he used Curly Maple and Bublinga instead of Oak, or other more common woods as I think they have beauty. He replied in similar words"I make cabinets for a living and I can get those more common woods, but I put the same labor into the piece. Although the more exotic woods cost more they also produce a more spectacular result. My customers are willing to pay more to have them."

Although I am using what I have which I have aquired from building houses , etc, and I plan to mill local harvested woods, I remember the essence of his advice.
 

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I cut my teeth on pine. (back in the 70 s, you can tell by the scanned grainy pics)
Mainly because I didn t know much about other woods and pine was readily available at the hardware stores.
They didn t have the big box stores then and I didn t know about lumber suppliers.
Pine was always easy to work with and I loved the smell. Staining wasn t a problem because I didn t know what splotching even was.
It was also cheap, I remember paying .38 ft for 1×12 s

Now, I think alder would be a good wood for beginners. Poplar can splinter easily when routing profiles.

Brown Wood Rectangle Fixture Wood stain

Brown Cabinetry Furniture Dresser Drawer

Wood Christmas decoration Event Art Interior design

Cabinetry Wood Door Dead bolt Fixture

Building Wood Cabinetry Rectangle Table

Furniture Cabinetry Wood Drawer Rectangle

Cabinetry Property Furniture Building Wood

Brown Wood Wood stain Hardwood Flooring

Jeans Wood Sleeve Tints and shades Pattern


- Iwud4u
Love knotty pine myself, and use nitrocellulose lacquer for that yellowed finish that takes years to develop!

As far as projects to paint, I use poplar or alder (though I do also stain alder, as it really is "poor man's cherry").
 

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I am surely a beginner, and I think I see what you mean in your original post. It is easy to look around and think you have to build in Mahogany, Walnut or other exotic hardwoods in order to make something that is pleasing. In reality, you can make great stuff out of any wood.

I have worked with Oak, Cherry and Hard Maple. I will say the Hard Maple is way less forgiving and requires you to go slower and works your tools harder. When I'm doing things to develop my skills I don't work in that wood. Cherry is great to work with. Oak is fine as well. Pine is very easy on your tools and your pocketbook. And it can look great when finished.

-Brian
 

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I use both hard and soft wood but try to use local grown wood as much as I can and even did a few projects made from OSB which was a lot of fun .
http://lumberjocks.com/projects/92322
I also have made a few things from white aspen which theoretically a hardwood but rather soft and good to work with sharp tools
Plant Wood Table Grass Cottage

Table Plant Furniture Wood Rectangle

Both of these boxes are white aspen and trimmed with walnut .
I also have posted several other boxes in different wood combinations and I always look for contrast and try to use what I have ,take a look in my projects and you will see what is possible with soft woods .

Klaus
 

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I've worked with mahogany, African mahogany, sapele, red oak, white oak, soft maple, hard maple, curly maple, ash, walnut, pine, poplar, purpleheart, and cedar-I think. For me, though, cherry is the best combination: I can get it locally, easy to work with, easy to finish, and beautiful.
 

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In the beginning….. I started on pine and poplar because that's all I could afford. Pine while soft, had it's own issues. I had access to yellow pine which was hell on tools, and the dickens to work with. It's has it's place an in certain styles of furniture. Poplar is the easiest in my opinion to work with. While it is a hardwood, it's easy on tools, and great stable medium. IMO it's best suited to paint finishes since it is so smooth. Now that I have become adept at finishing, and using dyes, it has opened new uses.

I've worked with a lot of other hardwoods such as walnut, maple, bubinga, and various others depending on what the person the piece was for wanted it to be.

My personal favorite, and the wood of choice that have been working with for years now is Cherry. I love it, the finish on it and it just sings.

If bought retail can be expensive. I've learned that the best way to do it is to find a sawyer that has a kiln and buy it rough and in quantity. I generally save by putting a little out of every check away for my lumberstash fund. With the comission or two I do a year, I always price the materails in, so that I can take those funds and apply it to the lumberstash fund.

Now a days I can find cherry in or around the 3$/bf in my area in bulk.

Biggest advice, yet you a planer/jointer and never ever ever buy from a big box store. I started with a lunchbox planer and if you cant afford a power jointer, and #7 hand plane with a scrub plane will do the trick just as good, used it for years before the 12" jointer I have now.

Again, I love working with any wood even cocobolo that seems to want to break your tooling its so hard!

If I can make sawdust with it, it's good to go!
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Thanks for the responses guys! I think I may have been a little vague with my original post… My bad. I wasn't referring to deciduous vs conifer or actual "hardwoods". I was referring specifically to hardwoods that are actually very HARD. But alas, my wordplay didn't shine thru the text. When I was a beginner

I thought everything had to be maple or it was "weak", which is obviously a stupid beginners mistake. I was wondering if any of you had or have the same feelings and how you got around it. I still have the problem of picking woods for projects based on how "cool" they are. For instance, I just built my first dovetailed jewelry box out of purpleheart. What an idiot! First major dovetail box and I pick purpleheart! Just because it sounded cool. Silly me.
 
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