Here at Rowden Atelier furniture making school, we are extremely lucky to work with a wide range of beautiful wood; from native to exotic hardwoods. Our woodworking course students use a wide variety of specialist woods every day to create beautiful, bespoke pieces of furniture.
The best woods for furniture making
One of the many deeply engaging aspects of being a furniture maker, is working with a range of woods, and getting acquainted with the unique qualities of each. Each timber has its own character. Each board is different. Some species cut under the chisel-like hard cheese. Others have all the hardness and resilience of mild steel, but without the coldness of touch.
Cherrywood, Pearwood, Oak, Ripple Sycamore and Olive Ash are all native timbers that we use frequently here at Rowden Atelier, but each project is unique. A design often expresses the ‘right’ timber for a piece and where it doesn’t, we consider the properties we need and select accordingly.
If you are interested to find out about the best wood for furniture making, or the unique qualities of each species, read on.
Western Red Cedar
A real giant of a tree, available in wide boards and very easy to work. The lovely scent can remain in the wood especially when used in confined spaces. Very durable and much used for internal joinery. Especially good for houses, as it withstands almost any climatic condition.
An unusual timber in that it has almost no use in furniture making due to its wild nature on being exposed to air.
This species comes from Canada and, like most maples, is very versatile: from furniture making, to fine letter blocks for printing press, to tool handles and even billiard cues. It ages and discolours less than sycamore and its grain can be very wavy.
This is often used as a detail in marquetry but its initial lustre can fade when exposed to too much ultraviolet light.
Although this species is, without doubt, the best available mahogany from any of the exporting countries, we have a genuine obligation to our environment and the world conservation principles to try to use mahogany from other sources where conservation is an important factor.
A timber which exudes a natural oil from its pores, enabling it to withstand exceptional conditions. Very difficult to degrease for gluing purposes, but still a joy to work (despite its calcium pockets and grit particles blunting your tools).
A species that can resemble walnut to a degree. It shows strong, generally straight grain in solid form, but in veneer form it can be very highly figured.
One of only a very few woods, but arguably the best, for carving. The world’s greatest carvings are generally in lime, which is a real delight to work. Unfortunately not really suitable for furniture.
This pale straw-coloured wood is useful as a good stable base to incorporate with other woods.
When available this magnificent species provides all that one could desire in terms of durability, size, depth of beauty, and wonderfully exotic figure.
Very open, featureless grain wood which is difficult to cut to a crisp finish. The splinters are poisonous and must be removed from the skin immediately. Used for door and window frames and in the production of plywood.
Another timber sold by weight and one that sinks in water. It has an oily texture which makes gluing difficult. For making wooden bearings, or bowling bowls, it is excellent, but it is not suitable for furniture-making.
American Black Walnut
A beautiful wood, perhaps more in the burr veneer form than in the slightly plain solid form. Although mild and easy to work it can prove less exciting than its European counterpart. Regardless of aesthetics, however, this is a magnificent furniture-making wood.
If one timber had to be chosen as ‘king among kings’, this would be it. Without doubt, its ease of usage, colour, texture, figure and sheer depth of beauty, combined with stability and its vast range of application, from turning to furniture, make this one species which has to be experienced.
Second rate in its use for furniture, but excellent as a good stable sub-base, or where painted furniture is required. It machines easily and is excellent for making jigs. It is confusingly called tulipwood poplar, and some timber merchants ‘dress it up’ by calling it tulipwood!
When planed, changes in ultra-violet light from straw colour to almost black. Open pored but, with a good grain filler, replaces rosewood admirably. Lacks figure and very straight grained, but for small areas such as turnings it has a wonderful grain distinction.
A confusing wood: the lightest wood in the world and the softest, yet classified as a hardwood! A marvellous timber for model making and for containers requiring buoyancy.
A very stripy and powerful grain is attributed to this dense species, mainly from Kenya. It is often used in the production of small decorative items and burr olive is a real delight to the eye.
One of the few species which, when the medullary rays are seen in the quartered board, changes its name from plane to lacewood. The tree is predominant in many cities and is distinguished by its forever peeling bark. A good furniture wood, it has great subtlety.
Often a difficult timber to obtain. It can be difficult to plane without breakout, especially on the quartered boards, but equally it is worth persevering as the close grain can polish beautifully.
Difficult to obtain the best quality outside the USA as it is rarely exported.
Not always easy to obtain but freely available in southern Africa. It is a very versatile wood and has the advantage of being resistant to decay.
Not too dissimilar to muninga. It is difficult to work due to its interlocked surface, but if you persevere your reward will be a beautiful rich, deep red timber with dark streaks dancing over the surface. Beware of this colour fading somewhat when exposed to ultraviolet light.
American White Oak
This oak is regarded by many as adequate, in that it is durable and tough, has good sectional sizes and length, but is prone to having sapwood included in sawn boards. It is, however, dull and must rank as a functional oak rather than a character oak.
American Red Oak
One could argue that whereas there is a greater depth of colour to red oak, compared to white oak, its main disadvantage (to some) is that it cannot take stain readily. A very similar timber in working qualities to that of the white oak.
The English oak has a majesty all of its own and, of all the oaks, is the most magnificent for furniture making.
The joy of this pine is that it is generally knot free, often growing above 70ft (21 m) in height. It is used for internal work where the reddish streaks are regarded as a feature.
Cedar of Lebanon
A general term, as there are three or four different cedars of similar characteristics, this species is famous for its strong fragrance, which deters moths, and is often used as a drawer lining. It is very light with little constructional strength, but much sought after for small boxes and caskets.
A wonderful timber for outdoor use, it not only grows to great height but produces really wide boards.
In Western Europe this species abounds as household furniture and structural members in house building.
A giant tree, often growing in excess of 280ft (85 m). Generally reddish in colour, the sectional sizes available are enormous, thus its use is vast, from large wooden structures to interior usages. It is not only very tough but also water resistant.
Some trees exceed 1000 years in age. Yew has extraordinary elastic properties, hence its historical use for long bows and finest ‘Windsor chairs’. It has a very high wastage content (up to 40%) and its branches make beautiful veneer oysters. The foliage is poisonous to many animals, including cattle.
One of those woods to which every furniture maker must turn. It is so close grained, with a pale straw-yellowish colour, you will only find it in small sections, but do buy it. Even in small inlay strips it is beautifully hard and provides great protection for vulnerable corners and edges.
A wood with engineering qualities in that it can produce wooden screws. Heavy and very tough, it is not commercially readily available. Its great use is for tool parts, such as plane stocks, and where a shaped block can be worked on, as in the leather trade.
Sometimes called ‘poor man’s oak’ because of its resemblance to flat sawn oak. Softer than oak but found in larger sections. A handsome tree with a large crown; although few medullary rays are seen, this wood is delightful to work. Its high tannic acid content stains fingers very easily.
A pale to dark-brown wood, not dissimilar to teak in appearance. It is a nightmare to machine without good extraction facilities as its pungent smell irritates the nasal passages.
A West African hardwood which is available in veneer and solid form. A fairly dense wood which is reddy brown with dark thin lines giving an interesting pattern, often seen when used for the manufacture of plywood. Sometimes this species is known as kevazingo.
There are various rosewoods; Rio, Indian, East Indian, British Honduras, etc. for some years source countries have imposed an export ban so it is difficult to obtain. Difficult to glue and prone to fine surface splits, but equally an amazingly beautiful timber, still much sought after.
A very striking timber from Brazil which is difficult to obtain in anything other than small sections. It is often sold not by cubic content but by weight. A dense wood which polishes well and is often seen as decoration in a piece of furniture.
Confusingly called ‘poplar’ by some timber suppliers. It is not, and its source is Myanmar (formerly Burma). A very dense wood, used and sold in a similar way to kingwood. In the USA the tulip tree is likely to be called poplar- though of different appearance to this species.
So difficult to obtain it is often sold by weight, which at nearly 90 ib/ft3 (1440 kg/m3) would make a good door stop if it was not so expensive. Beautiful to turn, but inclined to have an interlocked spiral grain which makes planing difficult.
Rich and elegant with dark brown streaks on a black background. The figuring can be so strong that it can take over from the overall shape of small pieces. In wall panels, or tables it can be very bold.
Sometimes called ‘jelly’ in the trade, this pale yellow timber is excellent to veneer on. Very stable but dull in appearance. An annoying aspect of this species is the preponderance of worm holes combined with oval shaped resin pockets, which can break out over the planed board.
Very stripy which, due to the size of the tree, appears in very wide boards. When converted into veneered panels and seen en masse it does not excite the taste buds. Used by piano makers and in commercially produced doors.
A slightly confusing name, as it is also called peppermint ash and giant gum ash. In Europe it is known as olive ash, generally occurring after 30 years’ growth when the white heart has turned to streaky olive. Good for sports goods, wheelwright’s work and wherever springiness is required.
A fair percentage of Western Australia is built of jarrah; it is used in bridges, railway sleepers, flooring and many areas where its strength and suitability for outdoor use prevail. Used for internal cabinet work, it is a very even red colour, but often lacks the character of beautiful grain.
Not a true ash but an Australian eucalyptus, this can have a number of different names – Tasmanian oak, Australian oak, giant gum, white ash. Grows to a very large size, but is likely to resist even drying and, due to its fast growth rate, it can be liable to distortion.
An excellent wood to steam bend, beech is renowned for moving and shrinking in the solid. This shrinkage is 400% greater than any other comparable hardwood in Europe. However, it can work beautifully when dry, and woodworking tools are often made of beech.