When choosing a type of wood for furniture, it’s best to factor in the top three considerations of any woodworking project: cost, location and aesthetics.
Budget is often the first consideration in most woodworking projects. And, for furniture -grade wood its wise to keep cost in check. For example, a project that requires 40 board feet of lumber at $8 a board foot will cost you $320. And that’s before you start a saw, buy a hinge or purchase a finish.
Location, of course, is usually about indoor vs outdoor furniture. And choosing a wood that will withstand either outdoor elements or resist un-desired movement indoors.
Lastly, the final appearance of the project (including stain) will decide which wood is best for furniture. From choosing grain, wood color and even width of boards there are many considerations to choose from.
Types of Wood for Interior Furniture
First, a bit of trivia that not all woodworkers know: what type of tree does hardwood come from? Well, deciduous trees (that have leaves). Leaving conifers like pine as a softwood.
Why is that important? Because choosing the right type of wood for furniture usually starts with deciding on durability:
- Softwoods will easily dent if used for chairs and tables
- Meanwhile hardwoods will resist scratching and denting, but have cost and weight trade-offs
But there is much more to choosing wood for furniture.
Popular Woods for Stained Tables and Chairs
For tables and chairs, it’s common to go with a denser hardwood that can handle years of abuse without damage. And when it comes to stained wood, popular choices are either red oak or cherry. Red oak is a more traditional look. But, if stained dark to neutralize its orangish tint, provides a nice contrast to other woods.
Cherry, on the other hand, is slightly softer but features a beautiful grain pattern that is rare among furniture-grade wood. Just be careful to cut out white sap wood for a consistent grain (and buy a Select grade). Lastly, to retain its beauty, cherry can be lightly stained or oiled.
Natural Wood for Modern Furniture
For projects where a lighter toned wood is desirable both maple and pine are popular choices as they do not require stain. Maple has the advantage of being extremely durable, while pine is softer but considerably less expensive.
A budget alternative to maple, when available, is birch. This white wood is easy to find, but does often come in narrower boards due to the smaller diameter of the tree.
Since both maple and birch are popular in hardwood and plywood form, you’ll be able to mix these woods for projects that require panels.
A few things to consider:
- Staining woods like pine, maple or birch can be challenging as these woods do not readily accept stain without pre-treatment
- To avoid yellowing of the wood over time use a water-based finished like polycrylic
Classic Bedroom Furniture Wood
You probably know this, but quarter sawn white is one of the most popular woods for furniture making. From shaker bedroom furniture to classic mission pieces this specially cut wood highlights shimmering platelets found in the woods grain.
When milled correctly quarter sawn white oak will show little grain. Instead, the growth rings all stand vertically and highlight narrow grain. Interspersed within these bands are beautiful grain configurations that when stained highlight the woods natural beauty. To maximize its appeal many woodworkers will stain white oak dark to maximize its unique grain pattern.
For modern designs, many woodworkers will use cherry for bedroom furniture. The rich grain of this wood offers a natural beauty that doesn’t require fancy designs or complex stains.
Paint Grade Wood For Furniture
If plans call to paint the furniture then the quick and simple solution is almost always to use Poplar.
Not only is Poplar inexpensive, it features a closed grain, sands easily and has a moderate density. While it isn’t as dense as oak, it does resist many dings and scratches.
Runner up woods for painted furniture include Birch and Pine. Birch is similar in finished quality to Poplar but is slightly more dense. Pine on the other hand is cheaper but harder to paint as knots and sapwood can leach through the finished paint.
Dark Woods for Furniture
When it comes to executive grade wood then black walnut is often the wood that professionals will start with. But, walnut is not only handsome when finished but also easy to work with, sands easily and with sharp tools is generally resistant to chipping.
However, the downside to walnut is cost due to its slower growth and high demand.
Live Edge Wood Furniture Tops
Over the last decade there has been significant movement towards use of live edge tables, desks, bars and even shelving. But these massive tops often exceed 2” in thickness and require not just muscle to move but careful attention to storage to prevent twisting.
For this reason, you’ll generally find live edge wood is from dimensionally stable hardwoods like walnut, maple, ash, cherry, white oak and sycamore. Of course, your choice in live edge tops often drives the overall project species so budget accordingly.
Knotty Furniture Wood
Not every project needs to be perfectly smooth and free of blemishes. In fact, one of the most timeless cabinet woods is the knotty alder that highlights large, open knots.
So, for projects with a rustic look you can look too:
- Knotty alder
- Lower grades of white pine
- Knotty red oak
What do wood “grades” mean? First, and important to know, wood is available in grades such as “FAS – first and seconds”, Select, #1, #2 and so on. While higher grade wood costs more per square foot it also features less knots and sapwood. However, the advantage to lower grade woods is they produce rustic furniture that highlights the blemishes.
Types of Wood for Exterior Use
When it comes to making outdoor furniture you won’t find too many domestic woods that are more popular than cedar. Redwood, a close cousin to cedar, is another popular domestic wood that has a slightly stronger wood character and features similar rot resistance.
But for many outdoor projects woodworkers will turn to exotic types of furniture wood that go a step beyond domestic USA species.
Domestic Exterior Furniture Grade Wood
For everything from simple benches to complex Adirondack chairs many projects start with western red cedar. Because it is both readily available and features a rot resistant composition it can last decades if properly sealed and maintained.
Cypress, often found in southern climates, is a solid choice for furniture and is popular in exterior doors. With high rot resistance and an attractive grain (typically less knotty than cedar) it finishes well.
Lastly, white oak features a grain structure that inhibits moisture retention and is suitable for outdoor use.
The trick for all exterior woods is committing to maintenance and using a UV resistant finish that prevents acceleration of both wood fading and decay.
Exterior Grade Wood
The two broad types of furniture grade wood for outdoor use are domestic and exotic.
While domestic woods are good for many applications and larger projects like decking or outdoor structures, when it comes to durability it is tough to compete with exotic woods for furniture.
However, being responsible, the only types of exotic woods that should be used are those they are sustainably harvested and not part of the deforestation that plagues key environmental areas like the Amazon.
Sustainable Exotic Furniture Grade Hardwood
First and foremost, when buying exotic lumber it’s best to deal with reputable firms like Northwest Hardwoods (https://northwesthardwoods.com/products-services/exotic-hardwoods/) who only procure lumber according to US law.
Importantly, exotic woods like Ipe and Jatoba offer up incredible durability and hardness that are less common with North American exterior grade softwoods. Given the subtropical climates they grow in, these exterior grade woods are superior in almost all ways to standard domestic wood.
Jatoba is a dense and readily available furniture wood. For durability the Jatoba wood has a high rot resistance and is not a species that is known to be a high concern with sustainability (according to the CITES Appendices). Many manufacturers of outdoor seating use Jatoba for everything from porch swings to outdoor tables.
Ipe, on the other hand, is a commercial grade hardwood that is almost indestructible. In fact, deck builders often struggle to cut, drill and perfect working with this exterior hardwood given its extreme hardness. Which, as you can guess, make it a suitable top for outdoor tables.
Most Popular Types of Furniture Wood
- Red Oak – while extremely popular and thus somewhat viewed as “standard” , this straight grained, durable wood offers a classic look at a reasonable price. Orangish in color, red oak is easy to stain to various shades of brown or rich golden colors.
- Quarter Sawn White Oak – is arguably the gold standard for mission or shaker bedroom furniture. With a unique look, exceptional durability and a rich dark tone when finished it is a premium type of furniture wood.
- Cherry – from end tables to kitchen tables and bedroom furniture, cherry is a unique wood that can be used just about anywhere. And, since it changes color over time (darkening as it ages), it makes for a rich looking bedroom, kitchen or dining room set. And, for an immediate aging, there are solutions to age the wood with UV lights.
- Maple – for a clear and simple furniture piece a high grade clear maple furniture project will stand the test of time. And when finished with a non-yellowing finish such as Polycrylic it will stay a clear white tone for decades to come. Of course, beware of Maples tendency to yellow with oil based finishes such as solvent based urethane’s. Maple does come in a few grades, including heartwood, that offer a darker tone of light tan to brown.
- Walnut – black walnut is readily available and grows in most moderate climates to an appreciable size. This rich looking wood is a mainstay of office furniture and features a dark grain that requires only a light oil finish (but can easily be stained darker).
- Pine – this well known wood has been used for centuries to male purpose built kitchens, tables, beds and just about any style of furniture. With a soft composition it is best suited for light duty applications. However, when properly finished this warm country-style wood is tough to beat for a humble character at a value price.
Cheapest Wood for Furniture
The least expensive wood for most furniture building projects is typically a softwood such as pine. Because of pines rapid growth and ready availability it is often a fraction of the price of its hardwood counterparts.
However, it has some distinct disadvantages:
- Pine will dent easily if used for projects such as kitchen tables.
- For painted furniture, any knots or pitch pockets will need to be cut out or properly sealed with a special primer such as Kilz (link)
- Finding kiln dried pine can be more difficult, which makes it less desirable for larger projects where wood stability is a key consideration.
For hardwoods, a solid choice for any painted project is always Poplar. While usually inexpensive, this kiln dried wood is stable, easy to work with and accepts paint extremely well. It’s downside, however, is it does not have an attractive grain appearance or consistent coloration. In fact, Poplar can range from a light white to dark purple all in one board.
Most Expensive Wood for Furniture
When choosing a wood for furniture it’s easy to overshoot your budget. And, when setting a budget, there are two key quantities to measure:
- Board feet. All hardwood is purchased by the board foot (sorry, if you are shopping lineal feet or sold that way, run to another supplier). So, the first step is determine your projects board feet requirements and add ~20% to set a proper budget. Remember, of course, board feet is based on 4/4 thickness. Thicker wood is simply more board feet.
- Plywood cost. Whenever possible and it doesn’t influence the visual finish, a furniture grade plywood will save time and money. But, a top grade plywood can cost as much as $150 for a 4×8 sheet.
Now with that in mind, the most expensive wood for furniture is almost always Walnut. Cherry will usually come in second, and unless you are planning an exotic wood project other species will follow.
Remember, however, not all types of wood will have a plywood counterpart. One of the most noticeable exceptions is quarter sawn plywood that can be purchased in veeners but not typically as a plywood.
How to Identify Wood in Furniture
It’s not uncommon for woodworkers to be asked to match a new piece of furniture to an existing piece. And, aside from color matching, this is usually easy to do with a bit of preparation and sleuthing:
- Make sure you have a good understanding of what finished woods look like. If you’re not sure, check out the Wood Database for the popular types of furniture wood in this article.
- Don’t just look at the finished wood, remember most larger projects will have some exposed wood on the underside of a top, back of a drawer or other hidden surfaces.
- Worst case, take a slide out of an inconspicuous piece of wood (with approval of course) and see if the exposed grain gives you clues.
- Take a sample door or other part home to study, and if possible bring it to a local hardwood store for advice.
- Lastly, and there is no shame in this, take a picture and ask online forums that specialize in wood identification. Just prepare for a few bad comments, and then look for professional answers with a reason behind their choice.
And, for what it’s worth, if you are being asked for both a species and color match make sure you know what you’re getting into. While species can be matched, as wood and wood finishes age it is an art to perfecting a match.
Where to Buy Wood For Furniture Making
After you’ve decided on a wood, the next step in the process is finding where to buy your wood.
While there are many choices, woodworkers will usually start with:
- Find a local hardwood specialty store and make a long term relationship with a professional.
- For smaller projects look online for internet suppliers. While most types of wood for furniture are larger, for small pieces this might be an option. Or, at a minimum, give you a reference point on what you should be paying for wood.
- Big box stores often carry a handful of maple, red oak and even cherry. While typically sold by the lineal foot, and incredibly expensive, for small quantities with easy access this isn’t a bad option.
Lastly, check out our Guide to Buying Hardwood for a database of lumber suppliers across the US.
- About the Author
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Eric has been a professional woodworker for over thirty years and has worked in small cabinet shops making everything from kitchen cabinets to hand-made furniture. Now working from a home woodworking shop Eric is sharing his passion for woodworking, tool advice and how-to knowledge from his Minnesota-based woodshop.