How do Hardwoods and Softwoods differ?
They look different. Some are smooth, some have bold grain and some have
knots or bird eyes. They finish differently. The density of the various woods
change the depth and tone of the color. The region where the furniture is
made, the style, and the historical period of the price determine the wood
Hardwoods are deciduous, the botanical group of trees that have broad leaves,
produce a fruit or nut, and generally go dormant in the winter. There are
hundreds of hardwood species in the United States. Together, all the hardwood
species represent 40 percent of the trees in the United States.
In contrast, softwoods, or conifers, from the Latin word meaning
"cone-bearing," have needles. Widely available softwoods include
cedar, fir, hemlock, pine, redwood and spruce.
The following is an alphabetical listing of the most popular hard and soft
Alder, a relative of birch, grows from Alaska to Southern California. It ranks
third behind oak and pine as the wood most commonly used for ready-to finish
Color: Very consistent in color - pale pinkish-brown to almost white.
Grain: No distinct grain pattern
Characteristics: Good working properties, moderately lightweight, low
Finishing: Finishes smoothly and takes stain well
There are several species of American ash: black, brown, and white. Like most
other hardwoods the timber of the white ash is heavy, hard, strong and
durable. What sets ash apart and makes it valuable for many special uses is
its exceptional flexibility. Ash is among the most easily steam-bent hardwood
species. Early windmills were made form Ash. Ash is also used extensively in
the manufacture of sporting goods. We all know that baseball bats are made
from white ash. Ash is a popular species for food containers because the wood
has no taste.
Color: Nearly pure lustrous white, ranging through cream to very light
Grain: It has an attractive, straight, moderately open, pronounced
Characteristics: Heavy, hard, strong and stiff excellent bending
Finishing: Because of its large pores it is seldom painted but takes
all other finishes very well.
Both quaking and big tooth aspen are readily available as lumber in the
western U.S. Because of it's neutral odor and taste, it is used for food
containers and other food industry needs. In recent years it has become
increasingly important in the manufacture of wood furniture.
Color: Very light and white in appearance.
Grain: Very even grained.
Finishing: Ideal for non-penetrating finishes such as water based
stains and paints.
Related to the oak and chestnut, beech is most common in the higher altitudes
of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Elegant and attractive, the American beech
is a medium tall tree with the smoothest of all bark. It grows, naturally,
along mountain slopes and rich uplands in nearly pure stands. It tolerates
shade well making it one of the forest trees that can thrive beneath the
canopy of taller species. American beech is an important timber species. It is
highly adaptable to steam bending while retaining its strength. It is
excellent for woodturning, wears well and takes preservatives well. Because
beechwood becomes slick with wear, it is perfect for drawer sides and runners.
Because it bends well, it is used in bent wood chairs and other bent wood
furniture. It does not impart flavor, odor or color to food so it is good for
food utensils and containers.
Color: Wood ranges from nearly white to deep red brown.
Grain: Close and straight grained, with little figure and a uniform
texture, identified by its dark pores in conspicuous rays.
Characteristics: Hard and strong. Good resistance to abrasive wear.
Finishing: Easy to paint, stain or bleach.
Yellow birch is a deciduous hardwood which grows principally in the upland,
hilly terrain of the Northeastern and Lake States forests: There are nine
species of birch native to North America, including the very distinctive and
familiar white trunked paper birch. But the species named yellow birch is the
most common and important commercial lumber birch. It is identified by its
bright, yellowish bronze colored bark that peels in long, thin horizontal
Color: Cream or lightly tinged with red.
Grain: Fine grained (often curly or wavy).
Characteristics: Heavy, strong, hard, and even-textured.
Finishing: Birch takes paints and stains well.
Like all fruit trees, cherry belongs to the rose family and was used as early
as 400 B.C. by the Greeks and Romans for furniture making. Cherry helped
define American traditional design because Colonial cabinetmakers recognized
its superior woodworking qualities. Today, cherry helps define Shaker, Mission
and country styling. The wood from the cherry tree can be described in a
single word: beautiful. Its rich red-brown color deepens with age. Small dark
gum flecks add to its interest. Distinctive, unique figures and grains are
brought out through quarter sawing. It has an exceptionally lustrous
appearance that glows. The finish is satiny to the touch
Color: Rich, reddish-brown. Cherry darkens considerably with age and
exposure to sunlight.
Grain: Straight-grained and satiny. Small gum pockets produce
Characteristics: Light, strong, stiff and rather hard. Cherry's grain
is more subdued than some other hardwood species, with very interesting
Finishing: Cherry is unsurpassed in its finishing qualities-its uniform
texture takes a finish very well.
The eucalyptus genus represents more than 300 species. They have been successfully planted in South America, South Africa, Europe and the United States.
Color:It is pinkish-brown in color and turns to a reddish-brown with age and exposure to light.
Characteristics: Its' resistance to decay is relative to teak.
Eucalyptus is a heavy hardwood that earns high marks for strength.
Eucalyptus is a renewable resource with high productivity in relatively short harvest rotations. The wood in these products comes from well managed forests, independently certified in accordance with the rules of the Forest Stewardship Council
A Native American tree, hickories are members of the walnut family. Hickory is
the hardest, heaviest and strongest American wood in common use. Westward
trekking pioneers allegedly made hickory a prerequisite for their wagon
Color: White to tan to reddish-brown with inconspicuous fine brown
Grain: Fine grain.
Characteristics: Extremely tough and resilient, even texture, quite
hard and only moderately heavy.
Finishing: The grain pattern welcomes a full range of medium-to-dark
finishes and bleaching treatments.
The heavyweight of all woods, mahogany is one of the most valuable timber
trees. Popular in the '50's, mahogany is making a comeback due to the new
attraction to the "red" woods. On an interesting note, new model
automobiles were originally carved, full sized, entirely out of mahogany! Each
piece, no matter how big or small, from the front bumper, to the engine, the
dashboard, the drive shaft, back to the lock on the trunk is first fashioned
from this very stable hard wood.
Color: Varies from light red or pale tan to a rich dark deep red or
deep golden brown, depending on country of origin.
Grain: It is generally straight grained but is prized for its figures
which include stripe, roe, curly, blister, fiddleback, and mottle.
Characteristics: Extremely strong, hard, stable and decay resistant
Finishing: Finishes and stains to a beautiful natural luster.
The American species of maple are divided into two groups: Hard maple, which
includes sugar and black maple; and soft maple, which includes red and silver
maple. Until the turn of the century, the heels of women's shoes were made
from maple, as were airplane propellers in the 1920s. Maple has been a
favorite of American furniture makers since early Colonial days. Hard maple is
the standard wood for cutting boards because it imparts no taste to food and
holds up well.
Color: Cream to light reddish-brown.
Grain: Usually straight-grained and sometimes found with highly figured
bird's-eye or burl grain. Bird's-eye resembles small circular or elliptical
figures. Clusters of round curls are known as burl.
Characteristics: Heavy, hard, strong, tough, stiff, close-grained and
possesses a uniform texture. Maple has excellent resistance to abrasion and
indentation, making it ideal flooring as well as cutting boards and
Takes stain satisfactorily and polishes well.
The oaks-red and white-are the most abundant U.S. hardwood species. It would
be difficult to name a wood with a longer and more illustrious history in
furnishings and interior design. Oak was a favorite of early English craftsmen
and a prized material for American Colonists. White oak is just one of 86 oak
species native to this country, but it is the classic oak of America. Although
prevalent throughout the eastern half of the United States, from Maine to
Texas, white oak lumber comes chiefly from the South, South Atlantic and
Central States, including the southern Appalachians.
Red oak grows only in North America and is found further north than any
other oak species. A big, slow growing tree, red oak takes 20 years to mature
and lives an average of 300 years.
White Oak- ranges from nearly white sapwood to a darker gray
brown heartwood, Red Oak-ranges from nearly white cream color to a beautiful
warm, pale brown heartwood, tinted with red.
Grain: The grain is distinguished by rays, which reflect light and add
to its attractiveness. Depending on the way the logs are sawn into timber
(rift-cut, flat sliced, flat sawn, rotary cut, quartered), many distinctive
and sought after patterns emerge: flake figures, pin stripes, fine lines,
leafy grains and watery figures.
Characteristics: Heavy, very strong and very hard, stiff, durable under
exposure, great wear-resistance, holds nails and screws well.
Uses: Flooring, furniture, cabinets, ships and decorative woodwork.
Finishing: Oaks can be stained beautifully with a wide range of finish
Parawood is A Native tree of the Amazon Region of South America. Information
about Parawood can be traced back to Christopher Columbus. It was during his
second visit to South America, that he wondered at the heavy black ball the
natives were using in games. This black ball was made from the vegetable gum
of the Parawood tree. Later historians would also marvel at this substance,
which bounced so much when thrown to the ground it appeared to be alive. In
the 19th century an Englishman named Henry Wickham transported some seeds to
England for germination. The seeds germinated and these small seedlings were
then transported to the Malay Peninsula for planting; there to start the Great
Rubber Plantations of Malaysia. After 25 to 30 years of latex production,
tapped in the same manner syrup is tapped from the Maple trees, the tree
ceases to produce sufficient quantities of latex. The tree is cut for
processing in the manufacture of fine furniture and a new tree is planted in
Color: Pale yellow.
Grain: Open grain similar to mahogany.
Characteristics: A very hard wood.
Finishing: Takes a very even stain.
Radiata Pine is a plantation-grown wood from South America and New Zealand
that is harder than other pines and has fewer knots.
Color: Pale cream color.
Grain: Has a distinctive grain pattern.
Finishing: Takes most finishes well.
Southern Yellow Pine is actually a species group that is made up of primarily
four trees: loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), long leaf pine (Pinus palustris),
shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) and slash pine (Pinus eliottii) Loblolly Pine
is the most important and predominant of the four. It grows throughout the
Atlantic Coastal Plain, often in commercial stands, from Maryland south
through all the Carolinas and Georgia into Florida, and westward to East
Texas. It is classified as a hard pine and is harder than white pine.
Color: Warm pale yellow with brown knots.
Grain: Distinctive light and dark grain pattern.
Finishing: Pine takes most finishes well. With some stains, a sealer
helps prepare the wood to achieve a more even look.
Found in the uplands of Newfoundland, Ontario and Manitoba in Canada, south
throughout New England and the Great Lakes Region to South Carolina White Pine
is the state tree of Maine and Michigan. A very large tree with relatively few
horizontal big limbs, the Eastern white pine is one of the tallest timber
trees in the Northeast.
Color: white to pale yellow with a reddish tinge. It darkens with age and air
exposure, eventually turning to a deep orange color.
Grain: The wood is light, soft, straight grained and with very uniform
Characteristics: It works very well and is easily shaped with hand and
power tools. This wood accepts many types of glue well, making for tight
Finishing: Pine takes most finishes well. With some stains, a sealer
helps prepare the wood to achieve a more even look.
Also known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar, tulipwood and hickory poplar,
-poplar trees grow taller than any other U.S. hardwood species. The yellow
poplar grows quickly into a tall straight tree. It is found alone in open,
rich, moist soil. Because of its fast maturity the lumber from poplar is
lightweight and soft for a hardwood. But it is strong, durable and seasons
well resisting warping once it is dried. Because the trunk has no limbs or
branches, except at the very top, the wood has no knots.
Color: White to yellowish cast, sometimes with slightly greenish cast
and occasionally with dark purplish streaks.
Grain:. It is straight grained and evenly textured.
Characteristics: Comparatively uniform texture, light to medium weight,
excellent strength, and stability. . It cuts and sands well, keeps its' edge
and resists splitting.
Finishing: The wood stains well and can easily be made to resemble
walnut or maple. Because it takes paint exceptionally well, it is often