Whether you’re commissioning a piece of custom-made furniture, or buying a prefabricated or second-hand piece, understanding how to choose the right wood for your furniture can be a little daunting.
The furniture you already have in your home can help you decide, but some of the pieces around you can be what I call ‘incidental’ furniture, meaning you were given it, it came with the house, or it’s been with you for years and you just have no idea where it came from.
You can, of course, find something to best match the majority of your existing wooden furniture, but on the other hand, you may want to branch out into something different for a special feature piece. Deciding which to go for is a lot easier when you know the qualities of the different wood types.
Softwood and hardwood
The basic classification of timber can be broken down into two main types – softwood and hardwood. Softwood, as a rule, comes from conifers or evergreen trees with needles instead of leaves, such as pine, fir, cedar and spruces. As conifers have a tall straight stem or trunk from which to take long planks and are easy and relatively quick to grow, there is an abundance of this timber on the market and therefore softwoods are usually more affordable.
Hardwood mostly comes from deciduous trees which lose their broad shaped leaves in Autumn. They tend to grow much more slowly and, as a result, the timber is dense and hard and perfect for quality furniture making. The hardwood tree shape is different from that of a conifer, in that large branches grow and re-branch from the trunk, which is rarely as straight as a conifer. This results in a stunning open grain and more textured feel. The strength, durability and slower growth of hardwood means the cost tends to be higher.
The general difference between hardwood and softwood is that hardwoods are much heavier, denser, more durable and longer-lasting. They have more interesting grain and colour variation between species and due to their cell structure take a finish really well. My choice 99% of the time is to use hardwoods. I find the look of a softwood like pine to be best when old and used, with new pine only really coming into style in a cabin-type setting.
So to further narrow the search, here are the qualities of the most common hardwoods: Oak, Maple, Ash, Walnut, Beech, Cherry and Tulip.
The Latin name for oak, Quercus robur, means strength, which the oak tree most definitely lives up to, producing a tough wood perfectly suited for making all types of incredibly durable furniture.
Due to its presence on most continents, it’s a readily available timber which machines and takes a finish very well.
I’ve found Oak to be the most requested of the timbers I use, due to its strength, beautiful warm colour and noticeable grain pattern, which I truly love.
Maple (Acer & Sycamore) is one of the lighter coloured hardwoods, often used for chopping boards and kitchen utensils due to its strength and moisture resistance.
However, Maple is not just a functional wood, its grain pattern is subtle (except birdseye maple), it finishes beautifully and if you are looking for a light Scandinavian feel, then this could be the one for you.
Birdseye maple is a rare phenomenon found in the wood which results in a distinct pattern resembling tiny swirling eyes, and is quite prized for bespoke furniture making, if money is no object.
Ash is a great wood and often one I recommend to a customer who wants a similar (but lighter) look to Oak, and not the cost.
It is lighter in colour and density than Oak, although slightly less durable, and is widely used to make curved furniture. With a beautiful grain and a light warm finish when oiled, ash is great for tables and chairs and can bring brightness and sense of space to a room.
If you’re looking for strength and structure foremost, and not necessarily colour, then I would recommend oak over ash.
Walnut is a beautiful dark hardwood and one of my favourites.
Not as hard or heavy as some of the other hardwoods, walnut is still hard-wearing, yet lighter. With a colour like dark chocolate, it can be tricky to fit a walnut piece of furniture in amongst lighter colour pieces, but as a stand-alone piece, or as part of a set it really is beautiful and has the wow factor.
It takes a polish really well and has such a luxurious look.
Beech is a strong hardwood with a dense tight grain, resulting in a very even and subtle grain pattern, especially when compared to oak or ash.
Beech takes a finish well, has quite the Scandinavian feel about it. Not the best timber for very long pieces of furniture as it has a tendency to move and warp, but great for smaller pieces.
One of the more expensive types available, cherry wood results in warm and elegant looking pieces of furniture.
It’s another one of my favourite timbers which has an incredible colour, varying from a light pink to warm red which darkens over time, especially when left in direct sunlight. A great timber for a special stand-out piece of furniture.
Tulipwood, also known as Poplar is a hardwood which I believe deserves to be better know and more widely used. Its has a broad range of grain colours, from olive green to brown to a cream colour.
It’s a lovely strong wood to work with, and its applications vary from doors to furniture to mouldings. It gradually darkens with time and benefits from being one of the more affordable hardwoods. A hardwood that I am planning to use more often.
Each wood type often has many species, for example there 60 different variants of oak in the US. Although their general properties remain the same, the colour and grain patterns within the different species do vary. It’s the fact that each piece of timber is natural and unique which makes handcrafted furniture a joy. It ensures you own a true one-of-a-kind piece when you buy furniture made from real wood.
I’m available for a chat if you have any questions or need further advice on how to choose the right wood for your furniture, or indeed want to know about any other wood types.