Choosing the Right Wood to Build With

Last Updated:  July 1, 2021

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One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when you first start woodworking is to figure out what kind of wood to use for your projects. There’s solid wood or plywood, softwood, hardwood, construction-grade, domestic, exotic, and not to mention trying to make sense of all the sizes involved – it can be pretty overwhelming. But, don’t worry. We’re going to sort all of that out in this article.

Solid Wood

Simply put, solid wood is cut directly from a tree. It doesn’t have composite materials like MDF or fiber board and it isn’t made up of wood layers glued together, like plywood. Solid wood is steady and secure but it does take on and release moisture throughout the year causing it to expand and contract, so, if you don’t plan for that movement, your project could crack or split.

The most widely available solid wood here in the US is known as SPF – spruce | pine | fir. It can be any of those three species, but you may know it more commonly as a 2×4 or 2×6 – this is construction grade lumber and it can be found at almost any big home center or lumber yard. Spruce, pine, and fir are conifer trees which are trees that are generally evergreen and have a cone. These are known as soft woods.

I’m not going to get into this too much, but not all soft woods are soft and not all hard woods are hard, but generally that’s the case. As a woodworker, the primary benefit of this construction-grade type lumber is the price. It can be very cheap especially if you need a thicker piece. Building a table out of SPF is going to cost you about 1/4 of what it would cost if you built it out of, say, walnut or cherry. If you go the construction grade lumber route for your project just make sure they’re stamped KD/HT. That means – kiln dried, heat treated – all the pests have been killed and the actual wood is substantially dryer.

If you come across something that’s labeled AD, for air dry, or S GRN, for surface green, or something to that effect, it will still be really wet. I would stay away from wood this wet because it’s got a lot of shrinking to do as the water evaporates off – and that could cause you problems in your project. Go with something that’s actually kiln-dried because even though it probably has a little bit more drying to do, it’s not near as much as wood that hasn’t been killed dried – and it’s going to move a lot less.

We talked about conifer trees and soft woods a little earlier, now let’s talk about deciduous trees. These are trees that lose their leaves in the fall and we call the wood from these trees hardwoods. There are exceptions to this rule but overall hardwoods are much denser than soft woods. There are a wide variety of hardwoods, but for the sake of this article, I’m just going to put them in two categories – domestic and exotic.

Domestics are anything that grow in your region. Here in the US those are woods like walnut, cherry, maple, or oak. Exotics are woods that grow somewhere else and have to be imported into your area. Here in the US those are woods like wenge, zebra wood, sapele, yellow heart, and purple heart.

Your ability to find these different woods depends on where you are. I’m in the southern United States so if I go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, aside from construction-grade lumber, they’ve got red oak, poplar, cedar, and a premium pine. There are no other domestics and they don’t have any exotics. If I want something else I have to go to the lumber yard, which I do 99% of the time, or someplace like Woodcraft who also has a selection of different exotics and domestics.

You can also order online, so even though you can’t see every piece and put your hands on it, and match grain before you buy it, it’s becoming increasingly popular.

Just about every woodworker and DIY’er is going to have this moment questioning their sanity when they see the size on a piece of wood, but then realize they’re missing half an inch. When a 2×4 is first milled, it’s likely 2 inches by 4 inches but going through the milling process to get it flat and smooth and square they’ve taken some of its size down to actual dimensions of 1.5 inches x 3.5 inches.

And, when you go to buy lumber in a lumber yard it gets even more convoluted. They refer to size in “quarters” and “board feet”. Boards labeled 4/4 are one inch thick since four quarters equals one. So, 6/4 is an inch and a half thick, 8/4 is two inches thick and so on. But, before you get too excited, those numbers are also nominal. A 4/4 board that’s supposed to be an inch thick is actually about 13/16” thick.

When you go to pay at the lumber yard – and this is something that even experienced woodworkers struggle with – the lumber industry uses a measurement called “board feet”. Here is how board feet is calculated:

(Length x Width x Thickness) / 144

All of those measurements are in inches. That result is then multiplied by whatever the price per board foot is.

But, don’t sweat all this and definitely don’t let it deter you from going to a lumber yard because, honestly, that’s where you’ll find the great prices and the great selection. You’re really going to miss out if you avoid lumber yards. Just don’t hesitate to ask any questions you have. If you don’t understand board feet, ask them to explain how they’re measuring, how they’re calculating, and every time you go you’re a little bit more experienced and knowledgeable than the last time.

Plywood and Other Composite Materials

Materials like plywood, MDF, and fiber board can either be thin layers of wood glued together or they can be some sort of composite material that may or may not have actual wood in it. These materials can be great for projects like cabinets, when you need wide surfaces, because they come in 4 ft by 8 ft sheets. If you use solid wood, you’d have to glue pieces together to get the width you need.

All of these materials have the added benefit of little to no movement during the seasons as water is absorbed and evaporated. MDF and fiber board don’t move. Plywood will move just a little bit because it has real wood layers, but they’re so thin, and they’re stacked in alternating directions, that the overall movement is hardly noticeable. The drawback to all of these is that traditional joinery is pretty worthless to attempt, so don’t bother.

I mentioned before that plywood is a stack of thin layers of wood that are turned in different grain directions and then glued together. Plywood gets graded according to what each face looks like. If the face is smooth, blemish-free, and has a really nice appearance that’s usually an “A” grade. If it’s got a bunch of knots, a repeating pattern, or it looks more like construction-grade lumber that’s a lower quality face at a B or C. You can get plywood with faces in any combination of grades. I recently built a project mostly with a cheaper plywood that had an A or B side and then a C side because only one side would show. Then I used just two pieces that were going to show both sides so I bought higher-quality plywood with two A sides.

There are a lot of different types of plywood and they have different applications. OSB is just layers of wood that are stacked and glued on each other in a certain way and it creates a plywood panel. I would never use it for something like a furniture project or even a shop project where the OSB would show. In my opinion, OSB is only for construction type applications where it’s going to be hidden. On the other hand, I personally wouldn’t use an expensive plywood for something that’s going to take a beating.

There are also plywoods that live in the middle – they aren’t too expensive, but also still look pretty nice. One of those is radiata pine. It’s about 60% of the price of a sheet of oak plywood, so quite a bit less expensive, but it looks way better than OSB. You can actually make a pretty nice finished project if you pick through the pile a little bit and get a nice sheet. Most of the time the other side is going to be pretty rough with knots, repeating patterns, and generally have the look of construction-grade lumber.

One big consideration, especially with MDF and to a lesser degree plywood, is that they don’t like water – at all. Plywood can be resistant to weather as long as you keep water out of the ends where the actual layers are exposed. Most of the time you would put a solid wood banding all around the edges to hide them and then also, just like any other wood, put a finish on it to resist water as much as possible.

Milling a Log

Flat-Sawn

Logs can be cut in several different ways – the first way we’re going to talk about is “plain sawn” or “flat sawn”. This cut results in grain that is parallel to the face. The resulting grain has a wildly varying pattern with cathedrals being the prominent feature. This is the cheapest way for a sawyer to mill a log since he or she gets the most wood from the tree. There are a couple of ways to flat saw – one is to make passes down to the top of the pith (the pith is the oldest part of the tree right in the center) and then roll the log over do the same thing down to the pith, doing that all the way around. The second is to cut slabs all the way straight down through the log without rolling it over. This technique is called “through and through”.

The problem with flat sawn lumber is that it’s by-far the most unstable. If one advantage of construction-grade lumber is the affordability, the downside has to be the difficulty in building with it. Most of the boards at the home center are flat sawn with knots, cathedrals, and an unstable shape.

Quarter-Sawn

When a sawyer “quarter-saws” a log he’ll cut it up into four sections, or four quarters, and then mill each section separately. A lot of times, but not all the time, they’ll cut a slab directly out of the middle to get rid of the pith. If the tree is a conifer, that pith becomes a 2×4 or 2×6. Once the log is quartered it will go up on the mill one piece at a time, they’ll make a pass, roll it over, make a pass, roll it over, and make a pass – and this results in grain that is between 90 and 60 degrees to the face. Looking at the end of the board, the grain will run straight up and down. The board is much more secure and stable, the grain is a lot straighter, and, if there are medullary rays that come out from the center, the ray flecks will show on the face of the board (usually found in oak). There will be more waste cutting it this way compared to flat sawn, so quarter-sawing is more expensive.

Rift-Sawn

The last milling technique we’ll talk about is “rift-sawn”. A sawyer will try to get boards with grain that is between 30 to 60 degrees to the face. Looking at the end of the board, the grain runs diagonally. The sawyer is trying for 45 degree grain and this results in the absolute straightest, cleanest grain. Because there is so much waste in a rift sawn log, these types of boards are much more expensive than quarter-sawn or flat-sawn boards.

Practical Application in Projects

Balustrade Coffee Table

The first project I’m going to show you is this balustrade coffee table that I built several years ago. To keep the cost down I used all construction-grade lumber except for the balusters which were ordered already turned. The table top is 2x6s, the little pieces on the top and bottom of the balusters are also 2x6s, and then the base is 2x4s ripped down and pocket screwed together with 1x6s laying on top of them. This is the first one I built of this style and I actually messed up in a couple of different ways. The first thing I would say is that I wouldn’t recommend painting a table like this white because it gets way too much traffic, it’s very hard to keep it clean, and it stains very easily.

Secondly, the 2x6s I used to build this were really wet and I really didn’t know enough to pay attention to that back then. They cupped pretty bad in places, there’s some cracking going on, and even though the breadboard ends were cut correctly with space on each side for contraction and expansion these just had way too much drying to do and so they’ve caused issues. The end piece will normally have a lip because of the nature of how the wood expands across its grain. The breadboard end will expand and contract in a different direction than the middle part of the table. So, we would expect the middle part would contract and shrink in the winter and open up a little bit of an overhang.

The problem with my table is that the wood was so wet that it contracted and contracted….and contracted – as it dried. The lip is always here and in the winter it just gets much worse.

But, you can successfully use construction grade lumber to build a table like this, no problem. Since this table I’ve built two more with the exact same type of lumber, making sure it was dry. I built it in the right way and those tables are going on a few years old and they look great. So, just make sure your wood is kiln dried, build your project correctly, accounting for wood movement, and you won’t have a problem.

Cabinet-on-stand

I built this project for one of my daughters a few years ago and it’s based off of a plan by Mike Pekovich. I wanted this to be an heirloom quality piece that she could keep for a long time and eventually pass down, so I made it out of really nice hardwood. It’s mostly hard maple with purple heart accents and the rainbow on the front is made out of all exotic wood – padauk, red heart, yellow heart, and purple heart.

If you see cathedrals like this, those are indications of flat-sawn pieces. The pieces of Purple Heart have really straight grain on the faces, and on the edges, so those are quarter sawn purple heart.

The legs are close to two inches by two inches and they’ve got two sides that are really straight grain and then two sides that have flat-sawn grain. That’s because they’ve got a basic rift-sawn orientation on two sides and a flat sawn orientation on the other two sides. That’s why we get each grain pattern.

Bookcase

The last project is these bookcases and cubbies that I built. There’s a lot of surface area here so this was a perfect opportunity to use plywood and that made it a lot cheaper. Because I didn’t want the plywood ends to show, I cut strips of solid wood and glued them to the front – and then in the back I could have used the same plywood that I used for the rest of the cabinet, but since it was getting painted I chose this really cheap fiber board.


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