If you’ve spent any time on this blog or our online shop, you know that we think how a piece of furniture is made is just as important as how it looks. We’ve already covered the best way for a piece to be constructed with our blogs on wood materials, joinery, veneers, and finishes, but we haven’t talked a lot about the different species of wood. We’re going to fix that with this blog. The type of wood doesn’t just play a big role in how something will look or what it costs, but also how well it performs as a piece of furniture: how hard or soft it is, whether it changes color, and how long it will last.
Before we go into the common types of wood, we want to do a quick “Everything You Need to Know About Wood” lesson. That way you’ll understand what we’re talking about.
Hardwood or Softwood
Wood species are split up into hardwoods and softwoods. The terms are botanical: Hardwoods are flowering deciduous trees, usually with broad leaves, and softwoods are evergreens that typically have needles and cones. Hardwood trees typically grow slower than softwoods, resulting in wood that is denser than their slow-growing counterparts.
You may assume that hardwood would hold up better than softwood, and in most cases you’re right. As a general rule, hardwoods are harder than softwoods and, as a result, stronger and more durable. There are a few exceptions: Oak is a sturdy hardwood (please see all those cabinets from the 90s that are still going strong), but balsa, another hardwood, is actually softer than some softwoods. And yew is a softwood that’s relatively hard. Don’t focus too much on those, though, since those kinds of woods aren’t usually used to make furniture.
Because hardwoods grow more slowly, they are usually more expensive. You will often find cheaper furniture made from a fast-growing softwood like pine (that’s why Ikea sells so much low-cost pine furniture). Read more about the different types of wood materials, including hardwood versus softwood, in our blog here.
Domestic or Foreign
When you’re selecting a new piece of furniture, it’s important to know where the wood comes from. In the past 10 years, more and more pieces are made from wood you’ve probably never heard of before. These include Rubberwood (often called “Plantation Hardwood”), Mango, Acacia, Sheesham, and Sengon Tekik. These are all wood species that are grown overseas. We go into detail of domestic versus foreign wood species on our blog here, but if you’re looking for quality furniture, avoiding those species is a good first step.
Most American-made furniture is made out of wood grown in America, such as oak, maple, cherry, walnut, ash, poplar, and pine (some quality American manufacturers may import beautiful tropical wood like mahogany). Using domestic wood species ensures that they were harvested from responsibly managed forests and processed correctly to avoid issues like cracking and warping.
To make things even more confusing, some foreign manufacturers use American wood species – shipping raw lumber overseas to factories and back again as furniture. This practice has a huge carbon footprint and is misleading to shoppers (you think you’re getting American-made because the wood is grown here, but you’re not).
The one exception we make is for outdoor furniture made of teak. Teak is not grown in America, but is widely used in outdoor furniture because of its durability. Many high-quality American manufacturers use imported teak in their outdoor furniture. As long as the manufacturer is reputable and there is a good warranty, you should be fine purchasing teak furniture.
Solid Wood or Veneer
A veneer is a thin layer of one type of wood that is glued to another piece of wood (either solid wood, plywood, or MDF—read more about wood materials here). Many inexpensive, low-quality pieces of furniture incorporate thin veneers that easily chip off, but not all veneers are bad! A lot of well-made furniture incorporates veneers to incorporate expensive wood species or elaborate designs.
Unfortunately, most veneers you see are done as cost-cutting measures and not in the name of fine furniture making. We cover how to spot quality veneers in this blog, but a good general rule to follow is to look for solid wood furniture. Solid wood eliminates the peeling issue all together, is sturdier, and is easier to repair.
There is one natural characteristic of wood you should be aware of: It has a habit of changing color over time. Sunlight is one reason wood fades (if you’ve ever picked up a rug that’s been sitting on a wood floor for a long time, you’ll see that the area under the rug is darker), but other woods undergo actual chemical changes that affect the color.
Opinions vary on the exact reason some wood species change color, but the two primary factors are exposure to air (oxidation) and ultraviolet (UV) light. As time passes, over months and even years, your furniture can darken, lighten, or change colors. This isn’t always a bad thing! Sometimes the color change enhances the appearance of the wood, which is what happens to mahogany and cherry. And it doesn’t always happen: Many of the lighter-colored woods, such as oak, ash, and pine, tend to be relatively color-fast.
Why does this matter? So you can plan for it. A lot of the color changes happen at the beginning. So if you purchase a new cherry table, don’t leave items on top of it in one place for too long. Like the rug on that wood floor, if the light can’t reach a spot, it will remain the original color while the wood around it changes. If you buy a table with leaves, put them in for at least the first six months so that they darken along with the rest of the table. If you want to speed up the process, expose the wood to as much natural light as possible for a few weeks, rotating the piece regularly for even exposure. Just remember that sunlight may eventually fade your wood, so don’t overdo it.
Most furniture you come across has a stain applied to the wood to change its natural color. Here’s another spot for confusion, since many wood stain colors are named after species of wood. For example, you might see a piece of furniture that is made of maple, but has a walnut stain. You can read more about the specifics of furniture finishes here, but know that they’re a great option for changing the way wood looks and behaves. For example, if you like the look of cherry’s grain but not the reddish hue, get it stained darker. An added bonus: This limits the amount of color change discussed above. Another thing wood stains are useful for is lowering cost. If you like the color of walnut but don’t want to pay more for it, get a piece made out of another wood species stained to look like walnut.
Now that we’ve gotten all of those fundamentals out of the way, let’s look at some of the more common species of wood used to make furniture.
- Tough hardwood known for its heavy weight, strength, hardness and shock-resistance
- Often used for making furniture that requires bending the wood, such as a chair with a curved back
- Has a visible, distinct straight grain
- Varies in color from creamy white or gray with a light brown undertone to a dark reddish brown
- Staining brings out the contrast in the grain
- Good for bringing in a natural element since you can see the wood grain
- Ash veneers are common
- Strong, heavy, shock-resistant hardwood used for pieces that require bending
- Commonly found in Scandinavian-style furniture.
- Generally considered to be less attractive than ash, has a fine, tight grain
- Often combined more expensive woods and used in inconspicuous places, such as chair and table legs, drawer sides and bottoms, and the backs of cabinets
- In its natural state, beech is light in color, though it is often stained to look like mahogany, maple, or cherry
- Hardwood used for both the structural parts of furniture, like sofa frames, and exposed parts
- Has a heavy weight, hardness, strength and good shock resistance
- Light yellowish brown, very similar in color and in grain to maple
- Takes stain very well, and can be stained to resemble mahogany or walnut
- One of the most popular of the hardwoods, is used in fine furniture and cabinets
- Often used as a veneer
- Moderately hard, but it is strong, durable, and possesses good shock and wear resistance
- Has an attractive and distinctive straight grain, but less pronounced than ash or oak
- Typically has small black flecks in the grain from mineral deposits or pockets where the tree once stored sap
- Susceptible to natural color changes:
- Cut cherry wood has a salmon-pink color, though manufacturers often use a light stain to diminish the pinkness
- The natural “ripening” process is most apparent within the first six months of exposure to light, and it may continue for several years before the wood achieves that beautiful, reddish brown color for which cherry is known
- The color eventually stabilizes, so if you accidentally leave a vase in one spot on the table for too long, a sunlight bath should even out the color
Mahogany/New World Mahogany/African Mahogany
- Tropical (imported) hardwood that is a traditional favorite for fine furniture
- Has an even texture, medium hardness, heavy weight and strength
- More resistant to moisture and atmospheric changes than other woods, so it is less likely to warp, shrink, swell, or twist
- Easy to carve and very popular as a veneer
- Known for its distinctive crotches, swirls, and stripes, although some mahogany trees are comparatively straight-grained
- Susceptible to natural color changes:
- Mahogany’s color starts as a very light pinkish tan, but quickly turns reddish brown with exposure
- The color continues to change over time, but it won’t get quite as dark as the mahogany antiques seen in museums
- Some species of mahogany are disappearing as a result of poor forestry management
- Other varieties have come onto the market as replacements for the traditional species, but be careful for cheaper, imported mahogany look-alikes (they might be sold as “Philippine mahogany” or go by lauan, meranti and seraya woods).
- Durable, dense, attractive hardwood
- Used for butcher blocks in addition to furniture
- Has a heavy weight, hardness, strength, and good shock and moisture resistance
- Has a fine, uniform texture and a generally straight grain, but variations such as bird’s-eye, curly, tiger, flame, rippled, fiddleback or wavy patterns may occur
- Good for more modern pieces of furniture where you don’t want to see a lot of wood grain
- Popular choice for painted finishes
- Susceptible to natural color changes:
- Natural color is light brown, with a reddish cast
- As it ages, it takes on a deep honey color
- Some maple trees have been affected by insects or other natural circumstances, with beautiful consequences. One unique variation is Ambrosia Maple (Wormy Maple), notable for its beautiful, contrasting grain pattern with distinct blue, gray and brown streaks and worm holes created by the Ambrosia beetle. Our maple table tops from Charleston Forge are wormy maple.
- Spalted Maple is another unique variety, with a pattern of dark veins, like a pen and ink drawing, caused by rot or bacteria
Oak/Red Oak/White Oak
- One of the most popular of the hardwoods
- Has always been valued for its strength and striking grain
- Was the wood of choice for many of America’s well-known mission and craftsman-style furniture makers, including Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright
- Has a heavy weight, hardness, durability and wearability, as well as strength (many floors in historic houses are oak and have lasted over 100 years!)
- Known for having a distinctive grain, with prominent rays or streaks
- It is not uncommon to find different grain patterns in the same piece of oak wood
- Red oak and white oak are similarly grained, but their colors are different: white oak is a grayish brown color and red oak has a pronounced reddish tint
- Oak wood may darken slightly over time, taking on more amber tones, but the change is very subtle and much less dramatic than the color change you’ll see with cherry or mahogany
- A plentiful softwood that has been used for furniture since Colonial times
- Soft, lightweight, and not as strong or durable as hardwoods like maple and oak
- Resists warping, but it tends to chip, scratch and dent fairly easily (some other species, such as Southern yellow pine, are much stronger than white pine; they are used in housing construction, but rarely in furniture)
- Typically knot-free, with a uniform texture and fairly plain straight grain
- In addition to furniture, it is commonly used for window sashes, door frames, moldings, doors and paneling
- Appearance changes as it ages:
- Newly cut, it’s usually a pale straw color, sometimes with a light reddish tone
- Exposed to air and light, it darkens to a rich honey color, similar to maple
- Unlike maple, it keeps getting darker, eventually turning a warm golden brown
- You can see beautiful dark pine floors in early American houses, grooved from hundreds of years’ worth of footsteps and proudly showing off their history
- Relatively soft hardwood, light in weight, strong and stable
- Rarely used in fine furniture, appearing most often as framing inside upholstered furniture, a secondary wood (drawer sides and bottoms, for example) or in inexpensive pieces
- Has a subdued grain
- Natural color is brownish yellow, with a distinctive green tinge or streaks
- With exposure to light and air, its color soon changes to a subtle brown
Walnut/Black Walnut/European Walnut
- Hardwood that has traditionally been used for fine furniture and is still in great demand today
- Popular in solid wood furniture, as a veneer, and for butcher block and live-edge tables
- Known for its hardness, strength, stability, heavy weight, durability, carvability, and good shock resistance
- Walnut trees grow very slowly and can take up to 150 years to mature, so the wood is very dense and hard
- More expensive than the other American wood species
- Walnut produces more grain variations than any other wood: crotch, swirl, stripe, ribbon, mottle and burl
- Is a rich chocolate brown in color, with occasional purplish streaks (walnut is actually the only naturally dark wood that is native to North America)
- As walnut ages, it gets lighter and a rich honey color starts to show through the grain
- With the passing years, natural walnut wood develops a lustrous patina, making it even more beautiful
You really can’t go wrong if you choose a hardwood for your furniture—most commonly used species are durable and hard. The most important thing to take note of is if you are choosing a species that will change color dramatically, since you’ll want to manage its exposure to sun or choose a stain that can help lessen the effect. Besides that, just choose a look you love!