Wood Types and Finishes

     There are many types of wood growing throughout the world. The following are examples of wood I have used in building furniture. I have also included information on wood finishes. Some wood grain is so beautiful that I omit applying a colored finish because it would only hide the natural beauty of the wood.
Wood Types

Description and Uses


picture of cedar wood

     Cedar tends to be a reddish or violet-brown. Sapwood is a pale yellow color and can appear throughout the heartwood as streaks and stripes.
  • Aromatic Red Cedar is included in the cypress family which includes many species of cedar. In tree form, it is more commonly called Eastern Red Cedar while the wood itself is usually referred to as Aromatic Red Cedar.
  • Rot Resistance: Regarded as excellent in resistance to both decay and insect attack, Aromatic Red Cedar is frequently used for fence posts used in direct ground contact with no pre-treating of the wood.
  • Odor: Aromatic Red Cedar has a distinct and tell-tale scent: the wood is commonly used in closets and chests to repel moths and other insects.
  • Common Uses: Fence posts, closet and chest linings, carvings, outdoor furniture, pencils, bows, and small wooden specialty items.
  • Workability: Overall, Aromatic Red Cedar is easy to work, notwithstanding any knots or irregularities present in the wood. It reportedly has a high silica content, which can dull cutters. Aromatic Red Cedar glues and finishes well, though in many applications, the wood is left unfinished to preserve its aromatic properties.
     I've used cedar in building outdoor furnishings for playgrounds. Additionally, I have built soap caddies and shaving/toothbrush holders. I like working with this wood.


picture of cherry wood

     Cherry is a very popular and all-around great wood.
  • Easy to work with
  • Stains and finishes well with just oil
  • Ages beautifully.
     Cherry's heartwood has a reddish-brown color to it and the sapwood is almost white. Cherry has a hardness of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. Cherry is a very common wood for furniture-making and is available from sustainably grown forests. Because it's in demand, cherry is getting somewhat expensive.

     I've used cherry in building a portable reading desk and drawers for a jewelry cabinet. I enjoy working with this wood.


picture of hickory wood

     Hickory wood is very hard, stiff, dense and shock resistant. There are woods that are stronger than hickory and woods that are harder, but the combination of strength, toughness, hardness and stiffness found in hickory wood is not found in any other commercial wood. It is used for tool handles, bows, wheel spokes, carts, drumsticks, lacrosse stick handles and walking sticks. Hickory is sometimes used for wood flooring due to its durability and character.

     I've used hickory in making step stools. They are strong, heavy, and built to last. I enjoy working with this wood.

Soft Maple

picture of soft maple

Ambrosia Maple

picture of ambrosia maple

     Maple comes in two varieties: hard and soft. Both varieties are harder than many other woods; hard maple is so hard (a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) that it's difficult to work with. Soft maple, on the other hand, is relatively easy to work with. Because of their fine, straight grain, both varieties are more stable than many other woods.
  • Maple wood is often graded based on physical and aesthetic characteristics. The most common terminology includes the grading scale from common #2 which is unselected and often used for craft woods, common #1 used for commercial and residential buildings, Clear, and select grade which sought out for fine woodworking.
  • Some maple wood has a highly decorative wood grains, known as flame maple, quilt maple, birdseye maple, ambrosia, or burl. This condition occurs randomly in individual trees of several species and often cannot be detected until the wood has been sawn.

     I've used maple in building step stools. I enjoy working with this wood.

Red Oak

picture of red oak

Red Oak

     Where It Grows: Widespread throughout Eastern U.S. The oaks are by far the most abundant species group growing in the Eastern hardwood forests. Red oaks grow more abundantly than the white oaks. The red oak group comprises many species, of which about eight are commercial. Average tree height is 60 to 80 feet.

Main uses: Furniture, flooring, architectural millwork and mouldings, doors, kitchen cabinets, paneling and caskets.

Working Properties: Red oak machines well, nailing and screwing are good although pre-boring is recommended, and it can be stained to a good finish. It can be stained with a wide range of finish tones. It dries slowly.

Physical Properties: The wood is hard and heavy, with medium bending strength and stiffness and high crushing strength. It is very good for steam bending. Great wear-resistance. Availability: Abundant; most widely used species.

Rot Resistance: Rated as non-durable to perishable, with poor insect resistance. Red Oaks do not have the level of decay and rot resistance that White Oaks possess.

Workability: Produces good results with hand and machine tools. Has moderately high shrinkage values, resulting in mediocre dimensional stability, especially in flatsawn boards. Can react with iron (particularly when wet) and cause staining and discoloration. Responds well to steam-bending. Glues, stains, and finishes well.

Oak veneer is also used in manufacturing plywood. Oak finished plywood can be used in building furniture.

     I've used red oak in building a sofa, step stool, tabernacle, coffee table, buffet, hutch, wine rack, and many other items. I love working with this wood.

White Oak

picture of white oak

White Oak

     White oak is impervious to liquids, and has been used extensively for ship timbers, barrels and casks. White oak is the state tree of Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland.

Where It Grows: Widespread throughout the Eastern U.S. The white oak group comprises many species, of which about eight are commercial. The trees prefer rich well drained soil, and average height is 60 to 80 feet.

Main uses: Furniture, flooring, architectural millwork, mouldings, doors, kitchen cabinets, paneling, barrel staves, (tight cooperage) and caskets.

General Description: The sapwood is light-colored and the heartwood is light to dark brown. White oak is mostly straight-grained with a medium to coarse texture, with longer rays than red oak. White oak therefore has more figure.

Working Properties: White oak machines well, nails and screws well although pre-boring is advised. Since it reacts with iron, galvanized nails are recommended. Its adhesive properties are variable, but it stains to a good finish. Can be stained with a wide range of finish tones. The wood dries slowly.

Physical Properties: A hard and heavy wood with medium bending and crushing strength, low in stiffness, but very good in steam bending. Great wear-resistance.

Availability: Readily available but not as abundant as red oak.

     I've used white oak in building an end table, entertainment center, and dining chairs. I love working with this wood.


picture of poplar

     Yellow poplar trees grow taller than any other U.S. hardwood species and they are members of the magnolia family. The bark, leaves, flowers, fruit and roots contain pharmaceuticals. Poplar is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
  • Where It Grows - Widespread throughout Eastern U.S. Tree heights can reach 150 feet.
  • Main uses - Light construction, furniture, kitchen cabinets, doors, musical instruments, exterior trim and siding, paneling, mouldings and millwork, edge-glued panels, turnings and carvings.
  • The poplar tree is rarely attacked by parasites.
  • The sapwood is creamy white and may be streaked, with the heartwood varying from pale yellowish brown to olive green. The green color in the heartwood will tend to darken on exposure to light and turn brown. Sometimes called rainbow poplar.
  • The wood has a medium to fine texture and is straight-grained; has a comparatively uniform texture.
  • A versatile wood that is easy to machine, plane, turn, glue and bore. It dries easily with minimal movement in performance and has little tendency to split when nailed. It takes and holds paint, enamel and stain exceptionally well.
  • A medium density wood with low bending, shock resistance, stiffness and compression values, with a medium steam-bending classification. Excellent strength and stability.
     I've used poplar in building a jewelry cabinet, step stool, bench, and cabinet drawers. I enjoy working with this wood but it is difficult to sand.


picture of a pine board

     Pine comes in several varieties, including Ponderosa, Sugar, White, and Yellow, and all of them are used to make furniture. Pine is very easy to work with and, because most varieties are relatively soft, it lends itself to carving. Pine is commonly used in furniture because it's easy to shape and stain (as long as you seal the wood first). Pine comes in several grades.

     Pine plywood is an option for shelving and cabinet carcasses but it must be covered with a veneer, laminate, or paint if you intend on using it for furniture exteriors. Plywood manufacturers have begun reducing the standard thicknesses of plywood in order to increase their profits.

     Particle board – also known as low-density fibreboard (LDF) and chipboard – is an engineered wood product manufactured from wood chips, sawmill shavings, or even sawdust, and a synthetic resin or other suitable binder, which is pressed and extruded. Oriented strand board, also known as flakeboard, waferboard, or chipboard, is similar but uses machined wood flakes offering more strength. All of these are composite materials that belong to the spectrum of fiberboard products.

Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is an engineered wood product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres, often in a defibrator, combining it with wax and a resin binder, and forming panels by applying high temperature and pressure. MDF is generally denser than plywood. It is made up of separated fibres, but can be used as a building material similar in application to plywood. It is stronger and much denser than particle board. The name derives from the distinction in densities of fibreboard. Large-scale production of MDF began in the 1980s, in both North America and Europe.

     Some furniture and cabinets are built using particle board and medium-density fiberboard. I never use these materials in my furniture.

     I've used pine to make step stools and for cabinet framing. Not my favorite wood but it serves a purpose.


picture of sassafras wood

     Sassafras is a medium-sized, moderately fast growing, aromatic tree. Little more than a shrub in the north, sassafras grows largest in the Great Smoky Mountains on moist well-drained sandy loams in open woodlands. It frequently pioneers old fields where it is important to wildlife as a browse plant, often in thickets formed by underground runners from parent trees. The soft, brittle, lightweight wood is of limited commercial value, but oil of sassafras is extracted from root bark for the perfume industry.

     The bark, twigs, and leaves of sassafras are important foods for wildlife in some areas. Deer browse the twigs in the winter and the leaves and succulent growth during spring and summer. Palatability, although quite variable, is considered good throughout the range. In addition to its value to wildlife, sassafras provides wood and bark for a variety of commercial and domestic uses. Tea is brewed from the bark of roots. The leaves are used in thickening soups. Sassafras is considered a good choice for restoring depleted soils in old fields. Finally, the orange wood has been used for cooperage, buckets, posts, and furniture.

     I've used sassafras in building step stools and shelving. It's okay but it is difficult to sand.


picture of walnut wood

     With a hardness of about 4 on a 1 to 5 scale, walnut is a rich brown wood that's easy to work with.
  • Walnut is expensive and finding large boards for big projects is difficult.
  • Common Uses: Furniture, cabinetry, gunstocks, interior paneling, veneer, turned items, and other small wooden objects and novelties.
  • Comments: It would be hard to overstate Black Walnut’s popularity among woodworkers in the United States. Its cooperative working characteristics, coupled with its rich brown coloration puts the wood in a class by itself among temperate-zone hardwoods. To cap it off, the wood also has good dimensional stability, shock resistance, and strength properties.
     I've used walnut in building jewelry cabinets and tables. I love working with this wood but it is very expensive.

Wood Finishes

     Wood finishing starts with sanding either by hand, typically using a sanding block or power sander, scraping, or planing. Imperfections or nail holes on the surface may be filled using wood putty or pores may be filled using wood filler. Often, the wood's color is changed by staining, bleaching, or any of a number of other techniques.

     Once the wood surface is prepared and stained, the finish is applied. It usually consists of several coats of wax, shellac, drying oil, lacquer, varnish, or paint, and each coat is typically followed by sanding.

     Finally, the surface may be polished or buffed using steel wool, pumice, rotten stone or other materials, depending on the shine desired. Often, a final coat of wax is applied over the finish to add a degree of protection.

     French polishing is a finishing method of applying many thin coats of shellac using a rubbing pad, yielding a very fine glossy finish.

     Ammonia fuming is a traditional process for darkening and enriching the color of white oak. Ammonia fumes react with the natural tannins in the wood and cause it to change colors. The resulting product is known as "fumed oak."
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_finishing


  • Soaks into the wood to provide a decorative and sometimes preservative finish. Darkens or colors wood. Matte to gloss, water-based and oil-based types are available.
  • For interior or exterior use as specified. Use as a finish or coat with varnish for extra durability. Apply to clean, bare wood for a true color. May need several coats. Apply with a brush for the best finish.


  • Hardwearing, transparent or colored, decorative and preservative finish that highlights and protects the wood surface below. Matte and high-gloss versions are available. You can buy water-based and oil-based types.
  • For interior or exterior use as specified. Can be used on bare wood or to protect unsealed finishes, such as dye. May need several coats. Apply with a brush for the best finish.

The true oils -- Linseed oil and tung oil, the drying oils most often used in finishing, are readily available and relatively inexpensive.

  • Linseed oil is available in several forms. Unrefined, it's called raw linseed oil, which is rarely used on wood because it dries so slowly. Finishers long ago discovered that by boiling the oil, the resulting product was thicker and dried more quickly. For wood finishing, you should use only boiled linseed oil.
  • Tung oil is derived from the nuts of trees that are native to Asia but have been cultivated in other parts of the world. Tung oil is available in a pure, unrefined form and in a heat-treated or polymerized form. The heat-treating process makes the oil a bit more durable and speeds up the drying time. It also minimizes a tendency of tung oil to "frost" (dry to a whitish, matte appearance). Tung oil is paler in color and has better moisture resistance than linseed oil.
  • Both linseed and tung oils are penetrating finishes, which means they penetrate the fibers of the wood and harden. These are the easiest finishes to apply: Wipe them on, allow them to penetrate the surface of the wood and wipe off the excess with a rag. These oils are usually not built up with enough coats to form a surface film, like that of varnish or lacquer, because the film is too soft.

Water-based finishes

  • Water-based finish contains some of the same ingredients as varnish and lacquer -- notably urethane, alkyd and acrylic -- but many flammable and polluting ingredients have been replaced with water. The chemistry in this product is complex. Because the resins don't have a natural affinity for water, they must be chemically modified or forced to combine with water.
  • Water-based finish is usually made with either an acrylic resin (sold as water-based lacquer) or an acrylic urethane mixture (sold as water-based polyurethane). As with varnish, the addition of the urethane makes the resin tougher and more scratch resistant, but water-based urethane does not have the same solvent and heat resistance as its oil-based counterpart.

     While wood stains add color and bring out the beauty of the wood, clear finishes protect the wood and enhance its beauty. Whether you choose to stain your wood project or not, it is important that you protect the wood with a clear finish, such as polyurethane. Most clear finishes are available in gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens. Choosing a sheen is a matter of personal preference.
Source: http://www.finewoodworking.com/toolguide/articles/selecting-a-finish.aspx#ixzz3U6MVqGce

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Updated 03/25/2018
Joe R. East, Jr.