Getting over HARDwoods

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Forum topic by TheWoodenOyster posted 03-27-2015 12:25 PM 1218 views 0 times favorited 26 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1275 posts in 1358 days

03-27-2015 12:25 PM

Topic tags/keywords: wood lumber

Hey guys,

I started woodworking about 3 years ago and caught the bug bigtime. Like most of us, I had no idea what to think at the beginning regarding what sort of woods to use in my projects. I thought that the harder the wood, the cooler my project was. So maple, ash, hickory, purpleheart, basically anything that works about like aluminum was “cool” in my head. Big mistake. I think many beginners likely feel this way and I’d like to have an open forum with some beginner, intermediate, and expert opinions, which this site is sure to provide. Hopefully this can give some insight to beginners about what sort of woods are good to begin with.

Please share your thoughts on this topic. I’d love to hear about some medium and especially soft woods that you folks out there like to use. And also, do you think HARDwoods are cooler that not so hardwoods?

I have learned that workability of the material is a huge determining factor in whether or not a project is a success and whether or not it is fun.

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

26 replies so far

View txn's profile


135 posts in 882 days

#1 posted 03-27-2015 12:32 PM

I do believe a piece is much more beautiful when it’s colors are from the wood and not stain but don’t get me wrong I can’t afford to build everything out of walnut and maple so a lot of my stuff is stained pine.

View CM02WS6's profile


61 posts in 765 days

#2 posted 03-27-2015 12:55 PM

What in particular do you feel is hard to work about some of those hardwoods you mentioned? I’ve been woodworking for just over a year and commonly use maple, walnut, mahogany, etc. Sure, they may take a little longer to feed through a saw or sand as compared to pine, but it doesn’t seem like that much longer. Woods like cherry and purpleheart can burn easily so those do require more time.

Some others that you may want to consider are soft maple, cypress, and poplar (maybe more for painted projects).

View Jim Finn's profile

Jim Finn

2390 posts in 2345 days

#3 posted 03-27-2015 01:12 PM

I make small boxes of eastern red cedar which is quite soft. I inlay soft maple images into the lids. I find that it takes a different finishing procedure than hard woods do, like oak or pecan. Lots more coats and an under coat of shellac is what I do.

-- "You may have your PHD but I have my GED and my DD 214"

View SirIrb's profile


1239 posts in 653 days

#4 posted 03-27-2015 01:21 PM

Remember that the term Hard vs soft wood is a scientific term which does not necessarily indicate the hardness or softness of a wood. Also, woods such as mahogany and purple heart are not hard or soft woods, they are exotics since they grow in regions which do not have 4 seasons yet only 2 (dry and wet).

Hardwood: wood from a tree which is a broad leaf tree. Deciduous. looses its leaves in the winter.
Softwood: Wood from a tree which is a conifer or needle bearing tree. Evergreen.
Exotic: Wood from a tree which is neither of the above because there is no winter in the region it grows. This is my cobbled together definition. Think central and south america and africa.

So hard and soft are misnomers. Hardwoods can be soft and soft woods can be hard.

I dislike softwoods as a species except for cypress because it has character (mineral deposits) if you find good cuts.

-- Don't blame me, I voted for no one.

View WoodNSawdust's profile


1417 posts in 599 days

#5 posted 03-27-2015 01:26 PM

Most of my prototyping of new designs or of wood that is not normally seen is done in Popular. It is soft, easy to work and low cost.

-- "I love it when a plan comes together" John "Hannibal" Smith

View Ripthorn's profile


1402 posts in 2408 days

#6 posted 03-27-2015 01:27 PM

If we are talking about woods and beginners, poplar I think fits the bill nicely: cheap, closed grain, not too hard, no widely varying hardness in the grain (like fir), etc. I use lots of exotics because I prefer building guitars, so that comes with the territory there.

-- Brian T. - Exact science is not an exact science

View BigMig's profile


380 posts in 2036 days

#7 posted 03-27-2015 01:30 PM

I’ve enjoyed working with common maple – which seems softer to me, so it’s easier to work and I enjoy it more.

-- Mike from Lansdowne, PA

View bondogaposis's profile


3972 posts in 1774 days

#8 posted 03-27-2015 01:51 PM

I guess I don’t see your point, why do you need to get over hardwoods? They are beautiful and in many ways easier to work with than pine. There have been many projects posted on LJ that have been made from pine that would look great except for the blotchy finish. I think it is much easier to finish hardwoods than pine or other softwoods, especially for beginners. Really the key to getting started is to use what you can get cheaply, I think poplar is a good choice but so is oak and maple, ash , etc. A lot depends on what the project is, generally interior furniture should be hardwood, outdoor furniture is a different story, where softwoods or exotics come into play. Then there is shop projects where anything goes. Softwoods have their place and a lot of beautiful things can be made from them, but I don’t necessarily think of them as “beginner” woods.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View NoThanks's profile


798 posts in 952 days

#9 posted 03-27-2015 02:10 PM

I cut my teeth on pine. (back in the 70’s, you can tell by the scanned grainy pics)
Mainly because I didn’t know much about other woods and pine was readily available at the hardware stores.
They didn’t have the big box stores then and I didn’t know about lumber suppliers.
Pine was always easy to work with and I loved the smell. Staining wasn’t a problem because I didn’t know what splotching even was.
It was also cheap, I remember paying .38 ft for 1×12’s

Now, I think alder would be a good wood for beginners. Poplar can splinter easily when routing profiles.

-- Because I'm gone, that's why!

View HornedWoodwork's profile


222 posts in 637 days

#10 posted 03-27-2015 04:05 PM

For beginners the terms hardwood and softwood often lead you to think about the wood’s quality, when it really means the wood’s source. Balsa wood comes from a hardwood, Yew from a softwood, yet there is not a WW alive who would tell you that Balsa was “hard” or that Yew was “soft.”

Workability is only half or maybe two thirds of why a certain wood might be selected. As a WW I am concerned with how the piece will both look and function once it is complete. Softwoods have less figure and less variety of colors available. And most softwoods are not as hardy from a structural perspective. In addition softwoods have higher levels of sap, even when properly dried, and can therefore be a burden of sorts to work with as the residue builds up on your tools. I agree that workability is important, especially when you are not using machines for the heavy work. But there are plenty of hardwoods who work very well.

As stated already poplar is a good beginner wood. I also like cherry and butternut, they are very easy to work but are still attractive and take a finish. I use a lot of walnut, maple, and oak too. I do get into exotics now and then, but I think of them as small feature parts rather than primary carcass pieces.

-- Talent, brilliance, and humility are my virtues.

View CypressAndPine's profile


62 posts in 1230 days

#11 posted 03-27-2015 05:15 PM

My summary is this: Use your favorite local wood whether it is hard, soft, or whatever. Spend time with one or two particular species that you like and master them. Then your work will become more efficient and more beautiful. You will learn how to mill them without tearout. You will learn what grit to sand them to for a perfect finish. You will learn what finishes make them beautiful. You will know what pieces to use on what projects.

You can guess from my name that I love Cypress. I live in Louisiana and it is available for a good price. I love the closed grain and the smooth finish I can get with it. I know which boards are going to cup and twist (usually). I love the grain patterns. It is my “go-to” wood.

Through experience you will find the species that you love to work with.


-- Cypress Jake, New Orleans

View DocSavage45's profile


7656 posts in 2265 days

#12 posted 03-27-2015 05:34 PM

Many years ago I asked my mentor at the time..Charles Neil why he used Curly Maple and Bublinga instead of Oak, or other more common woods as I think they have beauty. He replied in similar words”I make cabinets for a living and I can get those more common woods, but I put the same labor into the piece. Although the more exotic woods cost more they also produce a more spectacular result. My customers are willing to pay more to have them.”

Although I am using what I have which I have aquired from building houses , etc, and I plan to mill local harvested woods, I remember the essence of his advice.

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View Dark_Lightning's profile


2620 posts in 2532 days

#13 posted 03-28-2015 12:58 AM

I cut my teeth on pine. (back in the 70 s, you can tell by the scanned grainy pics)
Mainly because I didn t know much about other woods and pine was readily available at the hardware stores.
They didn t have the big box stores then and I didn t know about lumber suppliers.
Pine was always easy to work with and I loved the smell. Staining wasn t a problem because I didn t know what splotching even was.
It was also cheap, I remember paying .38 ft for 1×12 s

Now, I think alder would be a good wood for beginners. Poplar can splinter easily when routing profiles.

- Iwud4u

Love knotty pine myself, and use nitrocellulose lacquer for that yellowed finish that takes years to develop!

As far as projects to paint, I use poplar or alder (though I do also stain alder, as it really is “poor man’s cherry”).

-- Random Orbital Nailer

View WDHLT15's profile


1565 posts in 1899 days

#14 posted 03-28-2015 01:07 AM

Some softwoods are deciduous.

-- Danny Located in Perry, GA. Forester. Wood-Mizer LT40HD35 Sawmill. Nyle L53 Dehumidification Kiln.

View bbasiaga's profile


731 posts in 1418 days

#15 posted 03-28-2015 01:27 AM

I am surely a beginner, and I think I see what you mean in your original post. It is easy to look around and think you have to build in Mahogany, Walnut or other exotic hardwoods in order to make something that is pleasing. In reality, you can make great stuff out of any wood.

I have worked with Oak, Cherry and Hard Maple. I will say the Hard Maple is way less forgiving and requires you to go slower and works your tools harder. When I’m doing things to develop my skills I don’t work in that wood. Cherry is great to work with. Oak is fine as well. Pine is very easy on your tools and your pocketbook. And it can look great when finished.


-- Part of engineering is to know when to put your calculator down and pick up your tools.

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