If you're considering buying new wood furniture for your home, you have a wide array of options. In fact, all of the factors you must consider can be quite intimidating unless you have information about the color, grain, hardness, and durability of various species of wood.
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Hardwoods Vs. Softwoods
Experts divide all the species of trees into two categories: hardwoods and softwoods. Contrary to the sound of their names, hardwoods are not always hard, and softwoods are not always soft.
Rather, the term hardwoods refers to deciduous trees—those that drop their leaves in autumn—while softwoods refers to conifers. Hardwoods tend to have attractive grains and smooth textures; most of them are also hard, dense, and durable. Softwoods, by contrast, are generally less attractive but more plentiful and less expensive.
Hardness And Durability
The hardness of a wood species determines its ability to withstand scratching and denting; the combination of hardness and density contributes to its overall durability. Although, in general, hardwoods are harder and denser than softwoods, there are exceptions.
Alder and aspen, for example, are soft hardwoods. Cedar and hemlock are relatively hard, dense softwoods. The Janka Scale, which ranges from 0 to 4000, measures the hardness of various wood species: those discussed in this article range from a low of 350 (aspen) to a high of 2620 (rosewood).
23 Types Of Wood For Furniture
Acacia is a hardwood used for indoor furniture. Its hardness (2300 on the Janka Scale) and durability make it ideal for benches, buffets, dining room tables, and other heavily-used pieces. Acacia wood can have a straight or wavy grain.
Its natural color ranges from light amber to dark mahogany, allowing for strikingly unusual pieces like the one shown below. Acacia furniture resists scratching and marring, and it requires no special maintenance except an occasional rubbing with teak oil.
Alder, a hardwood that grows from British Columbia to northern California, boasts a smooth, beautiful grain. It takes all shades of stain well, allowing it to mimic scarcer, more expensive woods such as cherry. Knotty pieces of alder present a rustic or distressed appearance ideal for cabinetry or accent furniture.
Alder is soft (Janka score 590), of medium density, and vulnerable to moisture. So it is not recommended for furniture pieces that will take heavy daily wear or are subject to spillage. It is used exclusively in indoor settings.
Aspen is a soft hardwood (Janka rating 350) that is durable but lighter and less dense than most other hardwoods. It has a straight grain and a fine, uniform texture; its color blends white, blond, and light brown in streaks that add to its rustic appearance.
Although it takes paint and stain well, aspen is most commonly clear-coated to bring out its natural rustic beauty. Aspen furniture requires little maintenance except for an occasional wipe-down with a rag and furniture cleaner.
With its light color and smooth, straight grain, ash is an excellent choice for fine furniture. It is lightweight, durable, shock-resistant, and nearly as hard (1320 Janka score) as maple and white oak. Ash is one of the few woods that can take light or dark stains without losing its grain or texture. It can also be clear coated to preserve its natural color. Because it is not insect- or rot-resistant, ash is used for indoor furniture only.
Until recently, ash was one of the most affordable hardwoods on the market, but the decimation caused by the Emerald Ash Borer has increased the price and greatly reduced its availability.
Bamboo is technically grass but its woody texture makes it an ideal material for furniture. It's strong (Janka scale 1400), durable, and highly resistant to rot and insects, so it can be used in outdoor or indoor conditions.
Lightweight and flexible, bamboo works well in all kinds of furniture, ranging from chairs and tables to dressers to rolling carts like the one shown below. Its highly visible joints and nodes impart an exotic appearance to bamboo furniture. Bamboo is the fastest-growing woody plant in the world and is grown and harvested sustainably.
Beech is underutilized, perhaps because of its relatively bland appearance: the wood is a pale cream color, with a straight, fine-to-medium grain and moderate natural luster.
With hardness (Janka scale 1260) and density similar to those of maple, beech offers a lower-cost option in many cases. It is also an excellent wood for steam-bending, making it ideal for elegant, fancy embellishments. Beech is not rot- or insect-resistant, so it should not be used for outdoor furniture.
Although birch lacks the beauty of premium-grade hardwoods such as oak, maple, and cherry, it is a solid, affordable, and attractive alternative. It is often clear-coated to show off its natural blond color.
Birch's hardness (Janka scale 1470) is similar to those of oak and walnut, and it does not nick or chip easily. It is strong and durable and holds screws readily, so builders often use it as a structural material in various furniture types. Birch plywood is common in tables, dressers, and cabinets.
Cedar's softness (Janka scale 900) and low density make it susceptible to nicks and bumps. It does not tolerate the stressors of everyday heavy usage, so it is generally not used for indoor furniture. However, its resistance to rot and insects makes it an ideal wood for outdoor furniture.
Cedar furniture typically has a charming, rustic appearance that's perfect for cabins and cottages. If it sits outdoors exposed to the elements, it should be re-sealed every tow to three years. With proper maintenance, cedar furniture can last 25 years or more.
One of the premium hardwoods, cherry boasts rich color and smooth grain that stains beautifully. With a Janka rating of 950, it is hard enough to resist nicking and denting.
Cherry is highly durable: well-built cherry furniture is often passed down through generations as family heirlooms. One of its most unusual features is that the stained wood darkens over time, providing the rich, deep color shown below. Cherry is one of the more expensive hardwoods on the market.
Eucalyptus is an excellent choice for outdoor furniture: its high oil content makes it resistant to water, rot, and insects. It features varying grain patterns and a smooth finish, and its attractive reddish color darkens over time. Despite its hardness (Janka rating 1400), eucalyptus is comfortable to sit on and is prime material for outdoor benches and chairs.
It is more affordable than teak and exceptionally durable: eucalyptus outdoor furniture can last 25 years. It requires substantial care to keep it in top condition: you should waterproof it upon purchase and rub it with teak oil every two to three months.
Fir is one of the most inexpensive and readily available woods on the market, providing a low-cost option for framing and finish materials. Its straight grain is not particularly interesting, and it does not take stain well, so most furniture makers use fir in projects that require painted wood.
With a Janka rating of 660, fir is relatively soft. Unfortunately, fir harvested in the United States and Canada is often the product of unethical logging practices; imported fir from Europe is sustainable, but the additional cost of transporting it overseas adds to its ecological footprint.
Western Hemlock, with a Janka rating of 540, is mid-range for strength among the softwoods. With its straight grain and fine texture, it sands to a very smooth surface; and, because it is free of resin and pitch, it takes stain, paint, and clear-coat finish better than most other softwoods.
Typically used for outdoor furniture, hemlock is affordable and widely available in most parts of the U.S., although its availability on the East Coast can be sporadic.
Another strong (Janka rating 840) and durable softwood, western larch, is as heavy as many hardwoods. Its natural oils and resin make it ideal for outdoor furniture use, as it repels both moisture and insects.
Larch has a straight, fine-textured grain and light golden color. Many builders leave it unfinished or clear-coat it to bring out its natural beauty. Due to its high resin levels, larch does not take paint well unless it is first sealed with a conditioner or diluted shellac.
Mahogany is a classic choice for high-end furniture. Its straight, smooth grain and majestic reddish-brown color are typically clear-coated to allow its natural beauty to shine through. Mahogany has a Janka rating of 800 and is not as scratch- and dent-resistant as many other hardwoods; it absorbs more moisture from the air, rendering mahogany furniture less stable and durable than that made from other hardwoods.
Mahogany is an endangered wood species; before purchasing mahogany furniture, you may want to ensure that the wood was harvested from non-old-growth forests and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Along with cherry, oak, and walnut, maple is one of the most popular woods for furniture. Its attractive straight grain and light color make it highly desirable among homeowners.
Checking in at 1450 on the Janka Scale, maple is among the hardest and most durable woods; it makes excellent desks, dressers, and dining tables. It takes stain, paint, and clearcoat well and presents a smooth, beautiful surface with any finish.
Another popular and versatile hardwood, oak, is popular in various furniture types, from chairs and dining room tables to dressers and headboards. It is a hard (1360 Janka score), dense wood that holds up well under heavy use. Its distinctive wavy grain gives it a unique beauty, especially when stained.
White oak is water-resistant, making it ideal for outdoor use. Red oak furniture, on the other hand, should be used only indoors. Oak is one of the more expensive varieties of wood furniture on the market.
Pine is a softwood with a light color, raised grain, and prominent knots that give it a distinctive look. It is low-cost, durable, and lighter than hardwoods like oak and maple.
Pine takes stain well and can be finished with a wide variety of hues. It tends to have a rustic appearance, especially in its knottier forms, making it best suited to country or cottage-style decor. With a Janka rating of 420, pine is susceptible to scratching, denting, and bumping.
Poplar's straight grain and fine texture give it a smooth finish. Because it is not an especially beautiful wood, poplar furniture is painted more often than stained. Although it is technically a hardwood, poplar is actually soft (540 Janka rating) and lightweight, so it is best for pieces that will not endure major wear. It's one of the less expensive hardwoods available.
With a Janka rating of 2620, rosewood is the hardest, sturdiest wood for furniture. Particularly coveted for use in Oriental-inspired tables, chairs, and accent pieces, rosewood is rare and extremely expensive—and often illegally harvested.
In fact, Madagascar rosewood is the most highly trafficked illegal wild product in the world today, so buyers would be wise to limit themselves to purchasing antique rosewood furniture. That said, rosewood is durable, highly resistant to scratching and denting, and gorgeous in its dark reddish hue.
Rubberwood is the product of the Brazilian rubber tree, harvested from sustainable plantations after its latex-producing days have ended. It has a light blond color, dense grain, and a mid-range Janka rating of 960. So, it is moderately strong and durable. Rubberwood is highly stable, making it excellent for furniture; on the other hand, it absorbs moisture readily and is not suitable for outdoor use.
It is a low-cost, readily available, and eco-friendly hardwood option. Individuals with latex allergies should avoid rubberwood because it may trigger their allergies.
Teak is a beautiful and popular wood for use in outdoor furniture. Its high content of natural oils and its grain density render it especially durable in difficult weather conditions; it is also insect- and rot-resistant.
Teak is hard (1155 Janka rating) and highly versatile; it can be used for benches, tables, chairs, and lounges. It needs little maintenance, and left outdoors year-round will weather to a beautiful silver-gray. Teak's main drawback is its expense and unpredictable supply.
Walnut is one of the four most popular hardwoods for furniture. It is a strong, hard (1010 Janka rating), durable wood that holds up well under heavy wear.
Walnut has a classic, rich dark look that makes it ideal for classic furniture pieces with ornate, intricate woodwork, such as carved mantelpieces and headboards. Walnut has a smooth, attractive grain and is typically clear-coated to showcase its natural beauty. It is one of the more expensive hardwoods on the market.
A popular exotic hardwood, treasured for its complex, contrasting colors, zebrawood packs a visual punch in accent furniture. It typically has a wavy grain, and it sands to a smooth, polished finish.
With a Janka rating of 1575, zebrawood is hard, durable, and highly resistant to scratching and denting. On the other hand, the wood is somewhat unstable; and it is susceptible to insect infestation. Zebrawood is also one of the most expensive woods on the market.
When choosing new wood furniture for your home, make sure to consider its appearance—including color and grain—its hardness and durability, its versatility, and its cost. With the wide array of options available, if you choose well, you will enjoy your wood furniture for many years to come!
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