How to Choose Lumber for Woodworking {7 Simple Steps}

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By Joshua Farnsworth

When I got started in woodworking I was incredibly confused about choosing wood. In the above video, and in the article below, I share what I’ve learned about the basics of choosing lumber for woodworking. I want to save you time and head aches in trying to understand lumber!

The topic of lumber confused me mainly because I couldn’t find a simple summary of the topic. I found a lot of complex discussions with different terms used by different “experts”. I am by no stretch of the imagination a lumber expert, but I’m very good at simplifying complex topics so that everyone can understand. As a result, this is a simple practical guide to help you understand how wood moves, what wood to buy, how to buy it, and where to buy it.

After you learn the basics from this video and article I encourage you to look at the bottom of this article for a list of links, books, and DVDs that will expand your understanding beyond the scope of this article. But this book is the best resource I have found so far: “Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology” by R. Bruce Hoadley.

So let’s get started with the 7 simple steps below!

1. CHOOSE HARDWOOD OR SOFTWOOD?

Question: For your woodworking projects, should you choose a hardwood lumber like Hard Maple or Lignum Vitae? Or softwood lumber like Southern Yellow Pine or Red Alder?

Answer: That depends entirely on what you are building.

Some projects even require a mix of both hardwoods and softwoods, like a violin or a workbench. For example, violin makers use a soft Spruce for the soundboard and a harder Maple for the back, sides (ribs) and neck.

Many craftsmen of the past built the bases of their workbenches with less-expensive pine (softwood) and the tops & vices with hardwoods like beech or maple. The base of the workbench wouldn’t take a beating, so soft pine would work just fine. But the top of the workbench and the vice needed to be more durable.

Just use your brain to determine what type of wood you should use on different parts of your furniture.

BOOK: I have found this book to be an incredible guide to choosing different types of wood because it shows beautiful grain patterns & discusses woodworking uses for 400 different woods: “Wood Identification & Use” by Tery Porter.

JANKA WOOD HARDNESS TEST?

The lumber industry uses the “Janka hardness test” to test and rate common woods for hardness. The test involves pressing a steel ball to gauge how much pressure each wood species takes to push the ball half way into the wood. You can download my free PDF of the Janka chart here. {If you can’t open a PDF then install the free Adobe PDF Reader here.}

2. CHOOSE DIMENSIONALLY STABLE WOOD WITH VERTICAL END GRAIN

Unless you’re set on having a wildly figurative grain pattern on your furniture, you’re probably going to want to choose the most stable wood possible; especially if you are building fine furniture or woodworking hand tools that need great stability (e.g. hand planes, straight edges, or try squares):

Yes, wood moves when it dries and also with the changes in seasons and location (temperature and humidity). Wood doesn’t really get longer (thank goodness) but it does expand in width as humidity rises:

Even if you are using a beautiful (yet unstable) grain pattern on part of your furniture, it’s a good idea to use stable wood on the other parts. For example, look at an old wooden door. The panels usually have more decorative (less stable) wood, but the rails and stiles (parts of the frame) are usually very stable straight grained wood (don’t worry, I’ll clarify “straight grain” below).

So the key is to find boards that will be as stable as possible during those changes in humidity. But how do you get wood that has stable “vertical grain”? This is the question that confused me for awhile. The answer is: It all depends on how the wood is milled from the tree. This is what I’ll cover in step 3:

This Lumber guide continues on the next page….

2017-05-03T08:38:45+00:00

About the Author:

"I'm wildly passionate about traditional woodworking with hand tools, and want to rekindle this lost art. At WoodAndShop I teach you the skills that I learn, and also share anything fascinating that I discover about traditional woodworking. That includes tours of traditional workshops, beautiful furniture, and my favorite tools and books. I hope you enjoy my videos, photos, and articles. Please feel free to leave constructive comments!"

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20 Comments on "How to Choose Lumber for Woodworking {7 Simple Steps}"

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paulmarcotte
Member

Great post Joshua! Thanks for the links and and I’m looking forward to the follow ups.

Jason Hammond
Guest
The Amish here in Ohio use a nifty wooden rule for calculating bd. ft. It has a brass football shaped hook on the end and they’re about 2′ long. Three columns of numbers run down the length of stick. These columns are the length of stock say, 12,14,16 foot. Within these columns, bd. ft. has already been calculated and marked. For a 16′ bd. the hook is placed over one edge and a reading of bd. ft. is taken from opposite edge from the 16′ column. “Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide #1” pg. 146, shows a good example. They call… Read more »
Doug Hitchcock
Guest

I used one of those for over 15 years and broke many too

Shannon Rogers (@RenaissanceWW)
Guest

Great job Joshua, lots of information in one place. It is startling to me how little many woodworkers understand about the materials we use so thanks for the great effort to add some clarity to a pretty cryptic industry.

Matt hill
Guest

Joshua,
Another good job clear and to the point. Keep up the outstanding work!

Matt Hill Cobbs Creek Va

Garrett
Guest

Great read!
If you are ever in the market for some furniture grade Beetle Kill Pine in or near Colorado, try (website address blocked)

Boris
Guest

Suppose you you were in possession of, as I am, four Cherry logs ranging in size from 18″ to 24″ diameter by 12′ to 16′ in length and you need to instruct the sawmill how they are to be cut. Also suppose that you are a novice woodworker who intends to use the resulting lumber in undetermined woodworking projects. How would you instruct the mill to cut up the logs?

larachan
Member

Very helpful information. Thank you for taking the time to explain this all. I’d like to know more about how to calculate how much wood one needs for a project and how to translate the knowledge at a lumber yard.

johnsreply
Member

really awesome explaination! Thanks –
I would like to enter in the clamp giveaway –

comment image

Dov
Member

Wow, good to know :) Now I know that I made some mistakes along the way…should have read this before.

Burt Silver
Guest

Thanks for the tips on choosing lumber! I have some projects I want to get started on at my home, and I need to choose the right wood for the job. Thanks for mentioning to choose vertical end grain. I guess that will make the wood look more uniform and be more stable!

BillyDvd
Guest

Thank you for taking the time to put this out there for us newbies and forgetfulls :)
Great article and it is booked marked so I can come back to it!

wpDiscuz

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