Hardwoods are more durable than soft woods and typically more expensive. Colors range widely among woods -- even those of the same type -- and various woods can be stained or bleached to alter their original color.
Among all the hardwoods, cherry, maple, mahogany, oak, teak, and walnut are prized for quality furniture. However, cherry and maple are considered more difficult to craft than the other widely used hardwoods.
Hardwood choices are generally a matter of appearance, furniture style, budget, and personal preference. Listed below are the properties of various hardwoods.
Birch: Light tan to almost white. Good resistance to shrinking, swelling, and warping. Takes stains well and is often stained to resemble mahogany, walnut, or cherry. Hard to work with for intricate details; it is commonly used in furniture with simple lines, including some contemporary styles.
Cherry: Reddish-brown. Good resistance to shrinking, swelling, and warping; dyes well. Easy to detail for decorative carving.
See more wood types below.
Ebony: Brown to near black. Often stained black, emphasizing its distinct grain pattern. Very strong but rare. Used mostly in inlays.
Mahogany: Reddish-brown to red. Good resistance to shrinking and warping. Softer hardwood, easy to detail for carving. Takes rich, dark stains.
Maple: Light beige to tan. Good resistance to shrinking, warping, and wear. Very hard. Difficult to detail; sometimes dyed.
Oak: Light pinkish-brown. Good resistance to shrinking and warping. Takes stains evenly, generally available, carves well for detailing.
Poplar: Light tan often with pink- and green-tinted streaks. One of the weaker hardwoods, but has the same shrinkage rating as teak. Easy to work with; best for interior furniture parts.
Rosewood: Deep red with black graining. Good resistance to shrinking, swelling, warping, and wear. Easy to work with. Quite rare and expensive. Often used as a veneer.
Teak: Often used outdoors; extractions, such as silica, make it resistant to rotting. Also used for indoor furniture.
Walnut: Dark grayish-brown. Often stained darker. Good resistance to swelling and warping. Takes stains evenly and carves well.
Tip: Don't pay for vintage mahogany when you get Philippine mahogany. This inferior wood isn't as durable and may shrink or warp. Stained hardwoods, such as birch, are frugal alternatives to expensive mahogany.
More available than hardwoods, these woods are typically less expensive. They can be a good choice, depending on use and preference. Because surfaces are generally softer than hardwoods, they require extra care to avoid marring or denting.
Cedar: Brown to white. Often used for drawer lining or for decorative panels. Only eastern red cedar is naturally moth-repellent. Commonly used for outdoor furniture.
Pine (white): Because it was readily available and easy to work with, white pine was used for many primitive pieces. Poor resistance to shrinking, swelling, and warping. The softness of the wood is why many of these old pieces show traces of wear. Vintage pieces are valued for the patina and reasonable cost and are also frequently painted.
Pine (yellow): Tan, orange, yellow. Grainy, and does not finish well. Not a good choice for exposed wood.
See more wood types below.
Composites are manufactured wood products. Prices and performance vary. They are commonly used to make shelving and on the backs of furniture. Composites may also be used for some modern styles of furniture.
Plywood: Usually white to tan. Multiple layers of thin sheets of wood are glued and pressed together. Strong and resistant to warping, shrinking, and swelling. Most often used as support. Some contemporary furniture is manufactured from plywood, which can be shaped and bent into permanent contours.
Particleboard: Usually light to medium brown. Made of sawdust, small wood chips, and glue or resin that have been mixed together and pressure-treated. It is a common component of inexpensive furniture that is covered with laminates or veneers.
Particleboard splits easily and often the veneer or laminate pops loose when the particleboard swells and shrinks with moisture changes. A similar product called hardboard is made under higher pressure, which creates an improved product.
Veneers sometimes evoke negative connotations of being inferior to solid wood; in reality they are commonly used on high-quality furniture as well as budget pieces. Veneer is a thin sliver (about 1/28 inch) of wood applied to a wood or plywood base.
A single slab of wood, such as a tabletop, can warp and split over time. For a tabletop made of a secondary (cheaper) wood, several boards are edge-joined, then covered with veneer of a finer wood. A veneer can also be applied over plywood.
Veneers add interest by making the most of the grain-lines in the wood. Grain-lines can be matched to look like one solid piece, or they can be arranged in diamond, radiating, checkerboard, or other patterns.
Tips for Quality Checking: When purchasing veneer furniture, inquire about the base material as well as the face veneer. If the base is of inferior material, a veneer will not solve all the potential problems. Check the underside of tables; pull out drawers or slide out shelves and check areas that are not covered by the veneer.
If the base material is particleboard or a soft, open-grained wood, it may still warp and split. Run your fingernail along the edge of the veneer to see if it is tightly attached to the base material. If there are gaps and loose spots right after manufacturing, the veneer will pop loose eventually.
Learn about laminates below.
Laminates cover a base material. Most laminate is glued to a medium-density fiberboard or particleboard, but some office and kitchen pieces have laminates applied to wood to make the furniture more durable, more practical, smoother, and easier to clean. Such laminates generally mimic the wood used for table legs, chairs, and other exposed surfaces.
Tip: Check the match between the laminate and wood as well as the composition of the core wood.
Commonly, laminates are solid colors that are used in children's, contemporary, or casual furniture. Particleboard may split or warp, and screws work loose, resulting in unstable furniture. Fiberboard is more stable, and the furniture is likely to be of higher quality and a better investment. When considering laminate furniture, check quality, using the method for veneer furniture.
The methods used to assemble furniture determine its durability.
- Joints should be mortise-and-tenon or dowel and should be stable and secure.
- Butted and mitered joints are weaker and won't stand up to heavy wear unless reinforced.
- Table legs and chair legs should be reinforced with triangular or diagonal blocks of wood that will keep the joints square and help stabilize the furniture when it is moved or when pressure is applied to the surface.
- To check for stability, apply pressure at the diagonals.