Saturday, February 22, 2014

My Favorite Woods

When I first started woodworking many years ago, I exclusively used 2x4s, 1x6s, and sometimes sheets of cheap, low-grade plywood because they fell into my budget.  As an added bonus, it wouldn't break the bank if I had to buy a few more pieces because I screwed something up in cutting.  The cheap everyday 2x4s you find in home store are usually made from spruce, not the best wood, but something great to learn on and keep a budget low.  These boards aren't really designed for fine wood working, more structural and framing work.  (So don't expect every board to be straight, have no knots, or be warp-free.)

When I started making cutting boards and scrolling, I decided to try a few other different, more expensive woods.  Although the wood does cost a lot more, I find not only the quality of the finished product, but also the ease with which some of these woods work make them worth the extra money.


Nothing beats the creamy texture of Maple for a clean, professional look.  No only is maple great for kitchen cabinets, it is my preferred base wood for all of the cutting boards I make.  Maple is a durable, tight-grained, and has tremendous antimicrobial properties, which makes it ideal for kitchen utensils and wooden bowls.

A maple bowl set up on the lathe.
Maple also looks great in furniture, and can brighten up any room if left natural (unstained).  Plus, how many other woods also produce a sap that tastes great with butter on your breakfast waffle.

Although I almost exclusively use hard maple, it comes in many other varieties such as soft, silver, black, and big leaf.  Depending on the tree, you may also hit a gold mine with irregular figuring, such as birds eye, curly, and tiger.


Over eight years ago, when I first started making cutting boards, I stumbled on a rich, purple wood while at my local hardwood dealer.  Known as purpleheart, it is imported to the US from anywhere from Mexico to Brazil.  Purpleheart is usually straight grained and very hard.  Because of its price, I usually only use purpleheart wood for small turnings or as an accent color to large pieces.

There are two things about purpleheart wood I find very interesting as a wood worker.  First, it does very well around moisture and is fairly rot resistance.  Also, its color is very sensitive to the exposure of UV rays.  When it is first cut, it is a very deep brown-gray color.  After a day or so exposed to sunlight, it turns the beautiful purple color most of us are familiar with.  After quite some time (a few years) it can turn either a deep, dark, almost black color, or dark gray.  This would all depend on exposure to the elements and if the wood was coated with anything.  One way to protect the beautiful purple color would be to use a UV-protected finish, such as a spar urethane.

Animals for a Noah's Ark display, the elephant in Purpleheart and the male lion in Walnut.


Walnut is an American classic, and was widely used for furniture during the time of American Colonization.  Although primarily a very rich deep brown color, the sapwood is extremely light in color and the heartwood may have shades of purple and red mixed in the brown.  It is common practice for a mill to steam walnut even out all of the colors into the recognizable brown color.  Although there are many different species of walnut around the world, most walnut you find in the US is either Claro Walnut from the western US, or Black Walnut from the eastern half.

I really like walnut for the interesting textures in the wood and the deep brown color it provides.  If you are lucky enough, you might also find some fantastic burl in your local hardwood distributor.  Walnut is quite durable, works very nicely, and looks great without staining.


Another species popular in woodworking during the Colonial Era was Mahogany.  Mahogany was heavily exported from the Caribbean to England and its American Colonies during the 18th century.  The rich reddish-brown hue and silky texture made Mahogany a highly demanded wood for furniture during this time period.  As a result of this, demand for Mahogany furniture want up, and a couple of hundred years later the supply of this species dwindled from over harvesting.

A few species different from the original, but similar in look, are used today.  The two I am familiar with are known as Honduran Mahogany and African Mahogany.  Honduran Mahogany is much rarer and more expensive than its African cousin.  Mahogany is still used today in the making of musical instruments for the warm tones it lends to guitars and other stringed instruments.

Mahogany is a pleasure to work with because it cuts and machines very easily while providing great rot-resistant properties and a beautiful finished product.  African Mahogany tends to be my wood of choice, mainly due to its availability and reasonable price.  Because of its higher price, Honduran Mahogany is often only used today by furniture repair specialists to replace the broken pieces within furniture during restoration.