From the first wood stump campfire stool to the finely crafted hardwood furniture of today’s American homes, wood species of all kinds have played an integral role in how we live and decorate. In the contemporary furniture industry, the word “wood” covers a lot of materials, including hardwoods, softwoods, and engineered woods. To help you find the ideal for your furniture needs, we’ve compiled this brief guide to the history, uses, and decorative characteristics of some of the most popular furniture wood types.
We’ll help you to understand the key differences among a variety of wood types and answer common questions, such as…
- What are the most popular wood types to use for furniture?
- What are some of the inherent qualities of wood types used to make furniture?
- What are some common uses of different wood types?
- Which woods are known for durability?
- Which woods are eco-friendly?
Read through our glossary of wood types below to find the answer to these questions and more!
Acacia wood species are known for their hardness and durability. In New Kingdom Egypt, an acacia species was a type of wood used in the finest mummy coffins. A Hawaiian species, Acacia koa, aka koa, was commonly used in contemporary furniture, but the fast-growing Australian blackwood has supplanted it because of environmental concerns. It’s a highly decorative, lustrous, and usually straight-grained acacia wood. Acacia is commonly used in .
Most famously used in the construction of major league baseball bats, ash wood has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Its genus is Fraxinus, but the common name, ash, derives from the Old English word for “spear,” as ash was the preferred wood for spear shafts. White and black ash are the species commonly used in furniture. This is a straight-grained, light-colored hardwood that finishes beautifully.
Beech’s most innovative use as a furniture wood was in the 19th century, when Michael Thonet formed it with steam to create bentwood furniture. Beech is also famed for its use in mid-century modern Scandinavian design. A heavy and strong wood, beech is tight-grained and pale reddish-brown in color. It’s commonly used in the crafting of stools and chairs.
Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) is one of the most commonly used furniture woods in the U.S. It’s heavy, hard, and strong, with a close grain that allows for beautiful wood finishes. Birch is often used as a lower-cost alternative to hardwoods such as mahogany, walnut, and maple. It’s also commonly used in the production of plywood (see our engineered wood entry).
Eastern red cedar is a softwood used in the construction of storage chests, closet linings, and drawer bottoms, where its aromatic oils provide natural resistance to moths and insects. Fine-grained and knotty, this species is beautifully colored, with reddish-brown heartwood and whitish sapwood. Rustic furniture is more often made from northern white cedar, a durable, straight-grained wood with white sapwood and pale brown heartwood.
American black cherry (Prunus serotina) has been prized for its beauty and woodworking qualities for centuries, most notably in Colonial-era cabinets. Distinguished by its rich coloring and lustrous appearance, this species has a red/reddish-brown heartwood and creamy white sapwood. It’s a straight-grained wood with distinctive gum pockets. Cherry wood is photosensitive and will darken with age and light exposure.
Engineered wood is the broad term for composite or multi-layer man-made woods, including medium density fiberboard (see our MDF entry), plywood, and particle board. Engineered woods can actually provide greater strength and shrink-resistance than real woods, with a natural appearance at a lower cost. Their use of materials such as sawmill waste and scrap wood makes them an eco-friendly choice as well.
True mahogany wood is still used in the manufacturing of fine furniture and musical instruments, but for environmental reasons, contemporary mahogany furniture is usually made from reddish-brown mahogany alternatives. Meranti, a species of Shorea, is commonly known as Philippine mahogany. Sapele and okoume (see our okoume entry below) are two popular African hardwood species that offer good value and durability as mahogany alternatives.
Medium density fiberboard is an engineered material made of waste wood fiber, chips, sawdust, etc., bound together with resin adhesive and formed into hard panels using high heat and pressure. MDF is inexpensive, strong, and durable, with smooth surfaces and uniform texture, making it an ideal material for shelving and bookcases.
Red and white oak are the most widely used hardwoods in American furniture thanks to their outstanding strength, durability, and hardness. Oak is a straight-grained, open-pored wood with a coarse texture. Oak’s decorative appeal lies in its distinctive grain patterns and excellent finishing properties. Oak is most often used in the construction of traditionally styled wood furniture.
Okoume is an imported hardwood that’s commonly used as an alternative to mahogany. Also known as okoume mahogany or gaboon, it features a generally reddish-brown heartwood and straight grain, with a mahogany-like texture. In addition to furniture construction, okoume is widely used in the manufacturing of marine plywood for boatbuilding, thanks to its light weight and excellent strength-to-weight ratio.
Many species of pine are used in the construction of furniture, including ponderosa pine and eastern and western white pine. White pine is a softwood that’s lightweight and straight-grained. Creamy white to pale yellow in color, white pine lacks a distinctive grain pattern versus other woods, but knotty pine is commonly used to give a distinctive appearance to rustic and other traditional furniture styles. Pine can be given a to produce varying wood colors, or may also be painted.
Yellow poplar is a great value among furniture woods. Used in both stained and painted furniture (often as an alternative to white pine), this pale, lightweight wood is less expensive than most hardwoods. Though not the strongest or hardest of woods, poplar is very easy to work with and finish. It features a white sapwood and yellowish-brown heartwood, a straight and sometimes woolly grain, and a fine texture.
Reclaimed wood refers to timbers or logs that have been salvaged from barns, warehouses, railroad ties, farm implements, old bridges, and other structures, or from nature itself in the case of driftwood or “sinker logs.” Reclaimed wood offers both ecological and aesthetic benefits for furniture or home building. In addition to its natural weathering, reclaimed wood often provides quality, density, and/or color that’s unavailable in newly harvested wood species.
Historically significant as a valuable source of latex before the invention of synthetic rubber, the Para rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) has since become an important source of eco-friendly plantation hardwood. The rubberwood is harvested at the end of the tree’s productive phase, clearing room for new trees. Rubberwood is strong and very durable, and is often used in paint-grade applications.
According to the Trade Practice Rules for the Household Furniture Industry established by the Federal Trade Commission in 1963, solid wood is a label which “means exposed portions of both frames and panels are made of solid lumber, not veneers or plywood.” This excludes unexposed surfaces, i.e. drawer sides, for which other woods may be used.
Native to south and southeast Asia, teak is an extremely strong and durable hardwood. It’s yellow to golden-brown in color and may be straight-grained or strongly figured. Teak wood is commonly used in outdoor furniture because of its resistance to rot, insects, and water, but reclaimed teak has become a popular material choice for high-quality indoor furniture.
A versatile hardwood that works easily and finishes beautifully, black walnut is a preferred wood for high-end cabinetry, gun stocks, and highly figured veneers. Strong yet relatively lightweight, walnut has a chocolate brown heartwood and white sapwood. Though often straight-grained, walnut is valued for its distinctive figures, including burls and crotches. As a furniture wood or veneer, it’s a beautiful choice for home libraries and offices.