Woodworking begins with, well, wood. When traipsing through the woody section behind the house, all wood may look alike, but you can be sure that this is not the case. Certain types of wood are more suitable to some woodworking and carpentry projects than others like hardwood.
Let’s say you’ve got yourself a very nice lathe and you want to turn a bowl or a table leg or an oversized chess set piece. Heavier woods turn better than lighter woods, but what you are really looking for is a quotient of smoothness. This quality is in turn determined by the actual smoothness of the wood itself as well as the amount of broken edges and quality of the wood’s detail. The smoothest turning on your lathe is going to be the result of using woods like beech, pecan, gum, hickory and sycamore. If you want your lathe turning experience to be less smooth, then pick out some cheap willow, cottonwood, basswood and, perhaps surprisingly, soft elm.
If your need for wood is based on how well it can hold a nail, then you are looking at the relative density of the timber. Those who need to ensure that the fasteners hold on tightly for as long as possible should look at ash, beech, birch, hickory and Monty Python’s all-time favorite wood, the larch. The larch. The larch. Walk on by the spruces, white firs, cottonwoods and most cedars if you really need your lumber to hold a nail.
Warping is a constant worry among those trafficking in wood. Some woods tend toward warping at a great degree than others. You may not be able to keep any wood from warping somewhat, but to reduce the odds check out most cedars and pines as well as cherry, chestnut and spruce. Soft elm is another no-no if you wan to avoid easy warping. So are beech, cottonwood, gum and tupelo.
If you have noticed that woodworking doesn’t seem to go as easily for you as for others, the problem may actually be that you are using wood that isn’t very suitable for use with your tools. Hand tools are especially affected by using the wrong kind of wood. Creating a pretty little ornamental model for your kid may have become a challenge of Herculean proportions if you were using hand tools on a wood like maple, oak or ash.
Ash is great for a machine in St. Louis to spit out baseball bats by the hundreds, but if you were using files, rasps and awls on ash, no wonder you threw your planer through the window in frustration. Detailed woodworking means buying basswood, cedar or pine.