How to Choose the Right Type of Wood for a DIY Project

You’re new to DIY woodworking but eager to get started. You’ve sourced all the needed tools and can’t wait to put them to use. All that’s left to do is get some wood for your project!

But when you arrive at your local hardware store or lumberyard, there are so many options! Which one should you choose?

We’re here to share with you some of your options.

We’ll look at:

Before we can help you figure out the best wood for your project, we need to understand why it even matters in the first place. Can’t you just use any wood?

Why does the type of wood you use matter?

The type of wood you use for a project will play a role in the outcome and success of your project. It’ll affect appearance, durability, flexibility and strength, moisture resistance, and more.

Let’s consider appearance first.

Different types of wood come in different colors and grain designs.

So you’ll have to decide what you want your project to look like. Do you want light-colored wood? Will your project look best with a straight grain, or do you want to have a unique wavy or spiraled pattern?

The wood you choose will also determine the type of finish you can use. The reason is that certain kinds of woods take stain or polish well, while some do not. Others do better with a full coat of paint.

Then, there’s durability and flexibility. Some types of wood are much stronger and harder than others. As a result, they’ll last longer and be less likely to be damaged.

However, some may be too hard, making them difficult to work with and bend to the shape you need.

The type of wood can also impact its suitability for various locations. Some woods are better suited for outdoor projects because they’re better able to handle moisture or resist rotting or pests.

Finally, some woods pose more allergen concerns than others. Though all woods—especially the sawdust from them—can affect sensitive people, certain types of woods may have more of an impact.

For example, woodworkers usually avoid using cedar for woodware, such as cutting boards or utensils, because cedar is a potential skin irritant.

Now that we know how various wood species could impact a project, let’s look at the characteristics that make them different.

What makes wood different?

Barren hardwood trees during the winterWood can be as varied and different as the types of projects they’re used for. Some of the factors that account for the differences are:

  • The type of tree
  • Density and hardness
  • Grain
  • Texture

The type of tree

Wood comes from either a hardwood tree or a softwood tree.

A hardwood tree is a deciduous tree with leaves, fruit, and seeds. We think of these trees as the ones that typically lose their leaves in the fall and remain barren through the winter.

A softwood tree is a coniferous or evergreen tree that contains pines or needles.

These names—hardwood and softwood—aren’t necessarily accurate descriptors of the hardness of the wood, though.

Here’s how expert woodworker Ellis Walentine put it when asked the difference between hardwood and softwood:

“The glib answer is that hardwood is hard and softwood is soft. The thoughtful answer is that there are no absolute generalities regarding strength. The strongest softwoods are stronger than the weakest hardwoods…. Relative strength, which may be expressed in several ways (e.g., fiber stress in bending, shear stress, modulus of elasticity), varies greatly from species to species.”

Speaking of wood hardness, we’ll talk about that next.

Density and hardness

As we’ve already established, different types of wood have different levels of density or hardness. The density of the wood fibers can determine strength and durability. Wood that is soft will become dented and damaged more easily than wood that is hard. However, really dense wood can be challenging to work with and wear out your tools faster.

Wood hardness is measured on the Janka scale of hardness. Based on this scale, the American Hardwood Information Center lists hickory and hard maple as two of the hardest commercial woods.

Some of the softest woods include balsa, poplar, western red cedar, cottonwood, aspen, and white cedar.


A type of wood with a wavy grain and some knotsAnother factor in wood is the grain pattern and how close the grain lines are to each other.

In general, wood is either open grain or closed grain.

Open grain refers to wood with very obvious pores. Usually, hardwoods with their large vessels are more likely to be open grain.

Closed grain wood often has a straight grain with much smaller pores.

Aside from these two basic classifications, woodworkers use other terms to describe knots and weird patterns in the grain. Terms such as straight, spiral, irregular, interlocked, or wavy, to name a few.


The texture of the wood is different from the grain. Texture is determined by the vessels within the wood, how big they are and how they spread out through the wood. Wood with larger vessels or pores that are spread unevenly—known as ring-porous wood—will have a coarser, more uneven texture than wood with smaller, evenly distributed vessels—diffuse-porous wood. 1

These characteristics give us a good foundation to look at specifics. Keep reading to learn about some of the most well-known and common wood.

What are some well-known types of wood?

Since wood is classified into two main categories—softwoods and hardwoods—we’ll organize them in the same way here.

We’ll focus on solid wood, rather than getting into plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

Let’s start with softwoods.

Types of Softwood

As mentioned, softwoods come from trees with needles and cones. Their wood is often yellow or reddish. They’re known as non-porous because they contain smaller vessels called tracheids rather than large pores.

These types of wood tend to be less expensive than hardwoods because of how quickly they grow. But the downside is that they are usually softer, meaning they scratch and dent more easily.

Even so, softwoods can turn out lovely in many projects—from cabinets to outdoor furniture to musical instruments.


The tops of red cedar trees with blue sky behind

Cedar is a wood that’s reddish in color and light in density. It has a straight grain with a lot of knots.

It’s known for its unique smell, which comes from special compounds in the wood that also help protect it against moisture and pests.

Cedar is a classic wood for certain types of furniture, such as chests and drawers. However, because it may irritate the skin, its preferred usage is outdoors.

Douglas fir

Douglas fir is one of the hardest softwoods. Like cedar, it has a reddish brown color and a straight grain.

It doesn’t hold stain very well, so this wood is better for projects that will be painted.

One major benefit of this wood is that it’s lightweight but can handle a large amount of force. These characteristics make it a great option for projects that need sturdy wood, such as certain types of flooring. It works well both indoors and outdoors.


Hemlock, though once valued more for its bark than its wood, is now quite popular for outdoor construction. It’s a light brown wood with a reddish tint and a straight grain. It’s often used for framing homes and even making some less expensive furniture because of how easy it is to work with and finish.

Hemlock wood becomes harder over time. This can be a benefit, though it can also make it more challenging to work with when it’s older.


Larch is a yellow to medium brown wood. It typically has a straight grain, but may also have some small knots.

Larch is a very strong wood, and it’s known for being able to withstand rot (second to cedar when it comes to softwood) because of the compounds and resins it contains.

Larch’s durability makes it great for outdoor projects and construction. Keep in mind, though, that it takes a long time to dry and can undergo quite a bit of warping and shrinkage during that process.


A forest of pine trees with the sun streaming in

This pale yellow wood is one of the most common and least expensive softwoods. You won’t have any trouble finding one of its varieties—white pine, yellow pine, lodgepole, ponderosa, etc.—in your local home center.

Pine wood is very aromatic and usually has a closed grain with some knots. It’s durable and resistant to moisture damage, so it works well for indoor projects you want to last for a long time, such as furniture.

Its light color and stainability make it a versatile type of wood to work with too.


Redwood, as the name suggests, is reddish in color. It usually has a straight grain, though it can sometimes be wavy.

Redwood isn’t as strong as pine, but it’s very durable. Because of compounds in the wood that make it resistant to fungus and insects, it works well for outdoor projects, such as patio furniture.

This wood is not particularly hard, so it cuts well. But because it does sometimes splinter and doesn’t hold screws or nails very well, woodworkers may choose to glue it instead.


Spruce is a very lightly colored, almost white, wood that gets darker as it ages. It has a straight grain that may contain small knots.

Similar to pine, it’s a harder softwood—but it also remains flexible enough to bend well. However, it’s too soft for projects that require a high amount of durability, such as flooring.2

Spruce tends to be sensitive to moisture and climate changes, as well as rotting. Thus, it works best for indoor projects rather than outdoor ones. Luthiers particularly like spruce because of the sound that it gives stringed instruments.

Types of Hardwood

Hardwoods come from trees that have leaves and fruit-containing seeds. They have larger vessels (pores) for transporting water and nutrients through the tree. Thus, they’ve earned the name porous wood.

They tend to take longer to grow than softwoods, making them more costly. But the higher price is worth it because the wood doesn’t damage as easily.


Alder wood starts out orange and, over time, develops into a darker reddish brown color. It has a straight grain. Medium in density but not very stiff, it holds nails, screws, and glue well.

Because of how easy it is to work with, alder is used for many kinds of indoor projects, such as furniture, wood carving, woodware, veneers, and paneling. It’s also made into plywood for crates.3


Ash is a white to light brown wood that has an open grain. Sometimes the grain has some darker brown streaks, rings, and other unusual patterns.

It’s a very strong wood and doesn’t have a smell or taste, making it suitable for all kinds of projects. Unfortunately, though, it can be a little more difficult to source.


Beech is a very dense wood that is light brown, or sometimes pinkish, in color. It has a straight grain. Though it’s not the most beautiful wood, it’s great for projects that will be painted over anyway.

Beech is best used in regions with lower humidity since it’s easily affected by changes in moisture.


Birch trees with leaves turning orange

Birch is a light-colored wood with a straight or wavy grain. Its attractive and minimalist look is very popular in European—particularly Scandinavian—wood pieces.

It’s easy to work with—not tearing or splintering—and finishes well with even just a simple stain. Once dry, it is also fairly moisture stable. However, it’s not the best option for outdoor projects because of how easily it can rot.


Cherry, known as “one of North America’s finest cabinet woods,”4 is a light brown or reddish brown wood with a straight, closed grain. Like walnut wood—its more expensive counterpart—it has a medium density that makes it very enjoyable to work on, either with hand tools or power tools. It also finishes well.

Though cherry wood can shrink quite a bit while it’s drying, it remains stable once dry and handles moisture changes well.


Mahogany is a reddish brown wood with a straight grain.

Hardwood lumber professional Stephen Ondich calls it the “elite of hardwoods for woodworkers” because of its beauty and workability. He recommends it for fine furniture and musical instruments—projects where aesthetics are particularly important.

Mahogany is also a great wood because it isn’t easily damaged or affected by moisture.


Colorful maple trees in a forest during autumn

This light-colored or reddish wood comes in both soft and hard varieties, and it has a closed grain.

Long-time carpenter and woodworker Chris Baylor gives some insight into soft maple and its appearance:

“The term soft maple is a bit of a comparative misnomer, as soft maple is harder than many other hardwoods (such as cherry). Soft maple is also often referred to as ‘tiger maple’ for the tiger-like stripes in the wood, or ‘curly maple’ if the stripes are a bit more of the curly nature.”

Because of the hardness of maple, Baylor recommends using very sharp tools.


Sometimes called white oak, this wood is one of the most common hardwoods—and the least expensive. It has a varied grain and a light brown, sometimes reddish, color. Its cousin, red oak, looks similar on the outside but has a heartwood that’s more pink or reddish.

White oak is very durable (though red oak is not) and not particularly sensitive to moisture. It’s easy to work with and can be finished with a simple stain. As a result, it’s used for all kinds of projects—flooring, joinery, cabinets, construction, boat building, etc.


Poplar is one of the softest of the hardwoods, making it easy to machine or work on with hand tools. Ranging from white to gray in color, it’s not the most beautiful to look at, but it’s suitable for projects that will require a coat of paint anyways.

This wood is one of the least expensive hardwoods because of how quickly it grows. Though it dries well and is stable under moisture changes, it should be used for indoor projects since it doesn’t resist insects well.


Rosewood, especially the Brazilian variety, is a bit rare. This fact makes it a more expensive wood, too.

It can have a dark brown to reddish or pinkish color with some darker lines. The grain is closed and straight, but occasionally wavy.

Rosewood is known for being a more oily type of wood, so it’s not best for projects that will require gluing.


A boat built with teak wood

Teak is an attractive medium brown wood with a straight grain. It starts out dark yellow but, over time, changes to a golden brown color that looks beautiful even with a simple oil finish. It’s incredibly strong and durable with medium hardness.

Because it has some special resins in its wood, teak is excellent at resisting moisture damage and rot, known to last even without a finish. For this reason, it’s been used for boat building.

But in addition to its beauty and durability, teak has a high price tag. Found mostly in Southeast Asia, it’s a rare and exotic wood—mainly because of how long it takes to grow and dry.


Walnut is a light to dark brown color (the darker color is in a variety called black walnut). It typically has an open grain. Its warm colors, easy workability, and ability to hold a finish well make it a “prized cabinetmaking wood.”5 And its higher price reflects this value.

Aside from appearance, walnut is a very strong wood that doesn’t rot easily, making it great for handling outdoor conditions and climate changes.

Woodworkers should be aware that walnut wood contains a substance called “juglone” that could result in a skin reaction in those working with it.6

We’ve looked at a variety of common wood types, but now you’re probably wondering which one you should choose. We’ll answer that question next.

What kind of wood should I use for my project?

The type of wood you use will depend on your project, though many types are versatile and work well for furniture, cabinets, or flooring.Different types of wood for construction and outdoor projects, flooring, furniture, kitchen cabinets, and musical instruments

Woodworker William Walker recommends the following woods as great, budget-friendly beginner hardwoods:

  • Poplar
  • Hickory
  • White ash
  • Soft maple

And here are some popular options by project.

For construction and outdoor projects:

  • Cedar
  • Douglas fir
  • Larch
  • Pine
  • Teak

For flooring:

  • Ash
  • Bamboo
  • Beech
  • Birch
  • Cherry
  • Douglas fir
  • Hard maple
  • Oak
  • Mahogany
  • Teak
  • Walnut

For furniture making:

  • Ash
  • Birch
  • Cherry
  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Pine
  • Poplar
  • Redwood
  • Spruce
  • Walnut

For kitchen cabinets:

  • Cherry
  • Hard maple
  • Oak
  • Pine
  • Redwood
  • Walnut

For musical instruments:

  • Basswood
  • Cedar
  • Cherry
  • Cocobolo
  • Ebony
  • Koa
  • Mahogany
  • Maple
  • Pine
  • Redwood
  • Rosewood
  • Sapele
  • Spruce
  • Walnut

Whatever wood you choose, make sure it has the right moisture content.

Three Bessemeter wood moisture meters in a row

When it comes to wood types, you have many options—even within the confines of a specific project. Using an appropriate wood can make a difference in many factors of your project, such as appearance, durability, and moisture resistance. But there’s still room for preference and experimentation. Even using the “wrong” type of wood doesn’t mean that your project will be a failure.

But one factor that you can’t afford to get wrong is moisture content.

Using wood with an improper moisture content can ruin your project and cost you time and money.

So whatever type of wood you use, you’ll want to make sure that it can handle the moisture conditions of your area. Before buying it, use a moisture meter to check that it’s at the equilibrium moisture content for the project’s final location.

This alone can mean the difference between success and failure.

  1. Encyclopedia of Wood (Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA, 1993), p. 26. ()
  2. “Spruce Wood Vs. Pinewood (Pros & Cons),” Woodworking Trade. ()
  3. The Encyclopedia of Wood, Aidan Walker. ed. (Quarto, New York, 2005), p. 48. ()
  4. Encyclopedia of Wood, p. 109. ()
  5. Porter, Terry, Wood: Identification & Use (Guild of Master Craftsman Publications, East Sussex, 2006), p. 150 ()
  6. Encyclopedia of Wood, p. 135. ()