Nearly everyone knows that there are hardwoods and softwoods. Pine, for example, is a softwood, and oak is a hardwood. Softwoods are not as good as hardwoods for furniture because they dent and gouge more easily, and won't wear as long. Hardwoods are more difficult to work but they resist denting and gouging. The hardwoods have a more beautiful appearance (in furniture terms, at least) than the softwoods and they accept finishes better.
The most common furniture hardwoods are oak. walnut, maple, birch, cherry, mahogany. rosewood, gum and beech. The most common softwoods are pine, hemlock, fir, redwood, spruce and cedar. But in woods, as you will discover, hardness is both a matter of degree and of terminology. Maple, for example, is an extremely hard wood that will give your saw fits if you cut much of it. Mahogany also is rated as a hardwood, but it is softer and easier to work than maple.
The best furniture is made of hardwood, but you'll find a lot of attractive pieces in pine. Many Early American pieces were made in softwoods, probably because these woods were readily available and easy to work. Copies of these pieces today also are made in these same softwoods.
In addition to the standard furniture hardwoods, there are hundreds of "exotic" woods such as avodire, ebony, lovoa, paldao and zebra wood, to name a few. that are highly prized for their rich coloring and appearance. These usually are seen in beautiful inlays and as veneers. They are very expensive and hard to find except in specialty shops. One of the interesting things you can do in restoration is to apply these exotic woods in veneer form to chests or tables, and create beautiful and unusual pieces. Veneering is complicated but can be fun. It produces excellent results. We will give you the details later.
Here is a rundown of the major furniture woods, with some notes on their uses and characteristics.
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