Solid wood — that is, wood cut into boards from the trunk of the tree — makes up most of the wood in a piece of furniture. The type of wood you choose determines the beauty and strength of the finished piece. Many varieties of wood are available, and each has its own properties. The following sections introduce you to the most common types of soft- and hardwoods. The most common type of cedar is the western red variety. Western red cedar, as its name implies, has a reddish color to it. This type of wood is relatively soft (1 on a scale of 1 to 4), has a straight grain, and has a slightly aromatic smell. Western Red cedar is mostly used for outdoor projects such as furniture, decks, and building exteriors because it can handle moist environments without rotting. Western red cedar is moderately priced and can be found at most home centers. Often referred to as Douglas Fir, this wood has a straight, pronounced grain, and has a reddish brown tint to it.
Obviously softwoods will tend to be softer than hardwoods, but try to get a sense of how it compares to other known woods. Density and hardness are closely related, so if the wood is heavy, it will most likely be hard too. If the wood is a part of a finished item that you can’t adequately weigh, you might be able to test the hardness by gouging it in an inconspicuous area. Also, if it is used in a piece of furniture, such as a tabletop, a general idea of its hardness can be assessed by the number and depth of the gouges/dings in the piece given its age and use. A tabletop made of pine will have much deeper dents than a tabletop made of Oak. Additionally, you can always try the “fingernail test” as a rough hardness indicator: find a crisp edge of the wood, and with your fingernail try to push in as hard as you can and see if you’re able to make a dent in the wood.
Sometimes a wood species will have heartwood extractives that will be readily leachable in water and capable of conspicuously tinting a solution of water a specific color. For instance, the heartwood extractives contained in Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) contain a yellowish-brown dye that is soluble in water. (This can sometimes be observed anecdotally when the wood is glued with a water-based adhesive: the glue’s squeeze-out is an unusually vibrant yellow.) In a simple water extract color test, wood shavings are mixed with water in a vial, test tube, or other suitably small container, and the color of the water is observed after a few minutes. If the heartwood extractives are leachable by water, then a corresponding color change should quickly occur. In addition to Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera), Merbau (Intsia spp.), and Rengas (Gluta spp. and Melanorrhoea spp.) are also noted for their readily leachable heartwood extractives. Because this property is quite uncommon, it can serve to quickly differentiate these woods from other lookalikes.
Fir is most often used for building; however, it is inexpensive and can be used for some furniture-making as well. It does not have the most interesting grain pattern and does not take stain very well, so it is best to use it only when you intend to paint the finished product. Douglas fir is moderately strong and hard for a softwood, rating 4 on a scale of 1 to 4. This wood is worth mentioning because it is very common at your local home center and it is so inexpensive you will probably be tempted to make something with it. Pine comes in several varieties, including Ponderosa, Sugar, White, and Yellow, and all of them make great furniture. In some areas of the country (especially southwest United States), pine is the wood to use.
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