Workhorse wood

When it absolutely, positively has to be strong, good-looking and straightforward to work with, what wood do you choose? For me, the choice is easy.

Iíve opined here before on my favorite utility wood Ė poplar. I use it for all my jigs and shop furniture, for secondary structural components such as drawer boxes, and just about anything else where I need something thatís fast and easy, but can still take some abuse. But when it comes to high strength, easy of workability, straightforward joinery, versatile finishing and an appearance thatís pleasing almost right off the tree, red oak is at the top of my list.

Red oak is incredibly strong in just about any application, it takes stain better and with fewer problems than most other hardwood species, and in a decorating sense it goes well with almost anything. Availability is universal Ė every wood supplier, from the specialty yards to the local Big Box stores, have it in abundance. Itís such a genial wood that wherever you find it, itís generally good quality; even with the typical junk the Big Box stores stock it usually doesnít take much sifting through the pile to find some good pieces.

I love the look of cherry and use it a lot. Walnut is also a joy to use. On the lathe thereís nothing Iíd rather turn than maple burl, and spalted maple is my top choice for decorative panels. If someone requests any other species for something Iím making for them, Iím always more than happy to comply. And the aroma produced when working with Western red cedar is the next best thing to being in a donut shop. But when it comes to furniture, cabinets and a host of other pieces where the choice is mine, I rarely go with anything but oak.

So, whatís your favorite wood for the perfect combination of strength, working characteristics and innate beauty?

Till next time,



  • jeff fliss says:

    I agree there are many aspects that make working with oak a pleasure. As of lately thanks to our economy i havent been doing any woodworking, before that i cant remember the last project i made with oak for a customer. It seems it has lost its popularity for some time now. In my early days it seemed most of our projects used the wood. I think what i like most about this species is how strikingly different its appearance can be depending on its cut and how you finish it. I just love to look at the grain of quarter sawn old growth oak.

  • chet chapin says:

    Red Oak? takes stain better than walnut or cherry not in my shop, perhaps you could explain how you stain oak, like getting a spanish oak color on it

  • Dan Walters says:

    Western Big Leaf Maple has most of the same characterists as Cherry except color and is a whole lot cheaper. It is a joy to work with.

  • Jim Allen says:

    Oak was my immediate answer, along with your other choices as the job dictates. I however use very little poplar. I use mostly pine for jigs and fixtures as it is readily available and they are usually of one time use. I do use a lot of 1/4 ply and door skin for patterns.

  • It’s interesting to read your comments on oak and other woods, I grew up during the thirties and forties in Wyoming where much of the furnitue during that period was made of oak. It all looked the same color and was not attractive to me at all. I do a little woodwork as a hobby and have seldom used oak for anything; however, I just finished a dictionary table out of scrap wood from my small shop. I used a medium walnut Danish Oil mixed with one third Polyurathane for a rubbed finish. Most of the table wss made of oak. The grain was brought out beautifully. I really like the results. Walnut has always been my favorite wood. I made a bedroom set out of a curly Birch about 50 years ago and it still looks good. I believe that most woods can be made attractive with the right treatment, but must admit that I had reservations about oak until recently.–Bob

  • I like to use birch for the interior frames and drawer sides on my boxes. The birch seems to have more appeal to the customers that look, while in the quantities used it adds little to the price.
    The other utility material is plywood.

  • Wes Blair says:

    I think one of the most over looked beautiful woods available is Ambrosia Maple. It always has an out standing look that is not given the credit it deserves. Ambrosia can go from the typical ambrosia look to an awesome Ambrosia character with curly figure.It surfaces and turns well. it is easy to dry and availability is great. One other selling point of this wood is the affordability. The wood can run from $2.00/bdf to $6.00/bdf according to the character.

  • I too like working with oak, but I’ve built so much with it over the years that I’m kind of sick of it. When I say “sick of it”, I mean I wouldn’t make any cabinets or furniture for my own house with it. I just finished an office “built in” for myself, which was my first big project with Cherry. Can’t say it’s my favorite wood to work with as it burns much too easy. I think at this point my favorite woods to work with would have to be Alder or Soft maple. I like doing rustic pieces and these two woods can fill that bill and are easy to work with. As far as any projects with secondary or paint grade woods,well then poplar is usually my first choice. Having said that I have even used poplar as a primary wood in a few pieces as well.

  • adam says:

    In the same vein as your argument above, I love using ash for many of the same characteristics you list about oak (excepting stainability perhaps, but I avoid stain as much as I can). The thing that puts it above oak for me though is its pliability. I do a lot of glue-laminating and love the way ash handles being bent around forms without much complaint. I also love the tone it offers being more in the maple color family than red oak.

  • Don says:

    Here in the northwest, many people like a rustic flavor to their environment. We do many projects from clear hickory, rustic hickory and super rustic hickory (you can drive a car through the knot holes). It stains really well, when needed and looks very nice when you apply a CV like ML Campbell. Another wood I use a lot for projects is Alder. Though not tough on the outside it does a really good job in regards to furniture and cabinetry (and fireplace mantles). Like hickory, you can get it in clear, rustic and Swiss Cheese rustic. If you seal it with Benite, it will take a gell stain very nicely. Otherwise, you can color it using spray on shellac with toners added. Even clear coated it looks very nice.

    My all around favorite wood for strength, workability and beauty is Bubinga. I built a large roll-around tool case for my shop and people ask why it is not in a gallery somewhere instead of stocked with tools in my shop gathering dust. No answer… ūüôā

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