This is a list and description of woods that were traditionally used for fine woodworking in the nineteenth century and earlier. They include both hardwoods and softwoods both foreign exotic and domestic to the United States. This does not include all woods used during time period just the ones that were in common use and are documented in the historic record. The hardwood, softwood distinction is based on botanical and scientific determinations not on the hardness or softness of the wood. Almost all of the imported exotic woods were hardwoods. Some of the woods are the same as those available in North America but came over as ballast, as furniture or for their unique characteristics that differ from their American cousins. These are the general groups of woods each may have several different varieties such as oak, pine, mahogany and rosewood. This is a brief overview of historical woods, there are good reference books that have much more detail, physical characteristics and uses of these particular woods.
Cedar – (Thuja plicata) Cedars are excellent soft woods that have physical properties that allow the wood to do well in the weather or when exposed to moisture and is resistant to termites. This lightweight wood is used for interior cabinet parts such as drawer sides and bottoms and cabinet backs. Excellent for exterior woodwork, siding, shingles and trim. The wood is also used for making canoes and wooden boats. Western Red Cedar a wood used extensively by the Native Americans in the North West for building houses, canoes and many other applications. Cedar has conjoined needles. See Juniper.
Cypress – (Taxidum spp.) (Taxodum spp.) This swamp-growing tree also looses its needles according to the seasons, is also one of the most durable woods when exposed to weather, wet conditions and termites. Ocean going ships would have their water tanks made of cypress, it is said to keep the water ‘sweet’. The tree grows in soft ground and has buttress knees that grow up from the water around the base of the tree to provide support. The knees contain dense interlocking grain that produces beautiful veneer.
Fir – (Abies spp.) The firs especially Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga douglasii) are among the hardest softwoods. Used in bridge and building construction, it has excellent strength. Usually with many knots this wood has distinctive spring wood and summer wood growth rings, the latter being very dense. Clear vertical grain wood is an excellent cabinet wood. Fir has a distinct red color to the heartwood and does darken (reddens) with age. Confused with larch and some pines. Fir tends to split and splinter and has one of the nastiest slivers of all the softwoods. Fir has flat needles in cross section.
Hemlock – (Tsuga spp.) Hemlock is on the softer side of softwoods but does retain strength. Sold sometimes with Douglas fir. Pale to red brown wood is more uniform in the grain than fir. The distinction between the summerwood and springwood is not as pronounced as fir. Not resistant to rot, hemlock dries slowly but is fairly stable when dry. This wood works well and finishes better than most softwoods. Does yellow with age.
Holly – (Ilex opaca) Holly is a broadleaf evergreen that produces the whitest wood in the world. Usually not of large size most holly is used for inlays, veneers and in stringing. Purfling is veneer layers of two ebonies and one holly glued together and cut into thin stringing used on musical instruments. Holly is difficult to season, tends to discolor and is not terribly stable when dry.
Juniper – (Juniperus spp.) This includes aromatic red cedar, prized for its delightful fragrance that drives away moths and bugs. The wood is reddish orange with streaks of yellow. Will oxidize and the colors will fade. The fragrance can be renewed by lightly sanding the surface of the wood periodically. The wood should not be finished as that will seal in the fragrance. The blue berries of the juniper are used as the chief ‘flavor’ agent for gin. See Cedar.
Larch – (Larix spp.) Larch is a unique ‘evergreen’ that actually looses its needles every year in the fall. Heavier than most softwoods, larch is used in millwork, for flooring, boat decking and interior woodwork. It is a strong soft wood and is durable in the weather. Confused with fir and pine. Dries quickly but does distort during drying and is stable once dry.
Pine – (Pinus spp.) Pine is the largest group of conifers and most softwoods are called pine. Everyone calls evergreens ‘pine trees’. Many species of pine occur in different parts of the country and were utilized for millwork, construction, interior woodwork and furniture. In the West in the nineteenth centuries, it was the only major wood available to the craftsmen in the pioneer period and much was painted and grained to imitate fancier woods. Pines needles are in packets of two or more.
Redwood – (Sequoia sempervirens) Redwoods are among the largest trees on earth. The wood is known for its resistance to weather, decay and termites. The heartwood has the distinctive red color with pale sapwood. Used for exterior trim, siding and doors. Used for interior woodwork, outdoor furniture and water storage tanks.
Spruce – (Picea spp.) Spruce is among the softest of the conifers but is known for its resonance, lightweight and springiness. Straight-grained quarter sawn spruce is used for the front of musical instruments such as violins and guitars as well as sounding boards of pianos. There is no visual distinction between sapwood and heartwood. The roots produce a cordage used by the Native Americans is the thin, tough bark of the roots called ‘wattap’. Spruce needles are square in cross section.
Alder – (Alnus rubra) Used by the Native Americans to make sacred objects and smoke salmon, this fine hardwood has a beautiful light red color. Excellent for upholstery frames it holds tacks as well as American Elm. Softer than most hardwoods, it works easily, it does not stain well, but carves well. Tends to fuss when sanded, if sealed with shellac, can be finished smooth. Made into charcoal it is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. The wood is also used to smoke fish.
Apple – (Malus spp.) Not generally considered a cabinet wood, this wood is a favorite for making tool handles, spinning wheel bobbins, machine cogs and kitchen utensils. The smaller size of the tree does not yield large lumber. The wood is very hard, wears smooth with use but does not season well in the log. The wood is best if the log is quartered when green and the ends are sealed to reduce checking and cracking. Not readily available because the fruit is worth more than the wood. Remember ‘as American as Apple Pie’, that the apple tree is not native to North America but is imported from Europe. Also good for smoking meats.
Ash – (Fraxinus spp..) Related to the walnut, ash is a beautiful wood that is renowned for its flexibility. Used in chair construction, this wood is relatively easy to bend, either green or steamed. A light pale color this wood burns as well green as it does dry. There is no color distinction between heartwood and sapwood. This open porous wood splits easily and will take a stain. Must be filled for a smooth finish. Black ash green logs can be pounded, crushing the open grain causing the layer in between to come loose in long thin strips that are trimmed, scraped and used for weaving seat bottoms or baskets.
Basswood – (Tilia virginiana) This relative of European Limewood, basswood has been used for centuries as an excellent carving wood. The wood is soft and easy to carve because of the uniform density between spring and summerwood. Also known for its sound deadening abilities it is used in musical instruments The Iroquois Indians carved false facemasks for tobacco ceremonies. They were carved in living trees to capture the spirit of the tree. Also used for kitchen utensils, as it imparts no taste. The wood is also of a uniform pale color, texture and density.
Beech – (Fagus spp.) Many species of the beech grow in North America, this very hard dense and strong wood is the first choice for a wood that will wear smooth with use. Tools such as wooden hand plane and molding plane bodies are frequently made of this fine wood. A pinkish red color this wood burn as well green as dry, can be easily nailed when green but tends to split when nailed dry, pre-drilling is recommended. Turns and finishes well, because it is dense it is not generally stained and takes a natural finish. Used for spindles in the textile industry and in blocks and rigging. Old beech trees sometimes have rotten centers and are found full of bees and honey. Some times called a ‘gum’ when in this state. See Gum.
Birch – (Betula spp.) This tree is generally associated with water as is willow. Many species of this type of tree include, white, yellow and red. The wood is hard and almost as dense as maple but takes a stain better. I have seen curly crotch grain birch that closely resembles satinwood and this would probably indicate that the piece was made in North America. Used for furniture, interior woodwork, doors and cabinetwork this versatile wood was widely available in veneer and lumber.
Cherry – (Prunus serotina) This delicious fruitwood grows much larger than other fruit trees and the wood is as valuable as the fruit. Like all fruitwoods, cherry does not season well in the log and should be immediately quartered to prevent splitting. A rich red color, this wood WILL oxidize with time and exposure. You can slow down the color change but you cannot stop cherry from oxidizing or darkening. A very dense wood, cherry is quite brittle, takes a burnish and but does not stain well and because of its tendency for curly grain, will not absorb stain and finish uniformly. Although somewhat brittle, cherry can be easily bent. While the fruit is sweet, the shavings from the wood contain small amounts of strychnine and should not be used for bedding for animals. The inner bark of cherry contains the highest concentration and is used medicinally for coughs and as a stimulant. See The Matter of Cherry.
Chestnut – (Castanea spp.) It was a beautiful wood while it lasted. Almost completely destroyed by the Chestnut Blight most of the wood available today is recycled. Resistant trees were found in Ohio and the species is on its way back. This beautiful wood with rich nutmeg brown color has grain similar to ash, is structurally strong, splits well and takes a beautiful natural finish. This very stable wood is found in groundwork for veneer pieces, the open grain (open ring porous wood) provides a good key for glue.
Elm – (Ulmus spp.) This is another wood that nearly succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. Most American Elms were lost, this tree is also on its way back from the brink of extinction. This tough, hard wood has interlocking grain and is known for its strength. Knaves or hubs of wagons were constructed of this hard, dense wood. Frames of upholstered furniture are made of elm, the wood hold the tacks securely. Knotty elm boards were also used for wagon bodies, the knots and interlocking grain is resistant to splitting and takes wear and abuse of wagon service. Elm bends well and is frequently found in Windsor chairs.
Gum – (Liquidambar spp.) This fairly plain-grained wood can be streaked with dark lines. Used as a secondary wood, it takes paint well but tends to warp and twist as it dries. Old gum trees will become rotten in their centers and many old trees were harvested, cut to length, cleaned and used for grain storage on the farm. Many old growing gum trees were found filled with bees and honey. Also a term used for a large solid wooden cylinder for storing grain.
Hickory – (Carya spp.) (Hicoria spp.) Not only does this strong, flexible hard wood produce a most useful wood, but also if you have ever had the opportunity to taste hickory nut you have tasted one of Gods finest foods. The preferred wood for tool handles, while it splits well in the log or balk, the wood will take enough abuse with a mallet. The wood however is not resistant to rot. A very springy wood, it is used for shooting bows, spring poles or other applications where a flexible and strong wood. Used to smoke meats it imparts a delightful flavor.
Hop Hornbeam – (Ostrya spp.) This particularly hard and dense wood is used for tools and anywhere extra wear or a bearing surface is needed. The species that grows in the Western United States is also called ironwood and is a dark brown color. This dense wood will not float, even bone dry, does not grow very large and is subject to insect damage as it grows. Other hornbeams are of equal strength, density and characteristics but usually a much lighter color.
Locust – (Robinia spp.) This open ring porous wood is strong, hard, close grain and quite heavy. Used for treenails (trunnels) in timber beam and ship construction. Used in heavy construction and for tool handles, wagon wheel spokes and farm implements. Used for fence posts, which should be put in the ground upside down from how it grows, to prevent decay. Locust distorts somewhat as it dries slowly and is strong when dry. This wood is relatively easy to bend.
Maple – (Acer spp.) This is one of the more important cabinet woods, all maples can be sugared but the rock hard maple produces the finest boards. Big leaf maple produces fine burls as does Box Elder. Maple is hard, close grain open porous wood that will take a finish well. Some curly, striped and birds-eye grain have striking visual beauty and can be difficult to stain. Used for chopping blocks and other kitchen utensils this wood can be difficult to work because of its hardness but turns well, wears smooth and is durable. Because of its hardness it does hold sharp details, crisp moldings and delicate carvings. See On Maple.
Oak – (Quercus spp.) Oak together hickory, beech and maple made up the largest mixed mesophytic forest in the Western Hemisphere. The oaks are important woods for construction of buildings, bridges, wagons and ships. This heavy dense open ring porous wood has beautiful medullary rays when quarter sawn, especially white oak. White oak is the preferred wood making barrels to hold liquid. The oak can be fumed with ammonia to produce a beautiful color. Open grain needs filling for a smooth finish, the wood turns well, takes a stain, splits well and is a good firewood.
Osage Orange – (Maclura pomifera) Another wood known for its flexibility, this wood is called “bois d’ arc”, or wood that bends by the French and ‘bowdark’ in the south. Used by Native Americans to make bows this wood was used for hedgerow planting and is called hedge apple. One interesting use of this tree/wood is when pioneers were coming West, the saplings were removed from the ground while dormant, and transported strapped to the side of wagons with bare roots. If the trip was uneventful they were planted upon arrival but if problems with wagon spokes were encountered, these saplings were perfect replacements for broken wagon wheel spokes. This wood quickly oxidizes from a yellow to orange to brown with exposure when worked. The shavings are saved and used as a dyestuff for textiles and lightwoods.
Pear – (Pyrus communis) This wood was utilized though not a major cabinet wood. Valued as fruitwood, pear is a light red or pink flesh color that is hard and wears smooth with age. Not large trees, pear wood is used for veneers and inlays, bowls as well as wear plates and bearings. The fine texture of this wood makes it a prized carving wood. The wood does not season well in the round and should be quartered and the ends sealed and the wood allow to dry and season. Once it is dry it is quite stable. Not native to North America.
Poplar – (Populus spp.) Where available, this is a widely used wood for construction and secondary woods. A pale yellow color can be streaked with purple, green, brown and black stripes. Some of the wood will be of those darker colors in their entirety. Excellent for painting, this wood is stable, medium hard, easy to turn and work. Some species will fuzz up when finishing and poplar is not known for taking stains in any uniform predictable manner. Yellow Poplar or tulip poplar is a different genus Liriodendron tulipifera and is an excellent secondary wood. Most poplars are the genus Populus, the largest group being Populus tremuloides or quaking aspen. The aspen is the largest living thing on earth, if you have seen one aspen, you have seen them all, and they are genetically identical clones of one another.
Sassafras – (Sassafras albidum) Sassafras along with cedar are two of the most pleasant woods to work with hand tools. The smell that is released is sweet. This wood resembles chestnut or a dark brown ash and is known for its properties. A bedstead made of sassafras is said to produce a pleasant sleep and butter churns made of this wood is said to produce the sweetest butter. The bark or coverings of the root make an excellent medicinal tea. The wood is easy to work, has uniform hardness and carves well.
Sycamore – (Plantanus spp.) Known for its papery bark that sheds from the tree, this wood is a versatile wood used for many applications. A pale softer hardwood, it is easy to work, has flecking when quarter sawn and stands up to moisture and bends well. The round branches are shaped into wedges and used as gluts for splitting logs or rails, takes the abuse of pounding and compression. Used for this rugged purpose as well as for the bent sides of violins and other stringed instruments.
Walnut – (Juglans nigra) A more popular wood today than in the past, walnut was frequently referred to with disdain as ‘black pine’. The heartwood of this tree is a fine brown color, the sapwood quite light with a sharp contrast. This wood is one of the few woods that becomes lighter with age and exposure, most woods darken. American black walnut differs from the European wood, is darker and if it grows in the south a slight purple color to the brown. Easy to work, finishes well, a good wood to turn and carve. White walnut or butternut (J. cinera) is a lighter version of walnut, excellent for carving, somewhat softer than black walnut.
Willow – (Salix spp.) A common tree but more common bush, this wood is soft, fuzz’s when worked, does not stain well but does well around water. Larger trees such as black willow produce large timbers and one use for this wood was to make artificial limbs. The wood makes excellent charcoal for gunpowder and the small branches are burned in the absence of oxygen to make artists charcoal. Twigs of willow will keep your glue pot fresh, the inner bark a source of medicine, aspirin.
Beech – (Fagus spp.) Very similar to American beech but a deeper red color and some say is harder that its colonial cousin. The wood dries well but does tend to distort. Many European tools are made of this fine hard wood. Beech turns well, is easy to work, finishes well and becomes smoother with use. Diffuse ring porous wood, beech is also found in imported furniture and other wooden objects.
Boxwood – (Buxus sempervirens) This creamy custard yellow wood is a very hard wood that wears better than beech. Many beech hand planes have boxed inserts at the high wear points. This tree is not large, not very stable and warps when green but in thin inserts or veneers this wood takes a fine finish, burnishes well and retains its lovely color. The wood is stable when dry and used for measuring devices and wear plates, as engraving blocks and plaster or composite ornamentation molds.
Cedar – Certain cedars were imported from Europe and Asia but the most common imported cedar to the North American continent was Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata). Used for lining humidors, for boat building and in musical instruments. This wood can bleed sap and when unable to seal, such as in a humidor, the wood can be cooked to harden the surface and prevent bleeding.
Deal – Perhaps the most misnamed wood in history. Commonly called European Pine this wood on many English and Irish country pieces is actually Scottish Fir (Abies sylvestri). Its grain looks like pine but the knots are very small and dense. These fine knots are one way to identify deal. Some imported pieces will have both pine and deal in their construction. These pieces were usually painted as were most pieces made of pine or fir. Occurs as a secondary wood in many European antiques.
Ebony – (Diospyros spp.) The blackest of all woods, ebonies traditional applications are in musical instruments, philosophical instruments (scientific instruments), inlays and stringing. Purfling is made by gluing a layer of holly between two pieces of ebony veneer. These are then sliced into thin strings and used to reinforce and decorate the edge of wooden musical instruments. Very hard and dense, ebony can be brittle and splits easily. Burnishes to a gloss finish, ebony turns well but requires etching for a good glue joint.
Elm – (Ulmus spp.) Most elm imported to the U.S. was in the form of veneers mainly Carpathian elm burl. This beautiful burl grows large on old elm trees in Europe. The distinctive eyes of these burls are large and the grain is interlocking making this veneer strong and easy to work with. Like all veneers some flattening may be required before using. Elm stands up well to weather and is durable in the ground.
Harewood – (Acer psuedoplantanus) This beautiful wood is associated with Harewood House in England, it is sycamore that has been fumed with ammonia, which turns the wood a wonderful steel gray color. The wood is usually available in veneer form and the coloring is throughout the wood. Takes a finish well, needs no stain and has beautiful depth and luster.
Hornbeam – (Carpinus betulus) This hard extremely dense wood has very plain grain and is used for tools, pianoforte actions and large machine bearings. It is difficult to work, doesn’t split, turns well and takes a smooth finish. This tough wood can be bent and is susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity.
Kingwood – (Dalbergia spp.) Once the exclusive woods of Kings this South American wood has beautiful striping of alternating colors and is used mainly in veneers for stringing, cross banding and inlay decoration. One of the more expensive woods is easy to confuse with oxidized tulipwood. Also tulipwood is stained to look like kingwood.
Lignum Vitae – (Guaiacum officinal) Depending upon whom you ask this or snakewood is the heaviest wood in the world. Sold by the pound for obvious reasons, this wood is self-lubricating and used for bearings, mallet heads and pulleys in blocks. Slightly softer than iron, this wood turns well and the shavings are as valuable as the wood and is used for medicinal purposes. Wears smooth with use and provides its own lubrications from its oils and waxes contain within the wood. Difficult to season, it is best to maintain a constant temperature and humidity in order to prevent splitting.
Limewood – (Tilia vulgaris) This is a close relative to the North American basswood and was the preferred carving wood of Grindling Gibbons. Uniform density and color makes this wood an excellent wood to carve but lacks grain pattern. Also used for its sound deadening properties and used in musical instruments.
Mahogany -(Swietenia macrophylla.) Imported and used on many important pieces of the past. Many species of this type of wood were brought to this country for use in solid and veneer form. The rarest is the mahogany from Santa Domingo (S. mahogani), also called Spanish or Cuban mahogany is a beautiful chocolate color. African mahogany (Khaya spp.) is difficult to glue and the old veneer is almost always loose. African mahogany can also be rough when worked and difficult to get smooth. A tropical wood, the distinction between spring and summerwood is almost non-existent.
Oak – (Quercus spp.) The most important oak coming to America is the English brown oak, similar to American white oak but has a color darker than chestnut and just lighter and slightly different hue than walnut. This beautiful oak has all the characteristics of oak with its rich brown color. Also pollard oaks were imported, the wood being very tight interlocking grain.
Pernambuco – (Caesalpinia echinata) Not a cabinet wood this tree also known as Brazil wood, this deep brown red wood gave its name to the country from which it comes. Pernambuco is the region of Brazil where this tree grows. Used for walking sticks, the main use of this wood is in the manufacture of musical instrument bows. Also called violin wood, the shavings of this wood are a valuable dye material for textiles and light colored woods.
Rosewood – The genus Dalbergia covers most of the rosewoods, there are many and cocobolo, tulipwood and kingwood are also in this genus. Rosewood is a very dense, heavy and strong wood, although because of its hardness can be brittle. Some woods will change color with oxidation and exposure and will turn darker. The wood is full of silica and dulls tools quickly, turns well but does not readily glue or finish with out specific preparations. The wood should be cleaned with alcohol and etched with a clove of garlic prior to gluing. Keying or toothing also helps the glue adhere. The wood is difficult to finish with anything but oil but can be burnished to a high gloss. Used for veneers, inlays, stringing and decorative accents, rosewood carves with very crisp lines and is dense enough for tools, handles and wear plates.
Satinwood – (Zanthoxylum flavum) (Chloroxylon Swietenia) This is perhaps the most beautiful wood in the world. A piece of satinwood veneer less than a 1/16” thick, when properly finished will look like it is a ¼” thick. One of the most lustrous woods the high silica content reflects light from deep within the woods structure. This wood must be seen to be believed. The dust from this wood causes allergic reaction in many people. This wood looks different from every angle, light is reflected, refracted and played with in a most delightful manner. While looking like satin this wood is the vegetable equivalent of gold. Used mainly in veneer form, it is selected for medallions and accents on the finest woodwork every produced. West Indian Satinwood (Fagara flava) is the species found on Hepplewhite and Sheraton furniture of the nineteenth century.
Snakewood – (Piratinera guianenesis) Together with Lignum Vitae are the contenders for the heaviest wood in the world. This wood will not float, was traditionally used for walking sticks and as buttons, hence its other name buttonwood. This wood is very hard, dense and strong but does tend to be brittle because of its hardness. This rich deep brown has grain that can not be described, if you have not seen the wood its description would be pointless, unless to say that its name implies its grain pattern, the repeated patterns look like markings on snakes. Turns well, dulls tools quickly, can be burnished with iron or steel and will take an oil finish.
Sycamore – (Acer psuedoplantanus) This wood although abundant in North America, the European version called Plane has tighter grain, better flecking and can have very curly grain. This is the wood used in the sides of violins, violas, cellos and other wooden stringed instruments. A complements to the maple of the back, sycamore can be formed and bent for the intricate curves on the delicate sides of these instruments.
Teak – (Tectona grandis) The most common use of this wood until the twentieth century was on ships, ships furniture and outdoor furniture. Will appear in furniture from the orient this wood is resistant to rot and decay and weathers well, turning a light gray color as it weathers without a finish. Linseed oil will help it keep its color in an exterior application. Dulls tools quickly because of the high silica content in the wood. Heavy and strong wood, takes repeated wet and dry cycles well.
Tulipwood – (Dalbergia spp.) One of the more dramatic woods the bright orange stripes contrast with the rich yellow stripes and appear mostly in veneer form. The bright colors will fade with age and exposure but the stripes remain. This is one of the more expensive woods and is used for highlights, inlays, stringing and cross banding. The striped look makes excellent cross banding for veneer, inlays and marquetry.
Walnut – (Juglans regia) The walnut from Europe is of a lighter color than American Black Walnut, is usually of tighter grain with smaller pores. The wood does not lighten to the extent of black walnut but it will lighten with age and exposure. It is not as dark as black walnut to start with. Excellent carving wood, turns well, takes a good finish, and is easy to carve and glue. Many fine firearms of the nineteenth century and earlier are made of this wood.