• When choosing the right lumber for your next project, it’s important to know what your options are.
  • Lumber falls into categories of soft- and hardwood. Softwood comes from coniferous, or “evergreen,” trees—those with needles. Hardwood comes from deciduous, or “leafy,” trees.
  • The three most common types of softwood are Pine, Redwood, and Cedar.
  • The four most common types of hardwood are Oak, Poplar, Maple, and Birch.

If you’re a beginner or aspiring DIY’er, woodwork is likely going to play a big role at some point. With that, here’s a brief rundown of common types of wood you’ll run into at your local lumber shop.

Lumber falls into categories of soft- and hardwood.

An example of a coniferous “softwood” tree.

An example of a coniferous “softwood” tree.

Softwood comes from coniferous, or “evergreen,” trees—those with needles.

An example of a deciduous “hardwood” tree.

Hardwood, by contrast, comes from deciduous, or “leafy,” trees.

The Major Types of Softwood

There are three common types of softwood you’ll run into:

  1. Pine
  2. Redwood
  3. Cedar

Pine is the most popular selection of lumber because of how easy it is to work with.

Pine is ideal as a rustic-looking softwood.

Of the three types of softwood, pine is the knottiest, which lets you have a rustic look on your projects. On the downside, pine isn’t known for its resilience, being prone to warping and twisting.

Redwood is the benchmark wood for outdoor projects.

Redwood’s signature red tint and durability make it a common for outdoor furniture.

It looks elegant with a beautiful red tint, and it’s durable. These attributes make for amazing outdoor furniture and decking. The downside comes with its hefty price.

Cedar is your go-to wood for outdoor furniture due to how well it stands up to the weather.

Cedar is another common wood for outdoor furniture and decking, thanks to its weather resilience.

It has all the qualities of redwood minus the appearance but at a fraction of the cost. It’s also a lot lighter, making it easier to work with, and grays with age. (Whether good or bad is up to you.) The bad news is it is very soft, so it’s easy to dent.

The Major Types of Hardwood

There are four common types of hardwood you’ll run into:

  1. Oak
  2. Poplar
  3. Maple
  4. Birch

Oak is a celebrated wood that often conjures up images of strength and splendor.

Oak is renowned for its strength, making for a good choice in cabinetry.

Indeed, oak may have the most distinctive pattern of major types of hardwood. On the upside, oak is strong, somewhat affordable, and a good choice for fine cabinetry. (Think of it as the Buick of wood.) On the downside, oak’s heaviness and robustness can wreak havoc on weak blades and bits.

Next is poplar, a straight and durable type of wood.

Poplar is the most affordable of the four major hardwoods, but that low cost comes at the expense of distinctive texture.

Poplar is the cheapest of the four major types of hardwood. But affordability comes at a cost. Talk to the average woodworker and he or she will likely say poplar is the least attractive. It’s fine if you’re going to paint it, use it in the shed, or have it concealed within furniture. (Ex. a drawer box but not the drawer face.)

The third is maple. This is the hardest of the common hardwood types.

Maple is a strong wood, but also heavy and pricey.

Maple has a deep grain, like oak, but with more clarity. It’s heavy, pricey, and very tough. Its toughness even extends to finishes. This is a hardwood for experienced craftsmen. It takes a lot of skill to master, but the results are rewarding when you do.

Last, but not least, is birch. Woodworkers tend to use this in premium plywood.

Birch is commonly used as plywood thanks to its low case and easiness to work with.

It’s all-around good type: Inexpensive, easy to work with, and attractive.

In Summary

When it comes to it, the best way to understand the different species of wood is to work with them all. Experiment, error and learn. It’s a process millions of woodworkers have gone through over the ages.

Bob Fremgen, the author of this blog, is a contributing writer and longtime woodworker. His other blogs include “How to Scrap Your Cabinet Surface Like a Pro” and “Novel Hacks: How I Turned a Slide into an Outrigger.

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Bob Fremgen

The author of this blog is a contributing writer and longtime woodworker.