Workshop Essentials

Remember that if you are budgeting for a new workshop, then building or converting an existing building is only the first stage. After completion it must be equipped, although this can take place over a period of time as funds allow. And, of course, there will be running costs. An unheated workshop in winter is not a pleasant environment in which to work.

Planning Your Work

When choosing your workspace, there are several points to consider. Firstly, do you need to install your own machines or could you get time-saving timber preparation done by a local wood machinist or joinery firm? If you are prepared to acquire skills with a relatively small kit of hand tools, you could manage without the noise, dust and generally unpleasant working conditions created by machines and power tools, not to mention the expense.

Once you know the sort of woodwork you intend to do, make a list of the equipment you’re likely to need. Include in this hand and power tools, plus possible machines. It’s useful to draw up two lists: one of essential kit that you cannot do without, and a second one of potential equipment you may need to buy in the future. This will help you when planning the basic layout of the workshop.

Heating and Humidity

Heating and humidity control are both very important. Timber is sensitive to changes in atmosphere and an unheated workshop will invariably be damp. This will result in warped timber and your tools and machines may rust, too. Outdoor workshops should be heated carefully with a form of dry heat. Mobile gas heaters may be convenient but they also emit moisture. Think about installing an electric low-output background heater that runs all the time, and a dehumidifier. This not only extracts moisture from the air but also keeps the air warm. If you are likely to work for long periods of time, consider installing a woodburner or a stove that runs off sawdust. Garage and garden-shed workshops should have insulated walls, ceilings and floors. You should also add a damp-proof membrane to internal walls and ceilings to reduce condensation.

Noise and Insulation

Most forms of woodwork entail noise at some stage. Routers and planers are among the worst offenders, although some hand tools are not quiet, either. Unless you live in a remote area away from other people, always consider your neighbours. If in doubt about noise levels, ask a friend to listen outside the workshop while you operate the noisiest equipment. If using power tools or machines, make sure you set a reasonable time each evening when you shut these down. When considering materials for heat insulation, polystyrene may be cheap, easy to fit and effective, but it does little to deaden noise: rolls of fibreglass are a better option.

Power and Lighting

If connecting an outbuilding or shed to a power supply, check with your local government regarding-any likely regulations. All electrical work must comply and be installed, or checked, by a qualified electrician. If running an electric cable underground from the house, use the armoured type, which has a protective sheathing. A cable can be suspended overhead, although there is a greater risk from accidental damage. It should be a minimum distance from the ground and attached to a tensioned catenary wire. This wire must be earthed to the main earthing point of the house, and any external joints should be made with waterproof connectors.

Install more electric sockets than you think you will need and position them around the workshop to avoid cables trailing across the work area. Good lighting is essential, with overhead fluorescent strip lighting the easiest to install. If possible, situate your bench alongside a window and use an anglepoise lamp to illuminate bench work. Although daylight is best, watch out for direct sunlight on timber components, which can warp and twist as a result.


Workshop security is a major concern. Location is important, and a workshop at the far end of a long garden is more at risk than one close to the house. When evaluating the risks, consider how you would get into your workshop if you lost the only key. This will highlight weaknesses, such as padlocks that can be cut, external hinges that could be prised off and windows that could be forced.

Simple alarm systems are inexpensive to fit and may well act as a deterrent. Outdoor security lighting with movement sensors can be installed relatively cheaply. Padlocks with built-in alarms are another option.

If you do not want to fit steel bars to your windows, make simple shutters from plywood that can be fixed in position easily and secured from within.

Sadly, portable power tools are stolen to order these days. You only need add up the cost of a few items to see what it would cost to replace them if lost through theft. Mark all power tools with your postal code using electronic chips or invisible ink, so they can be identified if recovered by police after a break-in. If possible, make sure the contents of your workshop are insured. If woodworking is your hobby, it should be possible to add an inventory to your household insurance policy. If you intend to make money from woodworking, business insurance may be an option.

Word Discription

Catenary wire A steel wire stretched overhead between two points, usually buildings. Used to suspend a power cable.


With a workcentre you can fit various power tools in a table leaving both hands free to guide the timber over or under a sawblade or router cutter. This offers greater accuracy and control, especially when working with large sheet materials or lengths of timber. A cost-effective but inferior alternative to dedicated woodworking machines, tools can be removed for hand-held use.

Using A Workcentre

Although circular saws and routers are most commonly fitted to workcentres, you can also mount jigsaws, faceplate sanders and planers with the correct accessories. You normally fit the power tool to a universal mounting plate, which accepts most routers and circular saws. For best results the bigger diameter the saw blade, the better. You can then position this plate quickly in the workcentre, with the tool either above or below the timber to be machined.

Sawing On A Workcentre

When you mount a saw upside down, the workcentre becomes a table saw. An adjustable fence enables you to rip timber and sheet materials. A sliding-mitre fence makes crosscutting and angled sawing possible, while you can tilt the saw blade over to cut compound mitres. With the saw fixed above the timber in overhead mode, you can use it for crosscutting and grooving, simply by sliding the tool along parallel guide rails. The timber sits on a lower table that you can raise or lower for height, making tenons and housings possible. An adjustable stop enables you to machine timber at angles between 45 and 90 degrees.

Routing On A workcentre

Mounted upside down, a router becomes a small spindle moulder. With the fence in place you can cut grooves, housings, tenons and rebates with a straight cutter. Insert a profile cutter and you can mould edges. For routing several identical components, either tape or cramp them together. For template routing, remove the fence and use bearing-guided cutters. A router can also be mounted above the workcentre for overhead machining work. The tool can either be used in a stationary position with the timber travelling underneath, or it can slide in the cradle. This is useful for producing housings and grooves.


Always use the crown guard and riving knife when using the workcentre as a table saw. Use a pushstick when ripping timber or panels. Before switching on a saw when positioned for overhead cutting, make sure that the blade will not come into any part of the workcentre. Fit an NVR switch to the machine if it does not already have one. Not only is this safer, but it makes switching a power tool on and off far easier.


When machining several components to the same dimensions, always cut one or two spares. Then you will not have to set up the machine again for a replacement if one gets damaged.


Woodcarving can be described as three-dimensional drawing in timber. Although almost anyone can learn the basic manual skills required, carving is undoubtedly aided by a natural artistic flair. Once you have grasped the fundamental rules and attempted a few simple projects, you will be able to explore your own ideas, free from the structural constraints of cabinet-making, where form, shape and detail are paramount.


Woodcarving can be divided into two categories: two-dimensional relief work and three-dimensional, in-the­round carving. Traditionally used for wall panelling and decoration, relief carving is seen from one side only and so is usually carried out on a flat piece of timber. Background wood is cut away to create lettering, geometric or pictorial images. In-the-round carving is generally done from a solid timber blank, with the result viewed from all sides. Depictions of figures, animals and freeform sculptures are typical.

Hand Tools

Most carving tool suppliers carry a comprehensive  stock of different types of tools. Well-balanced, finely-ground tools with high-quality steel blades are necessary for woodcarving. Old, second-hand tools from well-established makers are a good purchase, often being of higher quality than many new tools currently available. Most manufacturers supply tools with box, ash or rosewood handles, with or without steel or brass ferrules. You can easily buy separate replacement handles. Hexagonal or octagonal-shaped handles ensure tools lie steadier on the bench, without the tendency for them to roll.

Gouges and Chisels

Carving tools come in a variety of shapes and sizes, providing endless possibilities for shaping wood. Gouges are numbered according to the amount of sweep or curvature across the blade. A higher number means a greater radius. There is no international standard here, so one manufacturer’s 19 mm (¾ in) roughing-out tool, for example, will be a slightly different shape from another’s. Big high-sided gouges, larger open-radius gouges and almost flat chisels are used mainly for heavy work such as roughing out and bulk shaping. Parting, or `V’, tools can also be used for this process, where a definite, deep and fine division is required. As you progress a carving you will need smaller versions of the tools for the refined sharpening and modelling. Gouges should only be sharpened on their outside bevel. A shaped slipstone is used to remove the resulting burr on the inside.

Rasps, Rifflers and Files

A good range of abrasive tools are useful, especially when working on large sculptural pieces. Rifflers and rasps quickly smooth out heavy uneven surfaces. They have more of a ripping action than a cutting one, and although they remove heavy bumps, you will still have to do the finishing with finer rasps and files before using an abrasive paper.

Carver’s Mallet

A carver’s mallet has a circular head and rounded handle. The head is made from a dense hardwood, traditionally lignum vitae. Use it to strike gouges and chisels when making cuts across the grain or on difficult work.

The tool are :

Power Tools

Angle Grinders

With the development of the rotary Arbortech carver and similar devices, the angle grinder has become an invaluable tool for many experienced woodcarvers. The Arbortech has offset alternating teeth, with a ridge spacer between them for a smoother cut. It is particularly useful for roughing out, but is rather noisy and produces a large number of chippings. You sharpen teeth either with a chainsaw file, ceramic sharpening stone or diamond file, depending on the blade. Always wear full protective clothing when using powered carving tools such as this and use the guards provided on the machine.

Power Carvers

For the serious carver, a flexible shaft attached to an electric motor enables you to use a hand piece for fine work. You can fit a variety of small cutters, drill bits, sanders and burrs, as well as carving tools when using with a reciprocating head. You can suspend the motor above the bench and operate by a foot pedal.

Mini Power Tools

Fitted with various high-speed and carbide cutters, mini power tools enable you to create very fine, detailed carvings in a fraction of the time taken by other more conventional tools. Bits are typically 3.2 mm (approximately X in) diameter and fitted into a collet, rather like a router.

Holding Devices and Cramps

A variety of devices have been invented to hold a timber blank rigidly while carving. This is essential, as carving tools are sharp and driven into the wood either using a mallet or by hand. Whatever cramping method you use, make sure it is fitted to a sturdy bench or carver’s stand. A normal woodworker’s vice is unsuitable, as the work piece needs to be above the bench top. A heavy engineer’s vice is better as you can mount it on the surface. You can fit the jaws with soft rubber facings to prevent damaging the timber.

Depending on the shape and size of the work piece, a dedicated carving cramp enables you to tilt it to an exact position and lock it firmly before screwing a faceplate to the underside of the timber. A holdfast is ideal for securing flat panels to the bench for carving. This is simply inserted in a hole in the bench top. You should place an offcut between jaw and work piece to prevent this becoming marked.

Carving Techniques

The processes of carving are relatively straightforward. What is important is that tools are sharp. Most carvings are constructed from sections of circles and ovals. A combination of the two produces ‘S’ shapes, creating high and low points to the carving to round over and scoop out. Coping with changing grain direction needs practice. Slicing helps to deal with this problem when cutting against or across the grain: slightly curl the tool to left or right to give work a cleaner cut.

Paring is the action of pushing a tool while keeping the blade flat to the surface of the wood, skimming off small amounts. Scalloping comprises making a series of shallow scoops adjacent to one another, giving a fine rippling texture to the surface. It takes time to become proficient, but the more you practise the more your work will reflect this. Natural drawing skills are an asset, and sketching is recommended. Obtain as much reference material as possible. Modelling clay is also of great benefit, allowing you to create a relatively quick, three-dimensional form from which to copy.

Timbers For Carving

The most suitable timber to choose depends on the type of carving you intend to do. Oak was once widely used for church carvings, mahogany for polished furniture and lime and yellow pine for gilded or painted items. These days jelutong is used for pattern making, while box is chosen for intricate detailed carvings, although it only grows to small diameters Lime is ideal for the novice. It is readily available, soft and easy to work, and holds good detail.

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Virtually every figured hardwood and many softwoods can be obtained in the form of veneer — a thin sheet of the solid timber. Decorative veneer is normally glued to a ‘groundwork’ of timber or sheet for stability and strength, while constructional veneer is used for laminating and producing plywood and other sheet materials.

The range of veneers available is enormous — from exotic burrs to three-dimensional ripple and figured veneers. Many of the world’s most unusual and magnificent trees are converted into veneer, as are fine examples of less exotic timbers. Common thickness is 0.6 mm (approximately 1/64  in), although constructional veneers for laminating are thicker, between 1 and 3 mm (1/32 and 1/8 in).

Veneer production

To produce a veneer, a log is either cut square or rotary-cut. When cut square it is soaked for some time in hot water before being placed on a massive guillotine, which cuts a 1-mm (1/32-in) thick slice of wood along the log’s entire length. As the blade retracts, so the log moves foward by 1 mm (1/32 in) and the process is repeated. As each veneer leaf falls onto the previous one, the figure is visibly repeated on each leaf. Quartersawn slicing produces more figured grain in the veneer than normal, flat slicing. Once the leaves have been dried and stacked — generally in bundles of 24 leaves — each bundle is taped so that the sequence of cut leaves is not disturbed. This way the entire solid log is rebuilt in bundles or parcels.

With rotary-cut veneering, the log is first de-barked and steamed. It is then mounted on a large lathe-like machine. The log revolves and a continuous sheet emerges as the cutting knife reduces the radius of the log. Mounting the log in several different positions results in various grain patterns.When positioned off-centre, the veneer’s figuring is similar to that obtained by flat slicing. Back cutting is used to exaggerate the effect of curl veneer (from a fork in the tree’s trunk), which produces a feathered effect.


Veneers cut by slicing method

Types of veneer

Veneers fall into two categories. The first comprises leaves produced from good, clean boards, but that are not necessarily highly figured. For example, rotary-cut veneers are economical to produce and are used in the manufacture of plywood. Other slice- or guillotine-cut veneers are clean and representative of a species but without the highly prized figure. Suitable for areas inside a carcase, for example, these straightforward veneers are often crown-cut, which gives a wider leaf than the straight grain of a quartersawn log.

The second category comprises exotic or highly figured veneers, which can range from fiddleback rays that dance across the surface to quilted maple, where the surface literally appears to have the texture of a satin quilt. Often the figure and real beauty of a species can only be found in veneer form and, although most hardwoods and softwoods can be converted into veneer, it is an expensive process, ideally reserved for a good commercial log.

Veneers cut by rotary method

Tips for buying and storing veneer

  • Always check that the bundle has not been disturbed. Look through the leaves and any loss of sequence will be apparent.
  • Hold a random leaf up to the light. If it has been badly cut daylight will appear through all or part of the leaf.
  • Check that the leaf edges have not discoloured with ultraviolet light. The centre of the leaf should match the colour of the edge.
  • Always store veneers away from direct light. Tape the ends to prevent splitting and store in a cool dry place, preferably flat.
  • Once you have bought your bundle of veneers, number each leaf in sequence. Do this before spreading them out. Once they are scattered around the workshop it is easy to mismatch when trying to establish the original order.


Word Discription :

Burr or burl Wild grain revealed when a growth on a tree is cut off and sliced. Caul A stiff board, flat or curved, for cramping groundwork and veneer together.

Crown-cut Another term for through-and­through sawing. Crown-cut boards display almost flat or slightly curved growth rings in the end grain. Board faces show the flame effect of the growth rings.

Flitch A bundle of veneer leaves.

Groundwork Sheet material or timber to which veneer is glued.

Laminating The process of gluing several layers of veneer together to form a stable, curved shape without steaming and bending. (Plywood is a form of laminating, using constructional veneers.)

Quartersawn Planks cut from a tree radially, where the growth rings are at least 45 degrees to the face. This technique exposes the best figure and timber is most stable.


Veneering is one of the oldest woodworking techniques and is also environmentally friendly. As many of the world’s most exotic timbers become scarce, it is still possible to use many of these beautiful hardwoods for furniture or cabinet-making without depleting the forests. Veneer is far cheaper than solid timber, and offers greater stability when used with sheet materials.

Veneers come in a variety of colours, grains and textures. Box-making is a popular way of using small pieces of veneer with exotic grain, where highly figured burrs, curls, ripples, stripes and bird’s-eye effects are not unusual.

Tools For Veneering

Veneer Saw

The veneer saw has a curved blade with fine teeth, about 152 mm (6 in) long and cuts through veneer of any thickness, producing a square edge for tight jointing. Use a veneer saw against a straightedge for greater accuracy.

Veneer Hammer

With a wide, non-ferrous metal blade, the veneer hammer is used to squeeze excess animal glue and air out from beneath the veneer.


Several knives with different blades are useful for cutting veneer — a fine scalpel blade for intricate work, a heavier, stiffer blade for general cutting.


A straightedge is necessary for the accurate cutting of veneers. It should be thick enough that the knife does not run over the edge and into your fingers. Recommended length is 1 m (39 in). A 305 mm (12 in) steel rule is useful for making smaller cuts.

Cutting Mat

Handy for finer work, a self-healing cutting mat allows the knife tip to penetrate without causing damage or dulling the blade. For larger areas cut on a piece of MDF or plywood.

Traditionally, animal glue is used in granule (pearl) or sheet form, soaked in water and heated. You can also use modern synthetic glues, such as PVA, successfully.

Glue Pot

A traditional double-walled glue pot is used for heating animal glue. You fill the outer container with water while the inner pot houses the glue. This prevents glue from overheating. Traditional glue pots are heated on electric or gas rings, while modern versions are electrically powered.

Glue Spreader

If using PVA glue over a large area a spreader saves you time and guarantees an even spread. Alternatively, use a sponge paint roller.

Electric Iron

An old iron softens animal glue on veneer and groundwork — ideal for heat-sensitive glue film.

Veneer Trimmer

For removing surplus veneer along panel edges, a trimmer cuts cleanly both across and along the grain.


Essential when jointing veneers, gummed paper tape is applied across and along the joint before laying the leaves. Tape prevents the joint from opening up through shrinkage. The best tape is made from a thin paper covered on one side with a water-soluble gum. Once the glued veneer has set, remove the tape by moistening and scraping. Self-adhesive tapes should be avoided unless they are of the low-tack type: they invariably tear the veneer when removed and can leave glue deposits in the pores of the wood that present problems with finishing.

Vacuum Press

A small air pump extracts air from a plastic bag, into which the work piece has been placed.

Shooting Board

Used with a bench plane on its side, this home-made jig helps create a dead straight, square edge on flat veneer. Make a shooting board from MDF or plywood.

Using Veneer

Veneer leaves are stacked as they are sliced or peeled off the log, so a bundle will match all the way through. You can buy one leaf at a time or a whole flitch. Never be tempted to pull a sheet from lower down a stack, but lift sheets off the top, keeping them in sequence. Common veneers come in lengths up to 3.35 m (11 ft) or more, so are usually rolled when sold. As veneer is brittle, unroll carefully when opening to prevent leaves splitting. Several specialists supply by mail-order.


It is important that veneer is flat before gluing and, although most veneers lie flat naturally, burrs and some highly figured woods are notoriously uneven. To rectify this, first dampen both sides of the veneer with a sponge. Place the veneer between two boards and cramp together or put a weight on top. After a few hours it will be flat and more pliable. Cut, joint if necessary, and lay the veneer straight away to prevent it distorting again.


Veneer is laid on a backing material known as the groundwork, which must be flat. This may be sheet material or solid timber, such as pine. MDF is most popular as a ground and you may also use chipboard. If using plywood, veneer must run at 90 degrees to the grain of the board to prevent cracks appearing later. On a solid-wood ground, veneer and timber-grain direction should match, so the veneer can move with the timber. Wood should be free of knots and defects. which could show through the veneer. You must veneer groundwork on both sides, otherwise it is likely to distort as glue and veneer dry. You can use a cheaper veneer on the reverse side to the face, but make sure it is of the same thickness.

Hammer Veneering

This is the traditional method of laying veneer, still used by furniture restorers. It requires few tools but considerable skill, and is suitable for knife-cut veneer in relatively simple designs. You brush animal glue onto both veneer and groundwork and bring the two surfaces together. The hot adhesive cools rapidly, leaving a thick glue line. Reheat this with an electric iron (set on low) and a damp cloth, before using the hammer to squeeze out surplus glue.

Caul Veneering

In elaborate veneering such as marquetry or parquetry (see page 182) the veneer-hammer method tends to dislodge individual pieces and spoil the pattern. In the absence of a purpose-built veneer press, you use two pieces of MDF or plywood, at least 25 mm (1 in) thick and slightly bigger than the veneer, with sash cramps.

You can also use gently curved cross bearers to apply initial pressure at the centre of the boards.

This prevents air or glue from being trapped between the groundwork and the veneer. Place polythene or paper between veneer and caul faces to prevent unwanted adhesion.

Vacuum Veneering

A modern alternative to both caul and hammer veneering is the portable vacuum system. This relatively low-cost equipment gives the small workshop the facility to veneer flat boards and laminate shaped components without taking up valuable shop space. The system uses a small vacuum pump to extract the air from a plastic or rubber bag containing the work piece. As the vacuum is produced, the atmospheric pressure outside the bag exerts a force in excess of 8 tonnes per sq m (¾ tons per sq ft) on to the work piece. This pressure is uniformly achieved over the whole panel.


If using a press or caul, tape the joints before laying veneer on the groundwork. Edges should meet perfectly before taping at 152 mm (6 in) intervals across the joint. Then apply a long strip down the joint lengthways. This taping procedure is the same for hammer veneering, although you lay the veneers first and cut through the overlapping edges with a knife against a straightedge. Remove the waste before finally taping up the joint to prevent shrinkage while the glue dries.


Once the glue has dried completely, use a cabinet scraper to clean up the surface. Follow this with abrasive paper, starting with 150 grit and working up to finer grades. Never use a plane on the surface of a veneer as you risk slicing through it.

A finishing sander can be used with care, although a belt sander is likely to sand through the veneer.

Marquetry and Parquetry

You can cut and lay pieces of contrasting veneer to create a picture or pattern. This is known as marquetry and can be used to create three-dimensional effects ­traditional floral and wildlife scenes are popular. It is possible to make your own designs by taping layers of veneer together and cutting out the pattern on a scroll saw or with a fretsaw. The technique of cutting geometric shapes from veneer is called parquetry — the simplest example being a chess board. Graph paper is very useful when designing your own patterns, which may be built up by splicing contrasting strips together, re-cutting and re-gluing. You may need to cut and glue interlocking shapes together individually.

Inlay, Stringing and Banding

Decorative inlay motifs are common in traditional furniture and are still used in reproduction pieces and for antique restoration. They can be bought ready-made from veneer suppliers and consist of delicate marquetry patterns, usually floral or pictorial, then set into either a veneered surface or solid timber.

Stringings are single, light or dark strips of wood inlaid into a surface. They create a line where the grain changes direction or contrasting veneers meet. Traditionally made from boxwood and ebony, black-dyed holly now replaces ebony. Purflings are fine enough to be bent easily and are used for decoration on musical instruments, particularly the violin family. Bandings are made from several layers of contrasting wood glued together as a slab, which is then sliced lengthways into narrow strips about 1 mm (1/32 in) thick. They can be highly decorative and are often used to create borders around a veneered surface. They are commonly edged with boxwood or ebonized stringing. Narrow veneer strips cut across the grain are called crossbanding.

Word Discription :

Burr or burl Wild grain revealed when a growth on a tree is cut off and sliced.

Caul A stiff board, flat or curved, for cramping groundwork and veneer together.

Crown-cut Another term for through-and­through sawing (see page 16). Crown-cut boards display almost flat or slightly curved growth rings in the end grain. Board faces show the flame effect of the growth rings.

Flitch A bundle of veneer leaves.

Groundwork Sheet material or timber to which veneer is glued.

Marquetry An applied decoration using veneers of different species and colours.

Parquetry Similar to marquetry but veneers are generally cut to make geometric patterns.

Quartersawn Planks cut from a tree radially, where the growth rings are at least 45 degrees to the face. This exposes the best figure.

Shooting board A jig for planing edges or end grain of timber accurately. It consists of two boards glued together, the upper one narrower than the other. The side of the plane runs on the lower board, trimming the work piece that sits on the upper level.

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Timbers Of The World

Before selecting timber, consider the advantages and disadvantages of the wood. Over the following pages you’ll find a helpful introduction to a wide range of soft- and hardwoods.


The term ‘non-porous’ is sometimes applied by botanists to softwood species, many of which grow in the northern hemisphere. Instead of moisture passing through open cells throughout the tree’s length, as in hardwoods, each individual softwood cell relies on moisture passing through its cell wall. This often causes softwoods to perform quite differently to hardwoods when used in the workshop.

Parana pine: Araucaria Angustifolia

Sources Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay

Sustainability tropical softwood, with risk of illegal logging

Typical uses internal joinery, stairs

  • close-grained, wide boards; easy to machine, with low wastage
  • cupping a problem with wide boards

Denser than most softwoods, parana pine often grows above 21 m (70 ft) in height. Unlike most softwoods, this hard pine is generally knot free, and can be obtained virtually free from knots in wide boards. Honey-coloured, its reddish streaks are regarded as a feature. Growth rings are hard to distinguish.

Cedar of Lebanon: Cedrus Libani

Sources Middle East, Europe

Sustainability unlikely to be certified

Typical uses drawers and box linings

  • wide, stable boards; strong aroma repels insects
  • brittle; quite expensive

A general term, as there are three or four different cedars with similar characteristics. This timber is known for its strong fragrance, which deters moths, and is often used as a drawer lining. Very light with little constructional strength, it is available in very wide boards, some of which are quartersawn.

Larch: Larix Deciduas

Sources Europe

Sustainability not endangered, though available from certified sources

Typical uses external joinery

  • straight grain; durable outdoors
  • splits and knots a problem

A wonderful timber for outdoor use, it not only grows to a great height, but also produces really wide boards. Often seen in the form of fencing, garden sheds and even flooring. Traditionally used for pit props in mines and telephone poles. Unlike pines and spruces, which are evergreen, this species loses its leaves in winter.

European redwood: Pinus Sylvestris

Sources Europe, northern Asia Sustainability not endangered

Typical uses household furniture, joinery, house construction

  • cheap and plentiful; easy to work
  • can be knotty

Also known as Scots pine, in western Europe redwood abounds as furniture and structural members in house building. Prone to movement, its wide spring growth is quite soft, making the harder summer growth pronounced. It changes colour with ultraviolet light, which can be unattractive if the exposure is uneven.

Douglas fir: Pseudotsuga Menziesii

Sources North America, UK

Sustainability not endangered, though available from certified sources

Typical uses house construction and joinery

  • water-resistant; straight grain, fairly strong and can be knot free
  • can be brittle and susceptible to splintering A giant of a tree, often growing in excess of 85 m (280 ft). Generally reddish in colour, the sectional sizes available are enormous, so its uses are vast, from large timber structures to interiors. Not only very tough, but water-resistant. Also known as British Columbian pine and Oregon pine.

Yew: Taxus Baccata 

Sources Europe

Sustainability often found in churchyards and parks, certification is rare

Typical uses furniture-making, musical instruments, bows, veneer

  • beautiful colouring and grain; straight-grained timber bends well
  • very high wastage (up to 400 per cent), so very expensive

Some trees exceed 1,000 years in age. Yew has extraordinarily elastic properties, hence its historical use for long bows and the finest Windsor chairs. Boards have a high proportion of sapwood and its branches make beautiful oysters. The foliage is poisonous to many animals, including cattle.

Western red cedar: Thuja Plicata

Sources North America and Europe

Sustainability certified timber available. Not easily regenerated, supplies of best stock low

Typical uses roof shingles, musical instruments

  • easy to work; naturally durable
  •  dust can cause respiratory problems

Western red cedar is available in wide boards and very easy to work. The lovely aroma can remain in the wood, especially when used in confined spaces. Very durable and much used for internal joinery. It withstands almost any climatic condition, so is particularly good for houses.

Western hemlock: Tsuga Heterophylla

Sources North America and Europe

Sustainability not endangered, though available from certified sources Typical uses internal joinery, stair balusters, plywood, sheds and greenhouses

  • straight grain, stable; easy to work
  • poor durability, soft

Although a good general-purpose timber for interior work such as panelling, western hemlock is prone to movement in enclosed, temperature-variable conditions. It grows fast, is clean and even in grain, but should not be used externally. Also called fir or spruce.


From early experimentation, it has been discovered which woods are durable and perform well for tool-making, boat building, furniture-making, even wheel-making. In these categories hardwoods generally perform better than softwoods. This is partly owing to the different composition of the cell structure in hardwoods, which allows much greater flexibility than in most softwoods.

Sycamore: Acer Pseudoplatanus

Sources Europe, western Asia

Sustainability not endangered, though some timber is certified Typical uses furniture-making, musical instruments, woodturning, kitchen utensils

  • fine grain, few defects; easy to bend
  • surface can burn when machining; not as hard as maple

Although almost white when converted, in time it turns yellowish-brown. In quartersawn boards the medullary rays are beautiful and subtle. Rippled figuring is prized for musical instruments. Seasoning and workshop drying can still result in distorted boards; they must be stood on end to season or the colour is lost forever. A superb wood once tamed.

Sugar maple: Acer Saccharum

Sources North America

Sustainability not endangered, though certified timber easily available

Typical uses furniture-making, tool handles, butchers’ blocks, woodturning, flooring

  • cuts well, retaining sharp edges when machined
  •  hard on edge tools; poor durability

Also known as rock maple, sugar maple is a versatile, close-grained, dense temperate timber that finishes well. The wood ages and discolours less than sycamore and its grain can be straight or very wavy. Bird’s-eye, rippled and quilted maples are exotic variations, often displaying stunning figuring. Sugar maple is prized by cabinet-makers.

Red alder: Alnus Rubra

Sources North America

Sustainability not endangered, fast growing

Typical uses furniture-making, joinery, carving, woodturning

  • stable, straight grain
  • bland appearance; fairly soft

Used more than anything as a utility timber, red alder grows quickly and is widely available as a result. Easy to season and very stable, this temperate hardwood makes a good substrate for veneering. A relatively soft timber, you will need sharp edge tools to produce a decent surface.

Boxwood: Buxus Sempervirens

Sources Europe

Sustainability rare, but not certified

Typical uses tool handles, woodturning, musical instruments, printing blocks

  • fine, smooth, close grain; attractive colour
  •  restricted to small diameter branches; limited quantities make it expensive

Unlike most hardwoods, boxwood is sourced from hedgerows and mature trees, making it quite rare. It is sometimes available from specialist timber suppliers. A favourite of woodturners, it is capable of retaining detail cuts well. Often used for chess pieces, chisel handles and stringing for inlay work.

Sweet chestnut: Castanea Sativa

Sources Europe and Turkey

Sustainability not widely available, though not endangered Typical uses staircases, coffins

  • strong, durable, inexpensive
  • CD slow to season

Sweet chestnut is a handsome tree with a large crown. Also known as Spanish chestnut, this resembles flat-sawn oak, although few medullary rays are seen. Softer and lighter than oak but found in larger sections, this wood is delightful to work. Its high tannic acid content stains fingers very easily. Sweet chestnut trees are harvested for their nuts.

Iroko: Chlorophora Excelsa

sources Africa

Sustainability possible low risk, but difficult to findcertified  timber

Typical uses external joinery, garden furniture, boat building

  • strong and fairly stable; oily and durable
  • interlocking grain; unpleasant to work and dulls blades quickly

A pale to dark brown tropical timber, iroko is similar to teak in appearance. It is unpleasant to machine without good extraction as its pungent smell irritates the nasal passages and many woodworkers refuse to work with it. A good outdoor wood for garden furniture and situations in which humidity levels can fluctuate widely.

Rosewood: Dalbergia

Sources Central and South America, India, Indonesia Sustainability endangered, some Indian timber :an tation-grown

Typical uses musical instruments, cabinet-making, tool handles, veneer

  • dense, beautiful colour and figure
  • some endangered; prone to fine surface splits

There are several different rosewoods including Brazilian, Indian, Rio, Honduran, Mexican, Madagascan, each with its own beautiful colour and grain. Export bans imposed by South American countries mean that most are now virtually impossible to obtain, except in veneer form. Plantation-grown Indian rosewood is most common. One of the most sought-after exotic timbers.

Kingwood: Dalbergia Cearensis

Sources Brazil

Sustainability not listed as endangered, but still scarce

Typical uses cabinet-making, inlay, veneer

  • dramatic colour and grain
  • splits are common; very expensive

A beautiful timber that is difficult to obtain in large sizes sections. Contrasting pale yellow sapwood, which is often incorporated into furniture for decorative effect. Heart shakes are common. Often sold by weight rather than cubic content, kingwood is a dense timber, which polishes well. Also known as violetwood.

Cocobolo: Dalbergia Retusa

Sources Central America

Sustainability vulnerable, with certified timber rare Typical uses musical instruments, woodturning, cutlery handles, inlay, veneer

  • Amazing colour and grain; water-resistant
  • interlocking spiral grain is common; very expensive

This dense, exotic tropical timber has irregular grain but is stable when dry. Its colour is stunning, with alternating orange and red streaks with darker lines. From the rosewood family, cocobolo contains oils, so gluing can be a problem. Its durability makes it valuable for cutlery handles. Also known as granadillo.

Macassar ebony: Diospyros Celebica

Sources Indonesia

Sustainability vulnerable, with certified timber rare Typical uses musical instruments, cabinet-making, woodturning, inlay

  • extremely hard and dense
  • seasons slowly, risk of splitting; blunts tools rapidly; rare and very expensive

Varies greatly in colour, from dark brown with black stripes to mostly black with yellow stripes. It is particularly streaky in veneer form. Prized for fingerboards on guitars and the violin family, it is sometimes dyed to create a uniform black colour. Difficult to work, with edge tools needing frequent honing.

Sapele: Entandrophragma cylindricum

Sources Africa

Sustainability certified timber is scarce. Status varies Typical uses doors, windows, furniture-making, flooring, plywood, veneer

  • wide boards; not too expensive
  • interlocking grain can tear

Owing to the size of the tree, sapele is available in very wide boards. Rather stripy and not too exciting visually. Used for commercially produced joinery and as a substitute for mahogany, although not the most stable timber. Quartersawn timber can be highly figured, with fiddleback figure common.

Jarrah: Eucalyptus Marginata

Sources Australia

Sustainability status uncertain, and uncertified timber rare

Typical uses house construction, furniture-making, woodturning, carving

  • naturally durable, strong; can be figured
  • dulls edge tools quickly; grain can be interlocking Much of  Western Australia is built of jarrah; it is used in bridges, railway sleepers, flooring and many outdoor situations where strength and durability are essential. This temperate hardwood is an even reddish-brown colour, but the grain often lacks character. Used for internal cabinet-making, it is tough to work with hand tools.

Beech: Fagus Sylvatica

Sources Europe

Sustainability not endangered, though some certified timber

Typical uses woodwork tools, workbenches, commercial furniture-making

  • good for bending; inexpensive
  • shrinkage a problem

Huge beech trees mean wide and thick boards are available. Renowned for being unstable, shrinkage is 400 per cent greater than any other European hardwood, although it is one of the cheapest temperate timbers. It can work beautifully when dry and glues well. Diseased beech has dark veins, called spalting, prized by woodturners.

Ash: Fraxinus Excelsior

Sources Europe

Sustainability not endangered

Typical uses sports equipment, boat building, furniture-making, veneer

  • strong and flexible, ideal for bending
  • grain can tear when planning; prone to splits

Ash is a tough, temperate, ring-porous timber with attractive grain. As well as being one of the best woods for steam bending, it has excellent shock-absorbing properties, making it ideal for tool and cricket bat handles. When the white heart turns to a streaky colour it is known as olive ash. Rippled ash generally in veneer form.

Ramin: Gonystylus Macrophyllum

Sources Southeast Asia

Sustainability not endangered

Typical uses plywood, furniture-making, carving

  • fine, straight grain
  • bland appearance

Ramin is one of a family of similar trees from Southeast Asia. It has a very open, featureless grain, which is difficult to cut to a crisp finish. It is often used in furniture where components are hidden, such as framework. The splinters are poisonous and must be removed from the skin immediately.

Lignum vitae: Guaiacum Officinale

Sources Central America

Sustainability endangered and CITES listed

Typical uses marine components, bowling bowls, woodturning

  • heavy, durable and self lubricating
  • very difficult to work; interlocking grain

Lignum vitae (`tree of life’) is naturally oily, making it ideal for boat bearings and clock movements, though gluing can be tricky. One of the world’s densest tropical hardwoods, it is extremely strong and durable, with beautiful colour and grain. Very expensive, and often sold by weight rather than board size.

Bubinga: Guibourtia Demeusei 

Sources West and central Africa

Sustainability not endangered

Typical uses tools, musical instruments, cabinet­making, veneer

  • striking colour, can be highly figured; stable when it is dry
  • grain can be interlocking; blunts edge tools easily

A dense reddish-brown wood with thin dark lines giving an interesting pattern. The vibrant colour darkens with exposure. It glues and finishes well, making it an attractive timber for high-quality tools. It is sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to rosewood (also known as African rosewood). In veneer form it is called kevasingo.

American black walnut: Juglans Nigra

Sources North America

Sustainability not endangered, certified timber readily available

Typical uses furniture-making, musical instruments, gunstocks, joinery, veneer

  • fairly straight-grained, easy to work
  • dents easily

A beautiful, cheaper alternative to European walnut, American black walnut is magnificent for furniture-making. Relatively lightweight, it is easy to work with hand and machine tools, though gives off an unpleasant smell. Stable once seasoned, its gorgeous deep-brown colour can have a purple tint. This temperate hardwood polishes beautifully.

European walnut: Juglans Regia

Sources Europe, parts of Asia

Sustainability not endangered, though timber is sparse and not certified Typical uses furniture-making, woodturning, box making, veneer

  • beautiful grain, figure and colour; easy to work
  • very expensive; risk of insect attack

Walnut trees often die before reaching a good size, although boards can be fairly wide. Ease of use, colour, texture, figure and sheer depth of beauty combined with its stability make this species unique and highly prized. In veneer form, crotch and burr are especially sought-after.

American Whitewood: Liriodendron Tulipifera

Sources North America, Europe

Sustainability not endangered, grows fast

Typical uses toys, painted furniture, pattern making, joinery

  • straight grain, medium strength; seasons well; stable and inexpensive
  • rather bland appearance; not durable

American whitewood is confusingly also called yellow poplar or tulipwood. It is second-rate timber for making furniture, but is excellent as a good stable subbase for veneering or for hidden carcases, or where painted furniture is required. American whitewood is sometimes used for plywood. It machines easily and is excellent for making jigs.

Zebrano: Microberlinia Brazzavillensis

Sources West Africa

Sustainability vulnerable, so veneer preferable to solid wood Typical uses furniture-making, woodturning, carving, inlay, veneer

  • beautiful figure when crown-cut; stable once seasoned and durable
  • interlocking grain difficult to work; veneer can buckle Zebrano is an exotic tropical timber with a range of colours in the form of contrasting striped lines, which can vary in density. This timber is often used as a detail in marquetry, but its initial lustre can fade when it is exposed to too much ultraviolet light. Its boards may be rather limited in size. Zebrano is known as zebrawood in the United States.

Wenge: Millettia Laurentii

Sources Central Africa

Sustainability endangered, with no apparent certified timber Typical uses woodturning, flooring

  • durable, dense and strong; distinctive colour and straight grai
  • splinters easily; finishing can be a problem

When planed, wenge changes from a straw colour to almost black. Open-pored, but with a good grain filler, replaces rosewood admirably. Lacks figure, but for small areas like turnings it has a wonderful grain distinction. Brittle and very splintery, finishing wenge can be problematical owing to grain’s absorption variation. Similar to panga panga.

Balsa: Ochroma Pyramidale

Sources Central America, West Indies Sustainability not endangered

Typical uses model making, carving

  • excellent to carve with sharp tools; buoyancy aids
  • very soft and weak, will crush easily; expensive

The lightest and softest wood in the world, yet it is a hardwood. One of the few timbers where the sapwood is utilized. Trees grow rapidly, but are very susceptible to damage. A marvellous timber for model making and for containers requiring buoyancy. Tends to be available only in small sizes.

Plane (lacewood): Platanus Acerifolia

Sources Europe

Sustainability not endangered

Typical uses furniture-making, veneer

  • stunning figure when quartersawn
  • roupala and silky oak may be confusingly sold as lacewood

One of the few species which, when the medullary rays are seen in the quartersawn board, changes its name, from plane to lacewood. The tree is predominant in cities and is distinguished by its continuously peeling bark. A good furniture wood with great subtlety and finishes well.

European cherry: Prunus Avium

Sources Europe

Sustainability not endangered, but timber not widely available Typical uses woodturning, veneer

  • grain can be attractive
  • boards limited in size and seasons poorly

Often a difficult timber to obtain, as trees do not live that long. Cherry can be awkward to plane without breakout, especially on quartersawn boards. Equally, it is worth persevering, as the close grain can polish beautifully.

American cherry: Prunus Serotina

Sources North America

Sustainability not endangered, plenty of certified timber

Typical uses musical instruments, furniture-making, woodturning, carving, boat building

  • straight, fine grain and attractive colour
  • high degree of sapwood on each board

Also known as black cherry, it can be difficult to obtain the best quality outside North America, as this is rarely exported. Board conversion for maximum volume means most exported timber has excessive movement and wastage is high. Some boards can yield good figure. It can be stained to imitate mahogany reasonably well.

Padauk: Pterocarpus Dalbergiodes

Sources Andaman Islands (Indian Ocean)

Sustainability certified timber doubtful, but not yet endangered

Typical uses furniture-making, boat building, flooring

  • stunning colour, durable
  • interlocking grain difficult to work, blunting tools

Padauk is difficult to work owing to its interlocking grain, but persevere and the reward will be a beautiful rich, deep-red timber with dark streaks dancing over the surface. Beware of this colour fading somewhat when exposed to ultraviolet light. African padauk is similar in colour and texture and easier to use.

American White Oak: Quercus Alba

Sources North America

Sustainability not endangered, certified timber readily available Typical uses furniture-making, joinery, construction work, flooring

  • durable, strong, straight grain; inexpensive
  • grain lacks character

This oak is regarded by many as adequate in that it is durable and tough, has good sectional sizes and length, but is prone to having sapwood included in sawn boards. White oak is, however, dull and must rank as a functional ak rather than one with character. A useful all-round temperate hardwood that can be used externally.

American Red Oak: Quercus Rubra

Sources North America

Sustainability not endangered, certified timber readily available

Typical uses furniture-making, joinery, flooring

  • deeper colour than white oak; inexpensive
  • less figure than most oaks; not durable

Although there is a greater depth of colour in red oak it cannot be used externally. Very similar in working properties to white oak, the quartersawn boards may display some rays, though not as extensively as European oak.

European oak: Quercus Robur

Sources Europe

Sustainability certified timber available, but not under threat

Typical uses furniture-making, high-class joinery, timber framing, boat building, veneer

  • durable, hard and strong; distinctive grain and colour
  • natural defects mean wastage can be significant; expensive

European oak is a majestic timber, with quartersawn boards displaying fantastic medullary rays, for which this wood is famous. Of all the oaks, this one is the most spectacular for furniture-making. Burr oak is prized by woodturners and by cabinet-makers in veneer form. A gorgeous surface is virtually guaranteed, whatever the finish.

Brazilian mahogany: Swietenia Macrophylla

Sources Central and South America

Sustainability endangered tropical timber, although certified timber widely available

Typical uses furniture-making, cabinet-making, quality joinery, veneer

  •  plain-sawn boards can produce flamed figure
  • grain can tear easily; prone to insect attack

The only true mahogany now commercially available, and the reason for much debate surrounding rainforest issues. Used as a substitute for prized Cuban mahogany, which is virtually extinct. Brazilian mahogany produces grain with many variations, including crotch pattern, the result of intersecting branch and trunk.

Teak: Tectona Grandis

Sources Southeast Asia, West Africa

Sustainability not endangered, though plantation-grown or certified timber preferable Typical uses boat building, flooring, garden furniture, decking

  • water-resistant and naturally durable
  • very expensive; blunts edge tools rapidly

A timber that exudes a natural oil from its pores, enabling it to withstand exceptional conditions. Difficult to de-grease for gluing purposes, but still a joy to work, despite its calcium pockets and grit particles blunting edge tools. Excellent for furniture-making, both indoors and out. Substitutes include afrormosia and iroko.

European lime: Tilia vulgaris

Sources Europe

Sustainability no problem, grows abundantly in Europe

Typical uses woodcarving, woodturning, toys, musical instruments

  • fine, even grain cuts easily; not expensive
  • slight movement when dry; board ends can split Arguably the best timber for woodcarving, it is a real delight to work with sharp edge tools. Lime is not really suitable for furniture as its appearance is rather bland, although it is often used for children’s toys. Freshly machined timber darkens to pale brown with exposure.

Obeche: Triplochiton Scleroxylon

Sources West Africa

Sustainability not endangered, readily available Typical uses mouldings, hidden furniture components

  • stable; easy to work
  • bland appearance; grain can be interlocking A good ground timber, used for drawer bases, rails that require veneering, and so on. It is useful as a stable base for incorporating with other timbers. It is often stained to improve its appearance. Also known as linden.

Elm: Ulmus Hollandica

Sources Europe

Sustainability some certified timber, increasingly rare Typical uses tabletops, chair seats, boat building, flooring, veneer

  • dramatic grain and colour variation
  • grain pattern makes it difficult to work; needs careful seasoning

Thousands of trees have died from Dutch elm disease across Europe. When available, however, this magnificent species provides durability, depth of beauty and exotic figure. The burrs and knots of this timber make its character unique. Quite soft for a hardwood, the grain is fairly coarse. English elm is not as tough as European.

Timber Selection

All timber is categorized as either a hardwood or a softwood. The two terms can be misleading since softwoods, such as parana pine and yew, are much horde! denser and tougher than hardwoods such as balsa — a classic example. An extreme comparison, but it demonstrates that you cannot rely on the simplistic view that all hardwoods are hard and all softwoods soft. Fortunately, most species have already been identified for us.

Growth rings

As a tree grows, a new ring of sapwood builds up around the previous year’s growth. The heartwood increases in area, while the sapwood remains much the same thickness throughout the tree’s life. A growth ring is the layer of wood produced in one growing period. Rapid growth in spring is called `earlywood’. Large cells make up this wider, paler part of the growth ring. Denser cells produced in summer (`latewood’) form a darker ring, adding support to the tree.

Growth rings in hardwoods are either ‘ring porous’ or ‘diffuse porous’ depending on their cell-structure formation. Ring-porous timber has alternating layers of open cells and tightly grouped cells. Open cells are formed as the tree grows during spring and summer, while tighter cells are formed during autumn and winter, as growth slows down. Examples of ring-porous hardwoods are oak and ash. Diffuse-porous timber occurs where there are no clear changes during the growing season, resulting in cells of a more uniform size and formation. Examples of diffuse-porous hardwoods are maple and beech. Ring-porous timbers have a more open grain than that of diffuse-porous hardwoods, which are therefore more consistent when it comes to planing or sanding.

Characteristics of hardwoods

Broad-leaved trees are called hardwoods, with marl), species losing their leaves in winter, especially in temperate climates. The hardwood structure relies on each cell or fibre being very long and needle-shaped. Lying side by side, these tend to make the hardwood timbers more elastic than softwoods. Growth rings are often hard to distinguish, especially in diffuse-porous timbers, such as maple. Durability tends to be greater than most softwoods, and the variety of colours offered by hardwood species is vast. Hardwoods grow in both tropical and temperate climates and may be deciduous or evergreen. Common hardwoods include oak, mahogany, maple, walnut, beech and many others.

Characteristics of softwoods

Coniferous or cone-bearing trees are called softwoods and have needle-pointed leaves. A coniferous tree matures in about a quarter of the time taken by a hardwood tree. The term softwood means that the tree cells are hollow and spindle-shaped. Along the sides of the cells are small holes that act as connecting passages through which food passes on its way to the leaves. Softwoods are generally paler in colour than hardwoods, with clearly visible growth rings. They are generally easier to work than hardwoods, although there are exceptions. Softwoods grow mostly in temperate climates and include spruce, fir, pine, yew, giant redwood and the mighty sequoia.

The characteristics of hardwood and softwood cells

Colour and grain

Hardwoods range enormously in colour from purples, reds and oranges through greens to browns and blacks. The same cannot be said of softwoods, which are predominantly pale yellows and browns. Apart from colour, grain is probably the primary aesthetic reason for choosing a particular species. Some timbers have large pores or open grain (ring porous), such as oak, chestnut, wenge and teak. Others have a fine grain or small pores (diffuse porous), polishing more easily with a deep lustre (maple, sycamore, holly and tulipwood). Species such as sapele and utile have interlocking grain. This gives a striped effect, with planing tearing the grain on alternate stripes. The ultimate beauty in any species is perhaps that produced from a quartersawn board, revealing the medullary rays. English oak is famous for this figuring.

Which wood to choose?

There is a greater range of hardwoods available for furniture-making than there are softwoods. Although the latter tend to be much cheaper to buy, they are less dense and durable than hardwoods, and so tend to be used less for woodworking.

When choosing timber, consider the environment to which it will be exposed. For outdoor use, for example, iroko, cedar and European oak are all excellent, although they should still have a protective finish. Not only are teak and greenheart ideal for outdoors, but they can withstand water immersion without detriment to their strength. It is advisable to use teak or cheaper iroko when there is a risk of iron corrosion: ferrous metals can cause nasty black stains in timbers such as oak and chestnut, which have a high tannic acid content. Metal fittings should be plated.

For decorative indoor furniture, walnut, mahogany, yew, oak or maple will look impressive. Sports equipment is often made of ash and willow, whereas balsa is best for making models. Musical instruments frequently use exotic timbers such as rosewood or ebony. Some woods, such as cedar of Lebanon, have a strong aroma and are highly prized for box making.

Timber suppliers tend to refer to a species not by its Latin name but by its general name, such as ‘oak’. This one species, however, covers a range of oaks ­including American red and white, Japanese and English — each with its own characteristics. Mahogany is a widely used species with many different sources so identification can be difficult. The species includes Brazilian, Honduran, Cuban, American and several types of African mahogany. Besides these, there is also sapele — not strictly a mahogany but widely used as a substitute — meranti from Malaysia, and also lauan, which is stained to look like mahogany. They are used particularly for general joinery work such as window-and doorframes.

There are endless timber characteristics and properties. If a species is new to you, buy a small amount first and experiment before buying more. Some woodworkers find certain timbers can produce an allergic reaction, so purchasing a large quantity could be a costly mistake. Some timbers are also very hard on cutting tools. For example, teak has calcium pockets and grit within its fibres, which can dull a keen edge ­even tungsten carbide-tipped saw blades. Dense tropical timbers, such ebony, require exceptionally sharp tools.

Timber defects

Defects in timber may be obvious — knots and cup shakes on the end of a board, for example — and may occur naturally or be man-made. Some are more difficult to spot than others. Some natural defects are sought-after, as they increase the beauty of the wood.


Knots show the emergence of branches in a growing tree. They occur mostly in softwoods, which are often graded by the number and size of any knots present. Small, live knots are not usually a problem, but dead knots are often loose and can drop out. Large knots create weakness and make a board difficult to work. Resin may eventually seep out from knots, especially on timber used externally: seal these before final finishing

with a shellac sealer. Small knots in timber such as English oak can be desirable, enhancing the grain’s character and increasing the price.

Checks and splits

Checks and splits in timber are usually the result of poor seasoning, where the timber is allowed to dry too quickly and shrinkage occurs. Major splits tend to occur at the ends and edges of boards, while checks (tiny splits) may appear anywhere across the face. Air-dried oak is particularly prone to this defect. End splits can be reduced during seasoning by sealing board ends with paraffin wax.


Shakes are cracks that occur within the tree, but are longer and wider than checks. Star shakes are radial cracks that appear around the outside of a log, following the line of medullary rays at 90 degrees to the growth rings. They are caused when the outer log shrinks while the centre remains more stable, and are the result of a log being left too long before conversion. Heart shakes result from internal shrinking and radiate outwards from the centre of the log. These may be caused by over-maturity of the tree or disease. Cup or ring shakes occur when growth rings separate. They form in the growing tree when subjected to high winds or a lack of food.

Cupping, twisting and bowing

Cupping is a common problem in crown-cut softwood. Boards tend to cup away from the curve of the growth rings as the timber dries out, both faces contracting at different rates. Twisting and bowing often result from bad sawing or poor stacking once the log has been converted. Some trees grow in a natural spiral, leading to twisting. Bowing along the length is usually the result of stacking boards badly. Stresses resulting from these distortions can make machining the affected timber difficult.


Sometimes formed when the bark of a tree is damaged, growths are produced when the wound heals. Known as burrs, or burls, they can grow on the trunk, the roots or individual branches. Characterized by dense, swirling grain, burrs are highly prized and generally cut into veneers or used for woodturning. The wild interlocking grain makes burrs extremely difficult to use for furniture-making.

Insect and fungal attack

Sapwood in new timber is prone to insect attack and bark should be removed before boards enter the workshop. Old buildings with poor ventilation and heating can lead to damp conditions that give rise to fungi and wood-boring insects. Constructional timbers are susceptible to attack from both wet and dry rot. Furniture stored in these conditions is also prone to attack from various beetles and must be treated with a suitable preservative.

Word Discription :

Air-drying Once a trunk has been converted, logs are stacked in stick’ in the open air to dry naturally, but protected from the rain. Crown-cut Crown-cut boards display almost flat or slightly curved growth rings in the end grain. Faces show flame effect of growth rings. Figure The grain pattern revealed in a piece of timber, usually when planed. It usually refers to unusual effects characteristic of certain woods. Heartwood Hard, dense cells at the centre of a tree, providing the most stable timber. Kiln-drying The process by which the moisture content of timber is reduced by more than is possible by air-drying. Timber is seasoned in an oven using a mixture of hot air and steam. This is essential for wood destined for internal use. Medullary rays Flecks evident on the face of some quartersawn timber.

Sapwood New wood growing furthest from the centre of a tree, providing least stable timber. Seasoning The process of removing moisture from the cell walls of wood.

Quartersawn Planks cut from a tree radially, where growth rings are at least 45 degrees to the face. This technique exposes the best figure.

Timber Seasoning and Conversion

When a tree is felled, the majority of its weight is water. To ‘convert’ a trunk into usable timber, the sawmill cuts it into various board thicknesses. This method involves starting on one side of the trunk and, as each pass of the saw cut is complete, the next cut is made, and so on, until the entire trunk has been sawn.

Sawing methods

Different methods of sawing timber yield different types of board with regard to stability, appearance and cost. There are several questions to ask yourself when choosing and buying wood: what method of sawing has been used to cut the log?; and how are the boards stored in the yard while the timber stocks are air-drying? Has the timber also been kiln-dried?


Many years ago, when labour costs were far lower than they are now, timber merchants were prepared to saw a log in half lengthways, and in half again to give a quadrant, or quarter circle, at the end of the each length. The reason for this `quartersawing’ was to reveal the medullary rays that would otherwise be lost. These highly prized rays, or flecks, are present in all trees to a greater or lesser extent, although they are most often seen in oak boards. Quartersawing is very wasteful, because it involves turning the timber frequently before the next saw cut, and it is now rare to find a sawmill converting a tree to boards in this way. For this reason, it is worth buying a board displaying medullary rays should you see one.

Through and through sawing

The most common cutting method, through-and­through sawing simply involves the trunk being sawn from one edge. As each saw cut is complete, the log is moved the required distance to produce another cut until the trunk is sawn into a number of boards. Logically, the centre boards show the medullary rays and are produced without the cost of quartersawing. This method also produces the widest boards, although the heart is prone to splitting.

Tangential sawing

In some countries a log is sawn to produce the maximum wood from the trunk, regardless of whether or not the resulting boards have an attractive figure. This system of sawing around the log is known as `tangential’ cutting because each cut forms a tangent to one of the annual rings. It is not unusual for one face to include sapwood. It is advisable to reject any sapwood in your finished cabinetwork: it is prone to beetle attack, it shrinks badly, and its immature fibres do not accept glue or polish as well as the heartwood section.

Sawing Methods

How figure is produced by different sawing methods

Drying timber

Green timber has a moisture content of about 30 per cent, known as fibre saturation point. Once sawn, individual boards are stacked in the open air, using small strips of wood called ‘stickers’, to separate them from one another. Air flowing over each board draws the water to the surface by capillary action; this then evaporates, reducing the moisture content to about 25 per cent. The time required to ‘season’ the wood in this way depends on the thickness to which the boards have been cut. A rough guide is one year per 25 mm (1 in) thickness of board.


Air-drying worked reasonably well before the advent of central heating and air conditioning. However, the climate in many countries means that even the best air-dried timber retains about 16 per cent moisture content, no matter how long it has been dried, which is too high for most modern homes. Today, any wood used indoors must be able to remain stable, even when the central heating system is full on. In order to achieve this, air-dried timber is placed in a kiln to extract more moisture until it reaches an average of 15 per cent moisture content.

Always ask whether the wood you buy has been kiln-dried: the letters ‘KD, which conform to most trade description acts, should be printed on your receipt. In the event of subsequent extreme movement in your timber, it may be necessary to prove that your timber was sold as kiln-dried. Most timber merchants are conscientious and will replace the odd board that appears to have too high a moisture content despite being kiln-dried.

Kiln- or air-dried timber?

The best moisture content for timber in today’s well-heated homes is around 10 to 12 per cent. This is difficult if the sawmill supplies only timber averaging 15 per cent! Most good cabinet-makers will rough-machine their wood and then expose it to a well-heated workshop prior to finishing a piece to its final dimensions.

Air-dried timber is usually cheaper than kiln-dried, but the moisture content is unlikely to be lower than about 16 per cent. This level makes it suitable for external use such as constructing garden sheds, outdoor structures and timber framing. Timber with a moisture content of more than 20 per cent is susceptible to dry rot, however.

Do not assume that you can reduce the moisture content of this less expensive timber by leaving it in a warm room. You cannot, and if you use the timber for furniture-making, your work will suffer from bad shrinkage and distortion.

Kiln-drying timber takes a few days, as opposed to the months or years required for air-drying. For furniture and internal joinery items, timber should be kiln-dried down to about 11 per cent. Timber in close proximity to heat sources, such as radiators or fireplaces, should ideally be as low as 9 per cent. Sometimes, the kilning process leaves surface splits across the board face, which can cause problems. They indicate that the drying took place too rapidly, leaving the inner part of the board wet with the outer part too dry. This is called ‘case-hardening’. Avoid such boards: once you have machined the surface, the wet inner fibres will distort the board when subjected to the heat in your workshop.

Moisture content

Sawn timber is rarely bone dry: it gains or loses moisture depending on the surrounding atmosphere, and expansion or shrinkage occurs as it adapts to humidity and temperature.

Moisture content is the weight of moisture shown as a percentage of the timber’s dry weight. For example, in a board with 20 per cent moisture content there is actually 2 kg (4 ½ lb) of water for every 10 kg (22 lb) of dry wood. Moisture content is usually measured with an electronic meter, its pin electrodes detecting electrical resistance. Alternatively, a small timber sample can be weighed before and after being dried in an oven, then a simple calculation carried out.

When you are buying timber beware of claims like `average moisture content 15 per cent.’ This could mean some boards retain as much as 19 per cent, while other boards from the same kiln could be as low as 12 per cent.

Word Discription :

Crown-cut Another term for through-and­through sawing (see left). Crown-cut boards display almost flat or slightly curved growth rings in the end grain. Board faces show the flame effect of the growth rings.

In stick Air-dried boards are stacked as they come off the log with spacer battens, or ‘stickers’, spaced evenly between them. Seasoning The process of removing moisture from the cell walls of wood.