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Learn About Wood Characteristics

Learn About Wood Series, Part 2
Learn About Wood Characteristics

Learn About Wood Characteristics

General information about wood varieties
and wood characteristic, written by Leon Colwell.

Originally published in Wood News Issue 2, Feb - Mar 1978.

Learn About Wood, Part 2
Different kinds of woods 

The 1st issue of Wood News contained some general information on woods. Several books and thousands of articles have been written on the physical and chemical characteristics of wood. However interesting, it is not necessary to acquire a vast knowledge of the subject in order to construct and finish beautiful, useful and durable articles ranging from a simple wall plaque to a sheraton desk. I think it is best to acquire knowledge of the properties of wood as you would build articles in your shop. 

In this issue of Wood News we will deal with identification of woods and some of the properties of the different woods. Highland Woodworking has numerous samples of various species of wood, including some rare imported varieties. 

Wood Species

Species Density Color of Heartwood
White Pine 21 Cream, light/reddish brown
Butternut 22 Chestnut brown
Popular 24 Green to light yellow
Chestnut 25 Light to grayish brown
Red Cedar 27 Brick red to reddish brown
Cherry 27 Light to dark reddish brown
Sycamore 29 Dark to reddish brown
Walnut 32 Light to chocolate brown
Maple 32 Light brown
Ash 34 Light to medium brown
Birch 34 Reddish brown
Red Oak 32-38 Reddish brown
White Oak 36-40 Light to dark brown
Beech 39 Reddish brown to off white

These brief descriptions in no way adequately describe the colors of the species walnut for instance is described as light in chocolate brown. It may be that the 1st piece of walnut you pick up will contain a purple streak or a streak that is almost black. 

Natural defects in wood are those abnormalities which are due to growth and environment, and include knots, reaction wood (tension and compression), spiral and diagonal grain and mineral streaks to name a few. Again using walnut as an example the color and the grain pattern around the knot will be varied. The weight and movement of the limbs causes tension and compression to occur, causing a change in the characteristics of the wood around the knot.  Furniture manufacturers and wood workers call this crotch walnut. Due to the presence of an excessive amount of lignin in this area it is much more dense and his harder than portions of the wood with no natural defects.

Natural defects in a board or piece of wood alter the workability of the piece. It goes without saying that a knot, Burl or crotch is more difficult to plane, sand, saw or carve then portion which contains the normal grain. The chart above shows the density of wood which is expressed in weight per cubic foot. It is generally true that the heavier the wood the more difficult it is to work. Butternut is very popular with wood carvers because it is relatively easy to carve. Note that the weight per cubic foot is 22 lbs which is relatively light. I should also like to point out however, that many wood carvers prefer harder, denser wood.

In a future issue we will discuss wood joinery and preparation for final finishing, including planing, sanding, staining and sealing. We hope also to include some articles by experts on various phases of woodworking.

  • Crotch is the point where the trunk forks into 2 or more branches.
  • Burl is a place where wood has grown over an injury to the tree.
  • Knot in a piece of sawed lumber is a portion of a branch or limb.
  • Stump would consist of the lower portion of the tree and the major branches of the root.

    If you would like to access more reference materials on woodworking please see our website it hosts an excellent selection of articles a books, magazines and periodicals covering all types of woodworking operations.

    Explore more of Highland Woodworking's early years in Retro Woodworking our archived collection of woodworking articles, woodworking tips and woodworking nostalgia:

    Learn About Wood, Part 1 General information about wood and wood terminology
    Learn About Wood, Part 3 Black Walnut Tree
    Learn About Wood, Part 4 A Tribute To American Chestnut
    Learn About Wood, Part 5 Predicting Wood Shrinkage

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