2 Tips for Picking the Right Wood

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An English teacher turned woodworker, Bruce Johnson looks at a piece of lumber and sees the raw material of a certain kind of poetry. He sees not just a piece of wood but an embryonic heirloom or the humble start of an architectural masterpiece. Yet when Johnson educates folks about selecting American hardwoods for new construction or remodeling, he saves talking about possible applications and starts at the beginning.

Not all woods are created equal.

“Perhaps the greatest mistake people make is assuming that most woods are hardwoods,” says Johnson, of Fletcher, N.C. “They are not, despite the fact that most woods feel hard. The distinction between hardwood and softwood is scientific – hardwoods have leaves, softwoods have needles.”

Cherry, maple, oak and walnut are hardwoods, while pine and cedar are classified as softwoods. What these trees looked like in nature – leaf-bearing or needle-bearing – “is inconsequential from a wood finishing perspective,” Johnson says. It’s how their lumber behaves that matters.

Softwoods, in general, do not absorb stain as evenly as hardwoods. However, hardwoods take in moisture more readily and are typically recommended for indoor use only.

Hardwoods are not necessarily harder or denser than softwoods. Balsa wood, the featherweight wood sold in sheets to make model airplanes, is a hardwood.

Confused yet? Here is a primer on American hardwoods commonly used in homebuilding and remodeling.


Ash: Light-colored to nearly white, often with a creamy finish. Used for flooring, millwork and cabinetry.

Cherry: Generally dark-toned with a reddish tint, cherry is “classy and timeless,” Johnson says. It complements all styles of architecture, from colonial to contemporary.
However, “There’s a lot of variation in the finish,” says Jay Irwin, of Irwin Design and Build in Potomac, Md. “It’s difficult to get a uniform appearance.”

Hickory: The hardest and strongest American hardwood, hickory is used for cabinetry and flooring. The grain is fine, but interesting: “It has a lot of mineral streak in it,” says certified kitchen designer Cary McLean of Designs for Living in Oak Park, Ill.

Maple: Great for flooring and cabinetry, maple has a warm tone in its natural state; however, because of its smoothness and tight grain, it also takes paint well, McLean says.

On the downside, “It tends to be a little sensitive to humidity and can warp and buckle” in some climates, Irwin says.

Oak: “My favorite hardwood. It absorbs stain with the least amount of blotchiness,” Johnson says. “Its large pores are receptive to both water-based and oil-based stains and finishes, so it will assume whatever color the homeowner wants, from golden oak to classic black.”

Walnut: Makes for dark, lustrous flooring and cabinetry with “a rich, deep expensive feel,” McLean says.
It’s “a cabinetmaker’s dream,” Irwin says. “When someone says they have walnut cabinets, it’s like, whoa! It’s like a work of art.”

Tricks of the trade

“I always apply a coat of Minwax wood conditioner to any species of wood I am staining. The conditioner seals the larger pores and helps the wood to absorb the stain without ugly blotches,” Johnson says.

For kitchen flooring, “It’s not uncommon to go with a softer material than the rest of the home,” Irwin says. “Harder floor surfaces can be hard on knees and joints.”

Don’t try to match flooring and cabinetry. “It’s always slightly off,” Irwin says. For one or the other, go a few shades lighter or darker “so it looks intentional,” he advises.

“Water is an enemy of wood,” McLean says, so clean your wood floors with care. Use lukewarm water with a bit of white vinegar, and dry as you go.

Tags: wood, floors, cabinets