Most fine furniture is made from hardwood trees because, as the name suggests, the wood is typically more dense and durable than wood from softwood trees. Hardwood comes from trees with leaves that shed seasonally while softwood comes from trees that are evergreen and have cones. Hardwoods are prized for their stability, figured grain patterns and color variations. In the United States, North American hardwoods are the best choice for furniture as imported woods from tropical areas, such as mahogany, may crack in our dryer climate. Wood is a renewable resource and North American forestry practices are some of the most sustainable in the world.
Common North American Hardwoods Used in Furniture and Their Characteristics
A very hard wood with a coarse, textured grain that you can feel. The grain is typically wavy and darker than the surrounding smoother areas. It’s natural color is light to golden. Oak takes stain well and evenly. It is often used in “country” style furniture.
Like it’s cousin the Red Oak, White Oak is a very hard, durable wood with a heavy grain. White Oak is usually quarter sawn so that more of the planks come from the center of the tree. This quarter sawing process gives White Oak more straight grain and areas of “ray flake” which are considered desirable. Ray flake creates lighter, irregular shaped “rays” or striations throughout the wood which are particularly noticeable when White Oak is stained in medium to darker toned colors. These striations have lead some to nickname it “tiger oak”. White Oak is more expensive than Red Oak and is frequently the wood of choice for Mission or Arts and Crafts style furniture.
Brown or “Soft” Maple
In the eastern United States, Brown maple usually comes from Red or Silver Maple trees. It is sometimes referred to as Soft Maple to distinguish it from Rock or Sugar Maple, from which syrup is harvested. Although not as hard as the Sugar Maple, Brown Maple is still a North American Hardwood and similar in density to Cherry. Its grain is smooth to the touch, unlike Oak, and is less figured than Cherry. It is easily stained and found in all types of furniture in colors from mid-tones to dark. Its natural color is light with occasional brown streaks.
Maple or Hard Maple
Maple, sometimes called “clear” Maple, is harder and has less streaks than its Brown Maple relative. Hard Maple comes from the Sugar Maple Tree from which syrup is harvested. It is very strong, and due to its hardness, is usually left unstained. Its grain is smooth like Brown Maple but typically more figured. It grows slower and is more expensive than Brown Maple. Maple is light in color in its natural state but overtime the finish may yellow giving the wood a warmer hue. Maple is often used in contemporary or shaker style furniture.
Hickory is one of the hardest North American woods. It has a coarse texture like Oak but a straighter grain pattern. It accepts stain well and is perfect for high traffic areas of the home. Unstained, Hickory is light or golden with lots of brown and almost white streaks.
Cherry is the wood of choice for many fine furniture and cabinet makers. It has a beautifully figured grain, smooth texture and accepts stain well. Cherry furniture left unstained is very light when first produced but darkens with age to a rich, medium-toned, red/orange-y hue. The most dramatic change in color usually occurs during the first six months to a year and exposure to sunlight speeds the aging process. Cherry will also feature occasional dark mineral spots and light sapwood which are very prominent when the wood is left unstained. It is used for all types of furniture styles from traditional to modern.
Walnut is a medium textured wood and usually has a straighter, less figured grain than Cherry. It is also slower growing and more expensive than Cherry. Its natural color is a rich brown with shades of purple and grayish hues. It will also have occasional light sapwood streaks. Left unstained, Walnut will become lighter and more golden over time and can turn a very light yellow/gold with long-term exposure to sunlight. Walnut is often seen in antiques and Mid-Century Modern or “Danish style” furniture.
Ambrosia or “Wormy” Maple comes from Brown or Soft Maple trees that have been infested by the Ambrosia beetle. The female beetles “drill” holes into the tree to lay their eggs and bring with them a fungus to feed the larvae. The fungus discolors the wood leaving streaks of brown, grey and, sometimes, greenish tints. In the past, due to the highly evident holes and discoloration, Ambrosia Maple was used strictly for furniture frames as the “defects” were hidden under upholstery. Today, the unusual grain pattern of the Ambrosia Maple is considered decorative and is highly prized for table tops and other visible areas of furniture.
Quilted Maple is the description of a figured grain anomaly that resembles the pattern of a patchwork quilt or rippled water. It is not known how the “quilting” is produced in the tree but the visual effect occurs due to the varying ways the wavy grain reflects light. Quilted Maple occurs most often in Soft Maple lumber, but can appear in Hard Maple as well and is frequently sought after for use in electric guitar bodies, table tops and other decorative areas of fine furniture.
Birdseye Maple is a decorative grain pattern that can occur in Sugar or Hard Maple trees that experience unfavorable growing conditions. In an attempt to get more sunlight, the tree produces many new shoots or buds that never fully form due to the lack of light. The stunted growth leaves behind tiny knots that resemble birds’ eyes, hence the name. This decorative grain is highly desired by woodworkers and used in fine furniture, jewelry boxes and intricate veneer patterns on all types of furniture.