Complete Guide To Wood, Veneer, Plywood and Other Sheet Goods

All about wood

In this post we would like to introduce you in great detail to the most important element of your woodwork that is, wood.

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We will talk about hardwood, softwood, plywood and veneer. We will also discuss other sheet goods. Sheet goods were created through brilliant innovation. And they have made life much easier for the woodworker in many situations. Not to mention the fact that they have made woodcrafts cost friendly, just when they were becoming unaffordable for many people. More on that later.

(A) Two Types of Wood – Hardwood and Softwood.

Broadly speaking, we have two kinds of trees, hardwood and softwood. Contrary to common misconception softwoods are not weaker than hardwoods. But each wood is harder or softer than another. Usually, the harder a wood is the stronger it is.

Exploring softwoods.

Softwood comes from conifers trees like fir, birch and Cedar. Since conifers grow straight, tall and fast their wood is more reasonably priced than most hardwoods which are slower growing trees.

This fact has great value in combination with the fact that conifers trees are also grown and lumbered responsibly in sustainable farms and forests. They can be an endless supply for wood for many generations to come.

You can do your part by making sure you purchase your wood from a sustainable forest or farm system. Softwoods are usually available in your home centres although you will find better quality at a lumberyard.

These are the common kinds of softwoods.

  1. Cedar. The most common kind of cedar is the western Red cedar. It has a slightly red colour, is relatively soft and has a straight Grain. It is widely used for outdoor furniture and due to its ability to withstand moisture without rotting. It is easily available in most home centres and is reasonably priced.

  2. Fir. Fir is one of the most inexpensive softwoods and easily available in your home store. It has a reddish brown tint to it and Straight grain. It's often used for building but can also be used for furniture building as long as you intend to paint your project. It doesn't take a stain very well. It's a great wood to use when you first start out with woodworking. It's very cost friendly and easily available making it the ideal trial wood for learners and amateurs.

  3. Pine. Pine is a great softwood to use for furniture. As long as you prepare the wood, it takes on a stain really well. It's also soft so it's easy to cut and ideal for carving. Pine comes in different varieties. Although mostly all home centres stock it you will find a better quality in a lumberyard.

  4. Redwood. Redwood shares many of its qualities with cedar. It's got a reddish tinge, is relatively soft, ideal for outdoor furniture due to its water resistant properties and easily found stocked in most home centres.

Exploring the hardwoods.

Veteran workers like to work with hardwoods like cherry, teak, mahogany and oak. Hardwoods provide a large variety of colour, grain and texture which makes them a favourite with woodworkers. Most woodworkers tend to have a few favourite “that they prefer to work with.

The downside is that hardwoods are more expensive than softwoods and some more expensive than the other.

Over time some hardwoods have become so expensive that it has become impossible to make and sell any substantial furniture from it. Certain special hardwoods have all but ceased to exist. The reason is irresponsible lumbering. Not enough hardwood is grown in sustainable farms leading to the problem of them becoming rarer with time.

Another reason is that hardwood trees take longer to grow as compared to softwood. This pushes up the price even further. Let's look at a few common hardwoods, their properties and how you can work with them.

You can do your share when it comes to supporting sustainable forestry. Contact the National Hardwood Lumber Association www.natlhardwood.org or www.smartwood.com.

  1. Mahogany. Mahogany, teak any oak are the most well known names of wood with almost everyone. Everyone can mostly recognize a table made of mahogany with its signature brown to deep red colour. Mahogany is a great wood for furniture, soft enough to accommodate all kinds of design. The place to buy mahogany is probably the lumber yard and is not usually found in home stores. The other thing about mahogany is that it's not being grown in sustainable forests. That and the fact that it's a prestigious award in demand, make it an expensive wood to buy.
  2. Teak. As we mentioned, real, mahogany and oak are probably the best known names amongst hardwoods. Teak is now rare to be used for furniture. At one point of time it was not even a question that a popular choice for furniture would be teak. Today it's rare, and getting rate. It's expensive and getting more expensive. Teak is extremely resistant to weather and therefore also a good choice for outdoor furniture. With its golden brown colour, great strength and a lovely grain that looks great with just a plain polish, teak has always been a great choice for fine furniture. It never ceases to amaze me what a piece of furniture made out of teak can withstand. Oak, mahogany and teak furniture endures for decades and even centuries.
  3. Oak. Just like mahogany, oak is a popular choice of furniture and many more projects. The choice characteristics about oak is that it's easy to work with and very strong. That's the reason you will find large pieces of furniture often made out of oak. Oak comes in two varieties, red and white. White oak has the added advantage of being water resistant which makes it ideal for outdoor furniture. The grain of red and white oak differs to each other and woodworker prefer one to another depending on their taste and the project they are making. Oak is available in quarter sawn boards. Red oak is usually available in home stores, whereas white oak will mostly be found in a lumberyard.
     
  4. Ash. Ash is a good word to work with. It's not too hard. It has a white to be colour. However, it has become harder to find. You can only find it in a lumberyard.

  5. Birch. Birch comes in two varieties, yellow and white. Yellow birch has a yellow to pale white color whereas white birch is white like maple. It's the relatively hardwood. But it's a favourite to work with because it's cheaper than most other hardwoods and easily available. You can probably find it stocked in a home centre but like most of the times you will find a better variety in a lumberyard. Birch trends to get blotched when you try to stain it. So it's better to use it with projects you intend to paint.

  6. Cherry. Cherry is one of the favourite woods for many woodworkers. The heartwood is reddish-brown and the sapwood is almost white. The beauty of this wood is that it stains beautifully even with just an oil polish. It's a relatively soft hardwood and very stable to build furniture with. Cherry trees are also grown in sustainable farms which means you can work with this wood without any guilt! However due to high demand its prices have gone up in the recent past. Also, you are not likely to find it stocked in your home stores. Pay the lumberyard a visit.
  7. Maple. Mabel is a stable would to use for furniture. It's got a straight grain pattern. It comes in two varieties, hard and soft. Soft maple is preferred for most projects as it's easier to work with. But if for some reason harder wood is required, they don't come any harder than maple.
     
  8. Poplar. Poplar is one of the softest hardwoods which makes it easy to work with. It's a white wood in colour and not often used for fine furniture. Woodworkers prefer other more attractive hardwoods. But it is very reasonably priced so that it still makes it a good choice for a lot of things. Poplar is a stable wood and is available both in home stores and Lumberyards. Always remember one fact. Even though a particular kind of wood is available in a home store, you are likely to find a better variety, quality and price for the same board if you visit a lumberyard.

(B) The Basic Nature Of Wood

Someone who is new into the field of woodworking might not realise it to begin with but wood is not a static thing. It changes in shape according to its environment. In fact it's constantly moving. Humidity is the biggest culprit here.

So you have to figure out how to prevent this variability from ruining your project. For example, you may build a table only to have one of its legs twist or warp after you have glued it on. But there are ways to prevent this from happening. We will read about that shortly when we talk about wood grain and the different ways in which a board is cut from a log.

(C) How To Choose A Board

Wood comes from trees. You know that. But by the time it is made available to you for your wood projects, it's usually cut up into boards. Unless you saw your own logs, which, in fact, a few woodworkers do.

If you go to a lumberyard you will find boards of different thickness, grain, color, sizes and from different kind of trees. Choosing the right one for your project can be a difficult task, or a confusing one nevertheless. But once you apprise yourself off board basics, you can spot and choose the right boards with ease.

The three main criteria for choosing a board is the grade, grain and the cut. 

Board Grade

A professional woodworker can grade aboard according to his standards. But there is also an official system of grading which makes life easier for a lot of us. Grades are decided on to factors, the quality of the grain (which is the angle of the growth rings to the board surface) and the number of defects in the board such as nooks, cracks etc.

The official grading is done by the National Hardwood Lumber Association and it does so by making seven grades:

  • Firsts. 
  • Seconds. 
  • Selects. 
  • Number 1 Common. 
  • Number Two Common. 
  • Number 3A Common. 
  • Number 3B Common.

For the purpose of making important projects specially furniture you need to go with the first and second grade of board. They are the most stable and contain the least amount of defects. Sometimes buying the common grades may seem tempting because they come at a low price.

It's possible to remove the defects from low-grade boards but, first, you will have to spend a lot of time doing it and secondly, you will be left with very little usable amount of wood. Buying a higher-grade board in the first place will most likely be more cost-effective.

Humidity Factor

As you mentioned, humidity plays the largest role in the twisting and warping of a wood board. Also the board needs to be dried before using it because it shrinks when it loses moisture. Boards that you buy from a lumberyard are mostly already pre-dried.

However, you still need to acclimatize the wood to the conditions of your woodshop. The easiest way to do that is to let them lie flat on a rack with a little breathing space above and below each board. They should be ready for use in a few days.

The movement in a board does not have much effect on the length and the thickness of the board.

The second factor that controls the moment and stability is the grain of the wood. And that depends on how the board has been cut from the log.

(D) Choosing The Right Board Cut / Board Grain

There are different ways of sawing and cutting a log to make boards. The way it is cut makes all the difference to the grain, look and stability.

Let's first understand why different cuts of the log give the board different qualities. It's the growth rings that make the board susceptible to movement. Different cuts result in these growth rings lying at different angles to the flat surface of the board. The flatter the angle of the growth ring as compared to the surface, the more movement they will create.

In plain sawn boards the angle of the growth rings is less than 30°. Where as in quarters sawn boards the lie at between 60 to 90 degrees. Therefore plain sawn boards see the maximum moment where as quarter sawn boards are the most stable.

There are three ways to cut a log.

Through And Through.

Through and through cutting involves cutting the log one end to another, layer after layer. This is the most effectively of cutting a log without much wastage. It's also the fastest method. This kind of cutting actually produces all three kinds of boards: plain sawn, rift sawn and quarter sawn.

Plain sawn.

Plain sawn boards are made by cutting the log from all four sides to the centre. The very centre called the pith is not cut. This kind of cutting produces plain sawn and rift sawn boards.

Rifts sawn boards.

Rift sawn boards are between plain sawn and quarter sawn. The angle of the growth rings in relation to the surface is between 30 to 60°. They have a straight grain pattern as compared to the circular grain pattern of Plain sawn boards. They are also more expensive usually by up to 50% as compared to plain sawn boards.

Quarter sawn boards.

These are the most stable and the most expensive kind of wood boards to use. Some will argue that they have the most beautiful grain as well. Quarter sawn boards have growth rings at not less than 60° angle in relation to the face of the board.

Quarter sawn is the least economical way to cut up a board. But it's also the best way to get the most stable green. Quarter sawn boards are not available for all kind of woods.

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You can choose either of the above and of boards depending on the project you have on hand and the preparation process you are willing to go through. Each one can produce beautiful wood crafts depending on how you use it.

So now you know your choices of the kinds of boards available at lumberyard, which one is the right choice for you? Well, like we mentioned, quarter sawn is the most stable and the most expensive. Apart from that plain sawn boards are the most common of common kind of boards in any lumber yard or wood supply shop.

Working with plain sawn boards

There is no doubt that plain sawn boards are the most economical and the most commonly procured. But you have learnt that they are also the most prone to distortions like cupping, twisting and warping.

Therefore working with plain sawn boards involves planning your project and undergoing a process called pre-milling. Pre milling involves cutting the board into the measurements you need for the project while leaving some margin in the width and thickness.

Then you let the board rest for at least a day. If there are no changes you can proceed with building the project. But in case it expands or warps you will have to work out the defects before proceeding to the build stage.

(E) Veneers

Veneer is a thin sheet of wood about 1/ 32 inches in thickness. Think about it like a regular wood board but really thin. It's also cut from our regular log, comes from different kinds of trees and is available in several varieties. There are two ways in which a veneer is cut. Method 1: the log is rotated and the blade cuts layer after layer till it reaches the core. This method produces a maximum amount of wood but not such a great looking grain. As a result of this kind of veneers are not usually used for furniture. They are mostly used for construction purposes.

Method number two: the log is sawn lengthwise to create thin strips of wood. The log is first sawn in half. Then thin strips are cut away from each face.

Veneers are a blessing and advantage to woodworkers. When used in conjunction with others sheet goods. Because so little of the log goes into making this sheet of veneer, even the most expensive and sought-after hardwoods become usable and cost friendly. By using a sheet good like plywood and pasting veneer on the surface you can give your furniture the look of genuine wood and make their product cost friendly to the consumer. You will find a good collection of veneers in any lumberyard and also your local home shop.

(F) Plywood and Other Manufactured Boards

Plywoods and other kinds of manufactured boards are together known as sheet goods. Many woodworkers frown upon the practice of using sheet goods because they do not consider it pure woodworking, because the material has been created by a human manufacturing process and is not natural.

However, I have found the innovation of these products to be a blessing to the art of woodworking. Specially from the consumer's point of view. There was a time when wood was plentiful and widely used material in construction of houses and furniture. It still widely used but it's becoming more costly. Where hardwood floors were taken for granted, now they are a novelty. Same goes for everyday furniture like tables, closets and armchairs.

That thing is that there are millions of people out there who want to buy good, sturdy and practical furniture without burning a hole in their pocket. They are definitely an admirer of the aesthetics but not hung up on the fact that their furniture should be constructed out of pure and solid wood. These people would love to get their hands on a good quality handmade furniture rather than have to rely on mass manufactured and poor quality commercially made furniture.

The development and introduction of sheet goods into the woodworking has made good quality furniture available and affordable once again to these people.

Advantage of using sheet goods for the woodworker.

Sheet goods have not only made life easier for the consumer what have also made a lot of things simpler for the wood woodworker as well. Unlike solid wood, sheet goods are more stable. They do not twist flex warp unexpectedly like wood does. They do not have to be dried and acclimatized before using. Many woodworkers now prefer to use plywood in conjunction with solid wood for many kinds of project.

More about plywood

Plywood is more stable than solid wood because of the way it is made. A plywood is constructed by layering several thin layers of wood one on top of each other with the grain pattern alternating in a way that the overall board becomes stable. Remember how we told you that the grain and the ring pattern of the woods is what determines its stability. Other kinds of sheet Goods are constructed in a different manner and used different methods to make the board stable.

Grades of plywood

Just like there were grades of wooden boards, there are grades of ply boards as well. The grade is allotted to the board based on the quality of the surface. The grades range from A-D with a A being the best quality. Many times a plywood board has one side that is better than the opposite. These boards will be graded in the manner of a A – B, suggesting that one face of the board is of a quality where as the other one is of b quality.

The reason for choosing such a board is that they are cheaper, more easily available and do not affect your project where only one size has to be exposed.

Here's the low-down on different grades of plywood boards.

A – this is the best grade. It means the surface of the board is without any blemishes and defects. This is the board you want to use if it's going to be on the visible side of your woodworking project.

B – Almost as good as A but might have minor cracks and splits.

C – this is where the board becomes unusable for exposed parts of a project. It has more serious defects than B.

C – plugged: as the name suggests the board has dents in the surface that had been filled and plugged with scrap wood.

D – this is a grade assigned to boards that have many holes and defects on the surface.

Plywood Core

The second way to distinguish different plywoods is to figure out their core filling. The core is the stuff that lies between the two faces of the board. Sometimes it's thin sheets of different kinds of wood, sometimes it's sawdust and other such variations. Here are different kinds of plywood cores and their properties.

Veneer core plywood. As the name suggests, the core is made of several layers of veneer, with alternating grain pattern. The number of layers of usually ranges from 3 to 11 and is proportional to the thickness of the board, although not always. Some boards are made up of multiple layers that gives them great stability.

A characteristic of veneer core plywood you should be aware of is that there are holes or hollow spaces inside the board that you cannot see. This is not a problem until you saw the board and happen to run the blade right through the empty space. The result is that you will now have a hole on the exposed edge which might call for some kind of filling and finishing.

Lumbar core plywood. This kind of plywood has strips of wood running parallel to each other between the two outer faces. Just like veneer core these strips have their brain pattern running in alternate fashion. Lumbar core of plywood is very strong and ideal for projects that require to withstand a lot of weight. Lumbar core plywood is much stronger than veneer core plywood and is usually available only in lumber yards.

(G) Medium density fibre board (MDF)

MDF is not technically plywood since it is made from sawdust and raisins. But it's often used like one. It's also used to make custom boards by gluing a veneer of choice on its face. MDF is heavy and not very strong. And yet you will find it widely used in commercial cabinet building. If you visit a large commercial furniture store, you will find modern kitchen cabinets and large wardrobes all made out of MDF. Could this be because it's cheaper material? Very likely.

MDF can be both easy and difficult to work with. It's heavy and produces a lot of dust when cutting. On the plus side it is cost-effective and looks especially good when painted.

A variation of the MDF is a flake board. Instead of using sawdust, a flake board is made from wood flakes and raisins. It produces much less dust when cutting and is much stronger than an MDF board.

(H) Plywood with veneer.

We mentioned earlier that gluing wood veneer to a plywood is a great innovation. You can have the look and feel of real wood and the stability of plywood. This combination makes the going easier for the woodworker and the furniture affordable and reliable for the consumer. The ready-made veneer plywood is available in market include the favourite hardwoods: oak, cherry, maple and mahogany.

Veneer plywood is great for shelves and cupboards. Remember, you can build your own combination of board and are veneer. MDF and flake boards are commonly used as a core for this purpose because they are free from surface defects and are much cheaper.

However, I would recommend the use of a good plywood if it fits within your budget, mostly because it's a stronger material and is lighter in weight.

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(I) Where to buy wood

After learning about all the great options you have with wood and its close counterparts, you need to know your best options for buying it. If you have been reading descriptions of different kinds of wood you must have also read where they are most likely to be available. Some are readily available in home stores, whereas others can only be found in lumber yards.

Home stores are an easily accessible option. But the variety, availability and the prices may differ quite a bit from a lumberyard. On the other hand the closest lumberyard maybe hundred miles away from where you live. Did you know that you can actually order wood, straight from the lumberyard over the phone? We have written a post about all the options for buying wood, getting the best deal and how to choose the right option for yourself. You can read it here.

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