Choosing Wood Type, Species and Thickness


Choosing Wood is the Beginning of Craftsmanship

ash_boardI used rough-cut white ash lumber for this project because I happened to have the right thicknesses in my shop and because I like this wood. The board you see here to the left is a piece of ash after I’ve planed it smooth with my thickness planer. It happens to have perfectly quartersawn grain, with growth ring patterns at 90º to the board faces. This is a prized grain pattern. More on this later.

Ash is strong, hard, economical where I live and finishes nicely. You can use any kind of hardwood for this table, but I’d stay away from softwood with this particular design. You could get away with softwood if you’re building a smaller version of the table with shorter legs – a coffee table for instance – but the added strength of hardwood is important for taller designs like mine.


Rough Lumber or Smooth?

thickness_planer_overallBefore you settle on wood species, you’ve got a more fundamental decision to make: Will you choose to build with rough lumber or smooth lumber that’s been planed for you ahead of time at a lumber mill? How do you decide? The main issue comes down to machinery. Working with rough lumber requires that you have access to two machines: a jointer and a thickness planer. You can see my thickness planer here to the right. My simple portable jointer is here to the left. jointer_ryobi2The jointer and thickness planer work together to make the sometimes-wonky shape of rough lumber flat and smooth. Pre-planed lumber doesn’t always need the same kind of refinement process, but a jointer is still very helpful for refining the edges of project parts made from pre-planed lumber.  The plans, instructions and videos in this course include all the detail you need for working with rough lumber. One main advantage offered by access to a thickness planer is that it allows you complete control over part thickness. Without a thickness planer you need to work with standard lumber thicknesses, which isn’t ideal. More on this later as it makes sense during this course.

How to Choose Rough Lumber

sawmill_lumberpile3If you’re using rough lumber, you’ll find 1 1/2” thick rough boards gives you plenty of material for ending up with the 1 1/8” final top thickness shown in the plans and materials list. Rough lumber always needs to be at least 1/8″ to 1/4″ thicker than the final planed thickness you need. If you can’t find 2 1/4” thick rough hardwood for the 2″-thick legs, mill and glue two pieces of 1 1/4” rough stock glued together for making the 2”-thick finished leg size you’ll need.

Why did I choose these thicknesses? Looks, mostly. Proper proportions for a project depend on more than just overall length, height and depth. It’s also about material thickness, too. Smaller versions of the design demand proportionally thinner parts. A larger version needs thicker parts.

The Pre-Planed Lumber Option

Are you working with pre-planed lumber? You’ll need to stick to the only two standard thicknesses available: 3/4″ and 1 1/2″. The 3/4″ is fine for the rails and bottom shelf, but the 1 1/2″ is a bit thick for the table top and a bit thin for the legs. You can work with these, but you might want to find some place where you can get some time with both a jointer and thickness planer. In less than 30 minutes you’ll be done. Borrowing tool time is a great strategy.

Buying Lumber

The experience of buying wood for your project will vary depending on whether you’ll be using pre-planed lumber of standard thickness or rough-cut unplaned wood for jointing and planing yourself. Pre-planed lumber is something you’ll find at building supply outlets. Oak and maple are particularly common at places like these. Although it’s convenient, buying from building supply outlets you’ll pay more than any other place.

Sawmills and lumber dealers usually specialize in rough wood, but many can also plane your order for you. This will make it smooth, but it won’t necessarily make the edges true enough for good edge gluing boards together to make the table top and shelves. Gap-free joints between boards is essential.

So, how many pieces of lumber of a certain length will you need for this table? I can’t really tell you and there are two reasons why. First, the width and length of wood available at a lumber outlet is always changing. Go in one day and they may be fresh out of 1x8s. Go in the next day and they could have just unloaded some really nice 2 x 10s. You never really know. And even if you do go to a place knowing they do have 1x6s, maybe you’ll find you don’t like the grade or the grain when you see them.

The best way to buy lumber for this table or any other woodworking project is to travel with your materials list printed out,  tape measure hanging off you pocket and a small, sharp block plane in your hand. Decide on which boards will give you the project pieces you need, then cross them off your materials list. Use the block plane to reveal clean grain of the wood through any rough surface or dirt. You need to see what beauty lies beneath the surface before you choose a board. And as you choose various pieces of wood, be generous with sizes. Always buy at least 20% more than you need; 30% is even better. None of the extra wood will go to waste. You’ll always find a use for it later on smaller projects.

Next up I’ll show you how to cut lumber so your table will look better and last longer. It involves a small but important trick that too few woodworkers know about these days.

Before going on to the next phase, you should have:

  • Selected a species of wood in mind for the tables you’ll be building.
  • Made a decision about using rough lumber or pre-planed lumber.
  • Determined your own length, width and height proportions for your table if you’re not following mine.
  • Bought all the lumber you need for this table.
  • A clean shop and good reserves of enthusiasm.