I. SOME FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ON WOOD:
Q: A Softwood is a soft wood and a Hardwood is a hard wood. Right?
A: False. A softwood is the wood of a conifer (or a Ginkgo), a
the wood of a dicot tree. The hardest hardwood is some three times as
as the hardest softwood, but the hardest softwood is some four times
as the softest hardwood. The softest woods in the world are hardwoods.
Q: A Conifer, that is the same thing as a Gymnosperm. Right?
A: Not quite: there are four groups of Gymnosperms, of which the
(with some six hundred species) are the biggest and most important.
(one species) is another such group. The remaining two groups don't
anything that could be regarded as timber.
Q: A wood with "cedar" in the name will surely be a softwood. Right?
A: False: "cedar" is a word that does not mean anything except a wood
certain type of fragrance (if that). Going only by frequency, "cedar"
US most often will be "Western Redcedar" (Thuja plicata), followed at
distance by "Eastern Redcedar" (Juniperus virginiana) also marketed as
"Aromatic Cedar" [these are both softwoods]. A "cedar" from Central
will usually be a Cedrela species; from SE Asia usually a Toona
[these are both hardwoods]. Etc, etc [list goes on at considerable
Q: Slow-grown wood is harder than fast-grown wood. Right?
A: By and large, this is true. It will depend on the wood concerned.
age-old canon is "A slow-grown softwood is harder than a fast-grown
softwood, while a fast-grown hardwood is harder than a slow-grown
Curiously, this is also true, up to a point. It will not be true in
tropics, but will in most of the US and Europe.
The point is that throughout most of the US and Europe the most
hardwoods will be ring-porous (such as Ash, Elm, Hickory, Oak). A
ring-porous tree will start every year by forming a ring of very big
(easily visible to the naked eye) and only make mechanical tissue (for
support) later in the year. This means that in a short season the tree
not have time to make a full growth ring, but stops after making only
little of this mechanical tissue: slow-grown wood exists mostly of the
of big pores. As pores are big air-filled spaces slow-grown
hardwood is quite soft. In a long season the tree will have the time
a full growth ring with a great deal of mechanical tissue. As the
hard, a fast-grown ring-porous hardwood will be hard and strong.
For softwoods and diffuse-porous (non-ring-porous) hardwoods a
slow-grown wood will be harder (and more decorative) than a fast-grown
Q: "Cherry" is the wood from the Cherry tree. Right?
A: Not really. The tree that cherries grow on does yield a classic
called cherry, but this has always been fairly rare (these days cherry
are planted in a stunted form for pickability of the fruit). There is
timber tree ("Black Cherry", more or less closely related) that yields
look-alike wood almost as good, and certainly a lot more available.
called cherry for convenience.
Q: "Brazilian Cherry "is a kind of cherry. Right?
A: False. The nearest wellknown relatives of "Brazilian Cherry"
more properly known as "Red Locust" or "Jatoba", will be Purpleheart
(Peltogyne) and Bubinga (Guibourtia). The closest relatives in the US
be "Honey Locust" (Gleditsia) and the "Kentucky Coffetree"
(much) more distant relative is "Black Locust" (Robinia).
Q: What wood to use for a cutting board?
A: Maple, or something similar (any lightcolored hardwood, with a high
density and a fine structure, e.g. beech, birch, etc). Not to be
are exotic hardwoods: their high degree of durability is because they
contain significant concentrations of exotic substances lethal to lots
organisms. These substances are best avoided in food. The issue is
especially relevant when cooking for guests or children.
Q: A Live Oak is an oak that has not been cut down yet. Right?
A: False. A Live Oak is another name for an evergreen oak (OK,
"subevergreen" oak). Evergreen oaks occur where the temperature
allows, in a
belt all round the world. Going by the wood, there are three
genuine Oak (Quercus), found all over the Northern Hemisphere: White
Red Oaks and Live Oaks. The woods of these three are not closely
in any respect. Characters that are shared by all three woods are
rays and a dendritic arrangement of pores. All in all there are some
species of genuine Oak. In addition there are any number of woods
Oak, for whatever reason strikes the fancy of a wood trader.
Q: "Phillipine Mahogany" is mahogany from the Philippines. Right?
A: False. It may or may not be from the Philippines (probably not),
won't be Mahogany, ever.
Q: "Honduras Mahogany" is mahogany from Honduras. Right?
A: Depends. It could be, but usually is not (from Honduras, that is).
Q: "African Mahogany" is mahogany from Africa. Right?
A: Just about. The wood of Khaya is from tropical Africa and is
assumed to be a Mahogany.
Q: "Rhodesian Teak" is teak from Rhodesia. Right?
A: False. Baikiaea plurijuga is not teak, but a member of the Pea
grows in several countries, one of which used to be called Rhodesia.
Q: "Nigerian Teak" is teak from Nigeria. Right?
A: Right. Plantation grown. Not that anybody would want to use it.
Q: "Java Teak" is teak from Java. Right?
A: Right. Plantation-grown, from the days the Dutch were there. High
Q: Teak is a really hard wood. Right?
A: Depends. Teak (Tectona grandis, family Labiatae) varies from soft
butter and pale yellow to fairly hard and dark brown. Depends on
Q: Steel is stronger than wood. Right?
A: Depends. A piece of steel of a certain size will almost always be
stronger as a piece of wood the same size. A steel rod of a particular
length and mass as compared to a similarly sized rod of wood ...
* * *
II. SOME USEFUL SITES:
- intro-page of the Forest Products Laboratory:
- technical properties of wood
including two downloadable books on US-Woods
- the FPL "Wood Handbook. Wood as an engineering material"
(Hardcopy at Lee Valley, Canadian version, i.e. paginated)
- common and scientific names of wood
(best database around, with a fairly low level of error):
- silvics of US trees
- "The American Woods":
(pictures only; a similar set is now in print as "the Woodbook")
- lots of pictures (fun), but short on accuracy and real information
full version (slow):
small version (faster):
- even more pictures, with even less information (lots of typo's)
Some more pictures (very little information; not free of typo's)
a preliminary page on purpleheart
(the wood of the genus Peltogyne, family Leguminosae):
a bird-eye's view of dangers:
for a more extensive link-page see:
availability of wood (US)
* * *
Good entry-level books on wood are
"Wood for woodturners" by Mark Baker
(a bright book)
"Good Wood Handbook" by Albert Jackson & David Day
(cheapest and best, but out of print. Still available in the
which is called "Collins good wood guide")
"Woodworker's Guide to Wood" by Rick Peters ('passing grades')
An interesting book on a different way to obtain wood:
"Harvesting Urban Timber" by Sam Sherrill
An artsy book on American Wood with some really great pictures:
"The Woodbook" by Leistikow (ed.?) Not cheap.
Adult books on wood are
"Understanding Wood" by R. Bruce Hoadley
"Identifying Wood" by R. Bruce Hoadley
For those not shying away from a thick book:
"Holzatlas" by Rudi Wagenfuhr