The first thing to know about wood is that there is no single “best” type of wood for woodworking. The most suitable wood depends on a number of factors including project type, use, and finish desired. If you are new to woodworking, check the directions for the project you are about to start. There are usually suggestions regarding the type of wood recommended for the project.

Woods are divided into two types, hard and soft. These designations refer to the type of tree, and are not a statement on the strength of the wood. Softwoods come from coniferous trees, that is, trees that have cones to contain their seeds. The trunks tend to grow tall and straight. The trees also grow quickly, which means that softwoods are more readily available, and therefore are cheaper than hardwoods. Examples of softwoods are pine, fir, and cedar.

Softwoods have a fairly even grain with little change in pattern. Some craftspeople like softwoods for this reason, while others prefer the more varied and uneven grains of hardwoods. Some softwoods, specifically cedar, fir, and redwood, are especially good for use in outdoor projects, as they resist water. Additionally, pine and fir are especially inexpensive, so they are good for initial projects and carving practice.

Hardwoods consist of deciduous trees, or trees that shed their leaves. Some examples of hardwoods are oak, ebony, birch, and cherry. In general hardwoods come in a greater variety of shades and textures than softwoods. They are also harder and slower to grow, which makes them more expensive. Some exotic hardwoods like cocobolo and zebrawood can easily exceed $50 per 4x4. Hardwoods are best for smaller projects, or projects that you are comfortable completing. Some online companies sell small sample size pieces of exotic woods. If your project is very small, this may be an idea way to obtain the supplies you need.

In addition to the type of wood, one must also consider the grade. Grades, standardized in the US by the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association), indicate the quality of the specific piece that you are purchasing. Grades range from a low of No. 3B Common to a high of FAS.

Softwoods do not use the same system; rather, they have two categories; re-manufacture and construction. A piece rated as construction grade is suitable for large projects such as homes, sheds, and other buildings. Re-manufactured wood is typically used for smaller furniture pieces and carving.