What is the best timber to use for furniture, interiors and outside?
What are different sorts of timbers used for? Here is one of those borderline geek questions that elicits the disgusted sort of blankness my dad exhibits when faced with things like, ‘equal opportunities’ and ‘plant based diet’, or an interested, if slightly unhinged, eager-eyed nod. But, for the purposes of the blog, it has to be asked so here it is:
Have you ever wondered about the different qualities of wood and what different sorts of timbers are used for?
At Rise we are quite often asked which is the best wood for the job. Sometimes we are asked which timbers make the most spectacular joinery projects. Occasionally, customers eagerly suggest a timber they have seen somewhere and particularly like, and we hope fervently this is a fantastic choice, not something that will wind like a helter-skelter, expand like Starbucks and rot alarmingly if exposed to light condensation.
It is, after all, easy for joiners to forget that most people don’t spend their lives dwelling on the natural qualities and many fine virtues of wood, or the amazing beauty and complexity – the sheer diversity – of this incredibly versatile natural substance. You need only visit the Tudor warship, The Mary Rose in Portsmouth, or any number of ancient cathedrals to wonder at, not only the incredible range of essential jobs wood performs , but how little its use has changed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Today’s joiners – apart from suffering from very achy sawing-arms – could go back to the time of Henry VIII and find their trade – and quite a lot of the hand tools – pretty much the same. It seems only appropriate then, that a Rise Joinery blog should put together an informative piece to share with others about the sorts of timbers we use in our workshop and why we use them the way we do.
Starting with European Oak, White Ash and Tulip Wood:
Our supplier sources the European oak we use from Italy. Light tan in colour, when quarter-sawn you can see the silver grey figuring that gives the wood loads of beautiful character (and is, arguably, a bit like avatar hair). For use it is moderately stable , durable and good for external joinery. At Rise, when we use European Oak that will be exposed to the elements such as for windows, doors and gates, we select for timber that has been air dried over a kiln. Kiln drying (rather than air drying alone) enhances the stability of this iconic timber. Internally, the versatility and amazing silver striation of the wood allows it to make a special feature of staircases, mouldings, wall panelling, kitchens and fitted furniture.
We source our White Ash from Italy as well. In colour it is subtle: a pale creamy wash gently blended with greyish brown. A hardwood, it has good durability but at Rise we don’t regard it as suitable for exteriors. We like how it machines easily and takes finishes well, and would use it, for instance, for interior doors, staircases, fitted and free standing furniture, wall panelling and mouldings.
Also known as Poplar, Tulip is a North American timber. The colour oxidises naturally into a wonderful array of pale green to brown with occasional shades of purple. The grain is straight and has very few defects which makes it easy to machine and work with. As a lightweight timber it is non-durable so we would use it for internal joinery, quite often for paint-finish cabinet work such as kitchens and fitted bedrooms. As a feature wood the potential for fascinating colour differentiations is lovely.
Next up, American Black Walnut, Meranti and Maple:
American Black walnut wood
This is a hardwood with colour variations of grey-brown taupe to chocolate and purplish black. The sap is a creamy colour and can sometimes be seen threading through the darker shades giving contrast. As a highly polished veneer Walnut offers a timeless air of gravitas to furniture but the timber may also have a classy modern and sleek effect in high quality internal joinery. We use it for cabinet work such as kitchens, fitted furniture, freestanding furniture and staircase handrails. It can also also be used to powerful effect for external doors. Moderately durable and stable in character it is easy to machine and takes finishes well.
Although Meranti is classed as a hardwood Rise don’t use it for external projects. In high use some years ago, it is very soft and lightweight, of a medium to dark-reddish brown colour. Its patterning is, perhaps, a little like the markings of animal fur – like some sort of wild cat.
This is a North American hardwood, with a colour spectrum of cream to pale reddish-brown. It is strong and stable but non-durable and is not used for external joinery. The subtle contrast in colour markings lend themselves to a minimalistic, uncluttered look. We like it for cabinet work such as fitted kitchens, bedrooms and offices. It also does well as flooring, making it possible to create a room, or even a house, with a unified feeling of light and space. Maple machines well and takes finishes very easily.
Sapele, Utile and Accoya:
A moderately durable and stable hardwood, Sapele is a dark reddish-brown in colour and, when quarter sawn, has a distinguished stripy appearance. At Rise we no longer use softwood for any of our external joinery so, for us, Sapele is a good, relatively economical, starting point for anything that will be exposed to the elements such as exterior windows, doors, lean-tos and porches. It is moderately durable and relatively stable; fairly easy to machine and will take a paint or lacquer finish well.
Reddish-brown in colour, Utile is probably the upgrade for Sapele as it is more durable and stable, and less likely to move, especially when used for doors. Classed as durable it’s good for all external joinery including outhouses and porches, however it’s often used indoors for internal cabinet work, wall panelling, staircases and doors as it’s similar in appearance to Mahogany. Utile machines easily and it takes finishes well.
Perhaps the best timber to use outdoors. With mottled shades of creamy pale ochre, green and grey, the unique thing about Accoya is how it acquires class one durability for exterior use. It starts life as a softwood, then is modified by a process called acetylation, which involves the introduction of acetic anhydride. Basically, Accoya gets pickled in vinegar, which alters its cell structure and blocks the cell walls against water absorption. The result is this amazing product with class one durability. Joinery made from Accoya doesn’t warp, shrink, expand, contract or split. In short it’s incredibly stable and makes a fabulous option for all exterior woodwork, including planters for the garden and anything else that comes under properly tough bombardment from wet or harsh conditions. As an added bonus, any finishes that are applied will also last much longer, due to the lack of movement in the timber.
Cherry, Iroko, Southern Yellow Pine:
A North American hardwood, the colour of Cherry wood varies from pinkish in the heart wood to a golden yellow in the sap. It has a straight, even, fine grain and is a nice choice for cabinetmaking and fitted furniture such as kitchens, bookcases, bedroom and office furniture, although it isn’t suitable for external joinery. It machines easily and takes a finish well.
Iroko has many of the features of teak and is often used in its place. It’s colour is a yellowy shade when first machined, which darkens to a coppery fawn colour over time. It’s another wood where the patterning, could be reminiscent of the markings on animal fur – or perhaps a bird feather, such as a Brown Seagull. It’s very durable and versatile, being a good timber for all external joinery, such as balconies, doors, windows external stairs, handrails and decks. It will take an oil or lacquer finish but we would always recommend wiping the surface with white spirits first as the timber is naturally very oily. It can be difficult to work with due to the interlocking grain and it blunts tools quickly.
Southern Yellow Pine
As the name suggests, this a yellow coloured pine, mostly butter but with an edge of lemon. In terms of its applications it’s a softwood, similar to Douglas Fir (see below). Moderately durable, it has good stability and may be used for external joinery such as windows, outside furniture and doors, however, Rise Joinery would recommend applying preservative to this product if it is to be used outside. Inside, it is a characterful choice for joinery and a popular choice for staircases and doors.
European Beech, Douglas Fir, European Redwood:
Naturally a pale brown, European Beech takes on a russet colour tone when steamed and, close-to, has a pattern like falling rain. It’s non-durable and Rise don’t use it for external joinery. We like it for furniture such as tables and chairs and will often choose it for our kitchen drawers and worktops. It machines easily and takes a finish well.
A softwood, with autumn colours, Douglas Fir varies between mixtures of dark-orange and reddish-brown to light russet. The grain can produce lots of character. It has good stability and is moderately durable. Rise will use it for external joinery such as windows and doors, but, as with Southern Yellow Pine, we would apply preservative. It is also a good choice for internal joinery such as staircases and doors due to its distinctive character.
A pine, sourced mainly from evocative places like Scandinavia and Russia where the trees are snow-topped and people know how to dress up warmly. It is a pale yellow colour with some reddish tints reminiscent of Welsh gold or honey. Although widely used externally with preservative applied, Rise Joinery do not use this product externally any longer, preferring to opt for Sapele. This timber is an economical option for all sorts of internal joinery including stairs and doors and, if well selected, can be a lovely choice for fitted furniture due to its warmth. It is fairly easy to machine, light weight and takes a finish easily.