Almost any type of wood can be used to build furniture, but hardwoods are favored for both their beauty and durability. Oak wood, cherry wood and maple wood have a natural character that just can't be matched by any synthetic materials. Plus, with sustainable harvesting it's extremely eco-friendly. That's why these are our most popular choices for lifetime-quality furniture.
What exactly is hardwood?
It is wood that comes from a dicot tree which has broad leaves, produces either a fruit or nut, and often drops its leaves and goes dormant in the winter. Hardwood trees growing in the United States include oak, cherry, maple, aspen, sycamore and birch.
Softwood trees known as gymnosperms, have needle-like leaves that continue to cover their branches year-round. Ash, pine, fir, spruce and conifer trees are included in this category. While also commonly used in furniture making, they simply don’t hold up as well over time.
Why choose hardwood?
Unlike softwoods, hardwood trees are slow growing. This means the growth rings are closer together, making them more dense, and when sustainably harvested, more expensive. While this may be a deterrent to some, the investment will absolutely pay off. Not only will you NOT have furniture that could potentially fall apart in a few years time, you will have a piece that will last, is sustainable and can be passed down for generations.
Softwoods can certainly be beautiful, but they aren't nearly as durable. Hardwoods can be sanded and stained over and over. And if you want to just let them be, time and age will only add more character.
Below we’ll look at what three of the most popular choices of solid hardwood have to offer.
Heartwood = darker reddish brown
Sapwood = white to off-white cream
As it ages, takes on deep honey coloring
White oak = light beige to grayish brown
Red oak = pinkish to reddish hues
Light pinkish tan when cut but darkens to reddish brown over time
Moderately hard but strong. Lightest weight of the hardwoods
Very hard, heavy and strong
Strong, medium weight, moderately hard
Closed and usually straight, sands flat and smooth
Openly porous grain patterns, raised texture
Closed and straight, sands flat and smooth
Kitchen furniture, dining tables, dressers, desks (anything that sees lots of wear and tear)
Living room and bedroom furniture, dining tables, desks
Fine furniture - bedroom sets, dining sets
Also used for doors, cabinets and musical instruments
Takes all finishes, many different looks possible
Takes finish well, but pronounced grain always shows
Light or medium finishes recommended as wood will continue to darken over time
It’s affordable, durable and incredibly versatile. No wonder it’s one of the most widely used and adored hardwoods.
In the United States, the Sugar Maple, also known as the Rock Maple, is the tree most often used when making solid maple wood furniture. This tree loves the cold weather and is mainly found in the northern U.S. and Canada. It’s not only beautiful, it’s hardy.
- Maple woods most commonly have a smooth and straight grain giving furniture a simple and clean look
- Variations in grain patterns can give maple wood a curly, tiger, flame, rippled or wavy look. Selection is often made for smoother grain for less rustic applications
- Variation typically happens because of strain, injury or disease in the tree as it grows
- Unlike cherry and oak, furniture makers use the sapwood (outer portion of the log) more often than the heartwood
- Light and creamy coloring of sapwood allows it to brighten a room in its natural state or take on a wide variety of stains. This is often called brown maple or soft maple
- Select sapwood maple lumber does not take stain well and is sometimes called "hard maple" and only offered in a natural finish
- Maple can mimic its more expensive counterparts (cherry or mahogany) depending on stain choice
If left in its more natural color, maple is an excellent choice for modern furniture. If stained or painted, it can be used for everything from Craftsman to Contemporary.
- Often used for heavy use items such as dressers and dining tables
- Also commonly used to make baseball bats, bowling pins, bowling alley lanes, pool cue shafts and butcher blocks
- Maple is a tonewood (carries sound well) and is used in a variety of musical instruments
As a fun bit of trivia, many scholars believe the interior frame of the Trojan horse was made of maple!
Valued for its strength and striking grain pattern that is one of the easiest to
recognize, it is the most popular wood used in Traditional, Mission and Craftsman pieces.
There are over sixty varieties of oak trees growing across the United States which is why oak can take on so many differing looks. Red and white oak are most commonly used in furniture making because of their durability. Flat sawn oak has a "cathedral" grain pattern recognizable in the graphic to the right.
- Red oak and white oak have a similar grain pattern but different colors
- White oak is grayish brown
- Red oak has a distinct reddish tint
- Oak may darken slightly over time, but the change is very subtle and often goes unnoticed
- Quarter sawn oak draws its name from how it is cut. Sometimes called "tiger oak", it can be recognized by the tiger stripe patterns surfacing on the boards.
- Wood is typically sliced parallel with the trunk in a method known as flat or plain sawn which allows for lots of workable boards from one tree
- If quarter sawn, the tree is quartered first and then cut into smaller boards running from the widest portion down the direction of the point
- Quarter sawn pieces have finer lines that run straighter making them easier to work with
- Gorgeous to look at, the pieces also tend to be more structurally stable
- Low maintenance, versatile, timeless and a good investment
- Oak is very dense, highly resistant to wear and a great choice for dining tables
- Its timelessness means it’ll grow with you as your style changes
- Only needs occasional cleaning and polishing
- Resistant to warping over time
If you own anything made of oak, you know it lasts! Oak trees grow slowly, creating dense, quality wood. Because of its durability it is not uncommon to find original furniture made of solid oak that has lasted for well over 100 years.
In fact, the current desk in the Oval Office at the White House is made of oak and was a gift from Queen Victoria in 1880. Called the Resolute Desk, it is made of oak timbers from the British Arctic exploration ship HMS Resolute. Imagine the stories that desk could tell!
Charmed by cherry? We can relate!
A prized hardwood from the American Black Cherry fruit tree, it is used in fine furniture and cabinets and has an attractive and distinct grain that polishes and finishes well.
Cherry wood has a smooth and uniform grain with minimal difference in density between layers. This makes for an impeccably smooth sanded surface.
It is moderately hard, strong and durable with good shock and wear resistance
Cherry wood’s coloring makes it highly desirable
When freshly cut, it has a salmon-pink hue to it
During the first six months of exposure to light, will start to darken as it moves closer to its famous reddish brown color
This process may happen quickly or could take years depending on how much light exposure the wood receives.
Like most hardwoods, it will become more beautiful as it ages
Cherry is easy to work with
In woodworking - it is easy to cut and shape creating exquisite carvings and turnings
In finishing - rich cherry wood stains help to enhance the satin-like grain
Keep in mind, all parts of cherry wood furniture should be exposed to light equally so that it darkens equally. Careful leaving your cherry pieces exposed to full sunlight with any items on top!
And because we like fun trivia, George Washington never confessed to cutting down a cherry tree at six years old. The myth was told by writer Mason Locke Weems in his biography on President Washington as a way to illustrate Washington’s integrity and honesty. Maybe Mr. Weems didn’t see the irony in having to fib in order to do so!
Which hardwood is best for my furniture?
It all depends on your needs. You’ll want to consider:
- Style (Craftsman, Modern, Traditional, etc)
- Coloring/staining choices
- Placement of the furniture (which room, how much use the piece will get, exposure to light, etc)
- Personal preference
If you want to go deeper into these categories and find out how to pick the furniture that's right for you, check out our Amish Furniture Buyers Guide for more information.The one thing you won’t have to question is longevity and durability. Solid hardwood furniture from Modern Bungalow is handmade to stand the test of time.