How to Choose a Wood for Turning

About: We're two college guys who love to make things and want to bring you along for the journey. Instagram @lakecitiescraft

Maybe you're just getting started turning, or maybe you've been at it a while and are just trying to decide what wood to use for a specific project. Whatever the case, it can be daunting to try and select a wood from the extreme variety available. Hopefully, this brief guide will aid you in selecting the best wood for your next project, wherever you are in your journey.

There are 4 main factors you can use to narrow the field when choosing a wood for turning:

  1. Price
  2. Color
  3. Durability
  4. Workability

Step 1: Price

This may be a little obvious, but it is a sensible place to start. Regardless of your woodworking knowledge, you know what are able to spend on the project this can knock out a lot of options that you don't need to consider in the first place. Now, you may be thinking, "but I have no idea what different woods cost?!?" That's fine, while I advocate for supporting your local wood shops when possible, you can use online retailers as a resource even if you don't buy from them (and sometimes you have to because your local supplier doesn't have what you need). Go to a site like WoodWorkersSource.com or BellForestProducts.com and search for the size blank you need within a given price range. This will give you an idea of what woods you should be looking into. Once you have a list of hardwoods in your price range, you can start to narrow further.

Step 2: Color

I'll go ahead and address before you ask, yes you can just stain a piece of light wood. However, this will not give you the same look as a true colored wood, and will show up light if your piece ever gets scratched, but it can be a way to get a nice looking piece at a lower cost when you're starting out.

As far as color goes, it's obviously up to you what you want for your project. It is just another qualifier than can help thin out a vast sea of good options. And it's a criterion that you don't have to know anything about wood

If you want to darken up a piece of wood, there are several options that can be preferable to staining. I'll give you three examples:

  1. Ammonia fuming: a process by which wood is exposed to in a contained environment to the fumes that ammonia gives off as it evaporates. over a relatively short period of time the wood will become significantly darker or even nearly black,
  2. Burning: A darkening process where wood is scorched by a torch, then the black ash on the outside is brushed off, revealing a significantly darker piece of wood underneath.
  3. Ebonizing: This process uses household ingredients. The solution is made from vinegar which has had steel wool sitting in it for a number of weeks. When applied to a piece, it reacts to the tannins in the wood to produce a dark color.

I am not an expert on these darkening methods, and I would assume they each work better on certain woods than others. Each method also has its own associated risks, so be sure to do your research into each method to ensure you know how to do it safely and effectively before attempting.

Step 3: Durability

Some of the characteristics associated with durability are hardness/density, rot resistance, and insect resistance. One thing to note is that the hardness of a wood doesn't actually have anything to do with the the classification of ''hardwood". That classification actually comes from the trees seeds, so don't assume that a hardwood is, well.. hard. The most famous example is balsa wood which is one of the softest woods in the world, and yet it's considered a hardwood. Now that we have that cleared up, lets take a look at these characteristics.

Hardness/Density

To give you a baseline, here are some common woods you might hear used frequently:

  • Pecan:
    • Hardness - 1820 lb-ft
    • Density - 46 lb/ft
  • Maple:
    • Hardness - 1450 lb-ft
    • Density - 44 lb/ft
  • White Oak:
    • Hardness - 1350 lb-ft
    • Density - 47 lb/ft
  • White Ash:
    • Hardness - 1320 lb-ft
    • Density - 42 lb/ft

In general, the harder the wood the denser it is. However, though hardness and density are related, they are not directly proportional (as you can see above). An even more extreme case: Bois D'arc (osage orange) has a Janka hardness of 2620 lb-ft while black palm only has a hardness of 2020 lb-ft. However, Bois D'arc only has a density of 54 lb/ft, while the 'softer' black palm has a density of 61 lb/ft.

Using a denser wood will give more weight to your piece, which can give it a feel of higher quality. Using a harder wood will give your piece a little extra resistance to dents and dings, which may be very beneficial if the piece is functional rather than decorative.

Keep in mind, the harder a wood, the harder it will be to work with, and the more wear it will cause on your tools. In the images above I experimented with woods on both ends of the spectrum. The rolling pin was made from a piece of poplar, a very soft wood of only 540 lb-ft. The candle holder was made from a piece of Spanish cedar of nearly equal softness at 600 lb-ft. On the other end, the two pens and pencil were made from Honduran rosewood which comes in at 2,200 lb-ft.

Rot Resistance/Insect Resistance

Some woods do better with moisture and insect resistance than others, thus making them more suitable for outdoor and marine applications. While a great deal of protection can be acquired through various finishing techniques, having a wood that is more naturally suited to these situations is never a bad thing. As far as these two criteria go, you will simply have to do a little research for each wood you are considering. They can be a great help in selecting the right wood for a specific project to ensure it will last a long time.

There are many great resources for all of this info including books, websites, and magazines. One specific resource I have found helpful is wood-database.com. It has information on hundreds of woods with most of the types of info we've covered here as well as estimated prices, CITES appendix listings, toxicity, etc.

Step 4: Workability

As I mention previously, the harder the wood, the more difficult it is to work with. Here are the results of the few turnings I have pictured: The soft woods were easier to turn and did not dull the tools as quickly. However, even on little slip would put a deep gouge in the wood. Additionally, the final projects mar much easier due to their softness. Lastly, you cannot turn these woods down to as small of a diameter as the hardwoods because they are weaker. The hardwood, despite being ~4x harder than the other woods, was still pleasant to turn (if you are using carbide tools, dulling isn't really an issue), and I was definitely happier with the final results. In general, I think I would recommend staying above the 1,000 lb-ft mark.

Step 5: Conclusion

I hope this was helpful in narrowing your search as you wade through the vast sea of wood choices for your next project. If you're just starting out here are a few tips:

  1. Raid scrap bins and estate sales to collect a variety of woods to try out and see what you like to work with, and what you think looks good
  2. Get a notebook and every time you turn something, write down what kind of wood it was and what you thought about it: How did it turn? Any issues like chipping or tear out? What kind of finish did you use, and did you like it on this particular wood? Etc.
  3. I'm kind of nerdy and I love making spreadsheets, so I cataloged all of my wood species and their associated specs so that whenever I have a project in mind, I can go to that spreadsheet, see what I have on hand, filter by specific criteria, and hopefully pick out a good wood for the job.

If you would like to see other projects we've been working on, check out our new Instagram @LakeCitiesCraft for weekly posts!

Happy Making!!

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