Sources and origins

Natural timbers

Hardwoods

Hardwood comes from deciduous trees with broad leaves. Hardwood trees take a long time to grow, around 60 years (sometimes up to 100). This means that they are rarely planted and very expensive. The majority of hardwoods grow in tropical regions, such as Amazonian climates, while others grow in temperate climates such as Europe. Their growth rings are much smaller than softwood, making the grain closer. Examples include:

HardwoodPhysical propertiesWorking properties
BeechSlight pink tint, close grainTough, durable and smooth to finish
MahoganyDark-reddish colour, very close grainCuts and polishes easily, gives a fine finish, used for high-quality furniture
OakModerate-brown colour with unique and attractive grain markingsTough and durable, polishes well, used for quality furniture
BalsaPale and wide-spaced grain due to it being a fast-growing hardwoodVery soft and easy to form, often used to make models

Jelutong is used for model making and vacuum forming moulds, and it is selected because it is easy to cut and shape. It has a close and even grain but, because it is soft, it is not good for structural uses.

The texture of jelutong wood - reasonably pale orange with darker lines running through.
Jelutong

Birch is often used for veneers in furniture and it is selected because of its even grain. Like jelutong, it is easy to cut and shape but it is also liable to rot and insect attacks.

The texture of birch wood - very pale with slightly darker rings running through.
Birch

Ash is used in ladders, tool handles, walking sticks and sports equipment, such as oars. It finishes well and it is selected because it is strong and flexible but, like birch, it is liable to rot and insect attacks.

The texture of ash wood - pale with slightly darker lines running through.
Ash

Softwoods

Softwood comes from coniferous trees with needle-like leaves that normally stay on during the winter - larch is an exception as it loses its needle-like leaves during the winter. Softwoods naturally grow in colder regions such as Alpine climates. Softwood trees grow quickly so their growth rings are wider making the grain wider. This ability to grow quickly means that softwood trees can be used for timber after 20-30 years - making them cheaper than hardwood. They are often grown commercially, and examples include:

  • pine
  • cedar
  • larch
SoftwoodPhysical propertiesWorking properties
PinePale coloured with aesthetically pleasing grainLightweight, easy to form, used for construction and decking
CedarLightweight, pale colour with even textureMore expensive than pine but not as strong

Larch is used in exterior cladding, small boats and for fence posts and is selected because it is durable and resistant to water. It is, however, more expensive than other softwoods.

The texture of larch wood - vibrant orange brown with darker lines running through.
Larch

Manufactured timbers

Manufactured timbers can be made from leftover wood such as sawdust and wood chippings. This means they can be made into large sheets rather than being restricted to the size of a tree trunk. They are much cheaper than both hardwoods and softwoods and are often used in low-cost furniture. Examples include:

  • medium-density fibreboard (MDF)
  • plywood
  • chipboard
Manufactured timberPhysical propertiesWorking properties
Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) - used for general carpentry work and flat-pack furniture as a veneer can applied or it can be paintedSmooth, light brown, can be veneeredSmooth and easy to finish, absorbs moisture so not suitable for outdoor use
Plywood - used for furniture, shelving, construction and toysLayers of veneer glued at 90 degree angles for strength, aesthetically pleasing outer layerEasy to cut and finish, can be stained or painted

Chipboard is commonly used in kitchen worktops and flat-pack furniture and is selected because it is inexpensive to produce as it is made from waste timber. Chipboard is commonly covered using a real wood veneer or melamine sheet so it is not on show. Covering the chipboard provides a layer of protection - if chipboard is exposed to moisture it will swell up and fall apart.

The texture of chipboard - wood chips of varying shades are glued together.
Chipboard