There’s no mystery about hardwoods. Oak, walnut, mahogany, teak and many more well-loved timbers are readily available if you want to use their rich, varied shades and patterns in your home.
M ost hardwoods really are harder than softwoods – but not quite all; the two classifications are named for botanical, not practical reasons, and hardwoods themselves vary widely in strength, toughness and weather-resistance. Their denseness can make accurate work easier, but it can also blunt tools faster; and you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for variable grain directions which make it hard to get an even surface with the plane.
Hardwoods do cost more, which is why softwoods are used for all rough house-carpentry. But your money buys a fascinating, inexhaustible variety of beautiful colours and grains. Once you have the confidence to work without paint to cover up your mistakes, and preferably with proper concealed joints rather than just screws and nails, you’ll want to use hardwoods for all their subtle decorative possibilities, varnishing or polishing them to bring these out.
There are thousands of hardwoods, many strangely named and hard to get. Here we show only those you’re most likely to find. But they give an idea of the tremendous range available. If your timber merchant shows you a piece of afzelia or jelutong, don’t turn your nose up: it may be just what you want.
Many hardwoods are often used as thin sheets of veneer, to give the appearance without the cost. Sticking veneer down by hand is a fairly specialised operation, unless you buy the ‘iron-on’ real-wood veneers which are available in some of the more common timbers. Ready-veneered chipboard, or plywood with a decorative top layer, is another option.
You can’t buy hardwoods in standard sizes like nails, screws or even softwoods. Dimensions available depend on the supplier – and the wood. No-one can cut wide planks from narrow trees, or long straight pieces from short, twisted trees.
However, two groups of basic cross-sections are generally obtainable. Squarish pieces, for table and chair legs, panel edges, etc, can usually be found in sizes between 25 x 25mm (1 x 1 in) and 50 x 50mm (2 x 2in); and wider, flatter boards, eg, for wall cladding or joining edge-to-edge to make tabletops, from 6mm (1/4in) to 25mm (1 in) thick, and 150-300mm (6-12in) wide.
But visit your timber merchant, discuss your requirements and see what he’s got. Although you may have to consider alternative woods, he’ll often be willing to cut wood specifically to suit your measurements. In fact, since hardwoods come in so many different types and sizes, he may well have to. Be prepared, however, to modify your design if he suggests a more economical way of cutting the timber. His advice will save you money.