Wood Choices for Hobbyists


No Wood is hard to work if your tools are sharp

When I first started woodworking, I read up a bit on different kinds of woods, their properties and so on. Yet, when I actually got to working with wood, I realised how little I knew the material. Over time, as I worked on a few different kinds of wood I learnt that each variety has its peculiarities, pros and cons, and so on. 

I haven’t worked with a lot of varieties but there are a few things I look for in wood: first, is it easy to work with? Second, will it endure, or will it crack, split or twist over time? In other words, how stable is it? Third, can the wood withstand load, or will it sag and bend with age? Fourth, will it take stain and polish well? Last but certainly not the least, how beautiful is the wood texture?

Every person will have his or her likes and dislikes and I cannot comment on that. However, some wood varieties are inherently beautiful, like Teak, Padauk, and Oak while others are simply plain like Mango, Chaamp (Arau Wood), Meranti or even Saal. 

For the beginner

For someone starting off in woodworking the first wood I would recommend is finger jointed rubber wood. A number of companies in Kerala manufacture rubber wood boards and sell them all over the country. Rubber wood (Hevea Brasiliensis ) is classified as a light hardwood and its colour is whitish with dashes of pale browns. It is easy to work, takes stain well and is pretty hard.

Pieces of Rubber Wood board

The good thing about rubber wood board is that pieces can be cut out to size and do not need any planing or surfacing. Milling wood for the beginner is a daunting task and can take the fun out of the learning process. With Rubber wood none of this is required; the boards are ready for use.

Rubber wood boards come in 4 by 8 feet sheets and in approximately three thicknesses: half inch, three quarter inch and one inch. To make batons for legs and frames, two or more pieces of rubber wood board cut to the requisite size could be laminated with glue. Making 4x4s this way is easy and produces very strong pieces.

A hobbyist woodworker could make a large number of very useful projects from bookshelves to boxes with rubber wood board. It is a great material to start off with and only marginally more expensive than good quality plywood. 

However, I must warn that of late some Kerala rubber wood producers are skimping on quality and shipping rather poor quality boards. In these boards, the pieces finger jointed together are not necessarily of similar quality, or the jointing is not done properly. As a result, there is great and abrupt variation of grain in these boards. This can cause bowing and twisting of the boards. Worse, finishing such poor quality boards can be a nightmare as they will blotch and take stain unevenly.

Plywood

A lot of beginners tend to use plywood and board simply because it appears easier to work with. Plywood can be cut and put together with screws and glue to quickly make a variety of projects. The great advantage of plywood is its stability and the availability of all kinds of veneer to cover it. However, plywood is not suitable for all projects. It is also difficult to cut without splintering the surface and finishing it can be a problem without adding a layer of veneer – a process that is time consuming and adds to the costs.

Teak

Teak is another very readily available wood all over India and it is indeed a great choice for making furniture. However, there are many varieties of Teak out there and one needs to recognise the varieties and their deficiencies. 

Reclaimed Burma Teak
CP Teak is considered the best and is the most expensive. However, it is harder than the African and South American Teak varieties and can be difficult to work. A properly constructed CP Teak piece of furniture can not only be beautiful but if made properly could last for more than a century. 

For beginners however, I would recommend first using the cheaper African Teak varieties. They tend to be softer and easier to work with and are half the price of CP Teak. But be aware that some Teak varieties tend to be very oily and do not dry well; avoid these if possible.

As for CP Teak I learnt that buying really good pieces can be a tricky business. Initially, I used to pick up pre-cut pieces bundled in lots of four because they were the cheapest and I thought they were a bargain. However, over time I have found that the cut pieces are usually the rejects and should be scrupulously avoided as they contain pieces with excessive knots, streaks and so on. Good CP Teak is best purchased as one large thick piece of timber (called fantas in north India), which can later be cut to size or sliced into planks.

Other Varieties

There are a couple of varieties of wood the beginner could try out without thinking too much about it. These are Pine and Spruce, both classified as softwoods from temperate zone countries like Canada and New Zealand. Spruce tends to be a little stringy but is cheap, easily worked and great for stuff like shelves, boxes and so on. Pine is harder and comes in several varieties of which the most common is Pinus ponderos. Pine is harder than spruce but equally easy to work. Both varieties do not stain well and some skill is required to finish them. But these are extremely useful varieties as they can be used in a variety of situations.

Explore other varieties by all means but be aware that many of them have shortcomings that one needs to be aware of. Saal, for instance, is a hard but easy to work wood; its great disadvantage is that it can split and is best used as big thick pieces such as in door and window framing. Mango wood is soft and does not stain well. Other varieties cannot take load too well and will sag distressingly over time.

Yet each variety has its uses and is suitable in different contexts. But it takes time to figure all that out and I haven’t reached there as yet. I therefore tend to be a little conservative while choosing wood for my projects. That does not mean of course that I do not experiment with new wood varieties – I do but am circumspect.

Indranil Banerjie
9 July 2013

Comments

  1. You've mentioned that plywood is not suitable for all projects. Do you have any examples?

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  2. Criminal: Plywood is not suitable for projects that involve the use of joints such as dovetails, mortise and tenons and many others. Frame and panel construction is another example. Moreover, plywood can never, in my humble opinion, match the elegance of wood; it most certainly cannot be used to create carvings, mouldings and many similar shaped products. I suppose, one could use plywood for making a chopping board but it would never be functionally or stylistically equivalent to one made of end grain exposed wood.

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  3. Very good piece of information on wood. Thank you.
    Joints used on wood cannot be applied to plys. Joints in ply can only be of glue, and Nut&Bolt(no screws or nails). As far as I can see corner joints cannot be strong unless you use a 3D dimension support for corner.
    The best use of ply is for book shelves and cabinets. Furniture is best in wood especially for carving. But these days steel furniture is popular because of strength and weight advantage. Just in my view.

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  4. Praveen: Screws can be used in plywood. There are special types of screws as well as screws with coarse or wide threads. These screws can grip the plywood layers very tightly and form a good bond. Glue is also used to strenghten joints held together by screws.

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  5. hi Indranil, May be you have point here. I haven't heard of them. I avoid them because ply is non-elastic. The holes remain exactly the same and can't grip the screws. Just in my experience.

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  6. Hello Indranil,
    Where do you buy rubber wood boards? Are they sold in the plywood/glass shops?

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  7. Sridhar: In Delhi and its suburbs rubber wood boards are available at most shops that stock plywood and natural wood. The smaller stockists do not always keep them; you might have to search a bit but it should not be difficult to find.

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  8. Thanks Indranil. Here in Bangalore, I find that stores are of two main types: the first are those that stock block boards, plywood and glass and second are the "timber depots" (those that stock natural wood sold in cubic feet). I always find that the bigger shops do not care much for us hobby woodworkers who buy a couple of boards at a time compared to the big customers who take away wood for a house construction but I will use your advice and go to one of the bigger shops and ask for the rubber wood boards.

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  9. Sridhar: Unfortunately you are quite right about the poor attitude of most timber stockists in India; they do not seem to realise that the small buyer eventually buys a lot. As for rubber wood try this website for dealer information: http://rubberboard.org.in
    They have a page with the list of dealers in different cities across the country. Best wishes.

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  10. Thanks Indranil! I found one store here selling 3/4th inch rubber wood board at Rs. 120 per sqft. Is that a comparable figure to what you have paid? I think that is quite steep compared to good quality marine ply. Please correct me if I am wrong. I don't want to get taken for a ride at this store. Thank you!

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  11. Sridhar: I think I paid about Rs 110 per square feet of 3/4 inch rubber wood. Yes, it is more expensive than plywood, the best grade of which is about Rs 100 per square feet. But then plywood requires veneering or painting while rubber wood can be finished directly.

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  12. That's definitely around the same price. Thanks for the prompt response! I agree with you about the finishing - I have an imported dining table made of a finished rubber wood top and it looks really nice.

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  13. Hi Indranil,

    Just would like to know if Silver Oak(Grevillea robusta) can be used for Wood Working? If yes, What can be made out of it. I have about 10-15 trees in my Property which is very old and ready for harvesting.

    Regards,

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    Replies
    1. Joyson, I have no personal knowledge of Silver Oak, never having worked with any but I believe it yields an excellent timber, which is durable and workable. Lucky you!

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