Embarking on your own DIY carpentry or joinery project can be a satisfying challenge, but to ensure that you end up with a quality result you need to use quality materials. There are numerous varieties of wood that have properties suited to different projects, as well as many kinds of manmade boards that provide a cheaper alternative to wood. This rough guide to wood and solid wood substitutes aims to provide you with a good basic knowledge to achieve the best result from your DIY carpentry.
As well as adding a classic look and providing a durable, warm finish, wood is also the best material for functional tasks like providing battens and posts. The strength along the wood grain makes it ideal for supportive installations.
Wood can be purchased at the timber yard in standard lengths from 1.8m up to 4.8m (for sawn timber). It is more economical to buy the longest length possible and saw it down to the required size. If the wood is planed it may still be sold under the nominal size as it was prior to being planed, so check the measurement of the wood before you buy.
Sawn timber is rough in appearance. It is cut without finishing or smoothing.
Planed timer is smooth edged and is machine cut.
Wood purchased for internal use should be left in its intended environment for a few a days before it is cut to size. The warmth of the indoors may cause slight shrinkage and minor changes so allow it to settle first.
Ash, Beech, Cherry, Chestnut, Elm, English Oak, Imported Oak, Japanese Oak, Lime, Mahogany, Rosewood, Teak, Walnut.
Hardwood is renowned for its strength and durability. These qualities mean that it lasts considerably longer than other woods and as such, it comes at a higher price but it is a very effective furniture material. It is best to choose a hardwood that has established growth, although hardwood can sometimes shrink or warp. The outer sapwood is softer.
Ensure that the timber you choose has been stored to season correctly. Seasoning is the term used to describe the storage of timber in a stick drying pattern. It rests in this position for several years before being sold and manipulated. If the wood is not sufficiently protected under cover during this time it may receive permanent damage from water stains. Don't be fooled by aesthetics when choosing your piece; a clean length will not work as well as a more seasoned, older length.
Cedar, Deal, Hemlock, Larch, Pine, Redwood, Spruce, Whitewood, Yew.
Softwoods are less durable than their harder cousins, particularly when used in outdoor applications. They must be protected with paint or other coating to withstand damage from weather conditions and temperature change. Due to its greater vulnerability, softwood is cheaper to buy than hardwood.
To be used in loft construction such as rafters and joists, softwood should be applied with a preservative to protect it from rot and woodworm. Exposed floorboards will benefit from a lacquer application.
Be aware that many types of softwood have quite a high resin content which cause sticky pocket build up on the surface. These pockets and knots in the wood must be treated so that the surface seals before priming.
Beech - a pale coloured hardwood that ranges in colour from cream to a pink brown. It is a hard, strong material, but it does not endure like some hardwoods do. Beech is a good resistor and polishes well. It is used in general purpose fabrications as well as in furniture, toys, and floors.
Cedar - softwood that comes in reddish/brown variations. It withstands decay well, instead responding to the elements by developing a nice silver sheen. Cedar's sweet smell means that it is a good moth repellent, and as such is often used for chests of drawers or drawer lining.
Mahogany - this straight-grain hardwood shows off its red/brown colour beautifully when polished. It is a durable species, and maintains its shape against swelling and shrinkage. Mahogany is commonly found in furniture, alongside floors, panelling and veneers.
Maple - colour varies from white to a medium brown. It is strong and hard due to its density, and as such is suitable for wood turning. Maple has fine surface textures, and is used in furniture and flooring.
Oak - hardwood with colourings from light to dark brown. Whilst it is strong, tough and resistant to shrinkage it does bend well too. It is arguably the most popular hardwood in use, though it does contain tannic acid which is a metal corrosive, leaving blue stains on the wood. Oak is used in furniture, flooring, panelling and construction.
Pine - a pale yellow/white softwood that turns golden with age. It is easy to fabricate with, and upholds its form against warping, shrinking and expanding. Pine is commonly found in furniture, construction, and panelling.
Teak - hardwood that is yellow to deep brown. Durable and strong but very heavy, and it is this quality that causes tools to blunt. A dust mask should always be worn when fabricating with teak as it can irritate the lungs. Teak resists moisture and associated rot due to its oily composite. Frequently used in outdoor furniture, teak is also found in flooring, doors, and construction.
Manmade solid wood alternatives
Plywood and flakeboards are generally cheaper than solid wood, and are designed to sustain their form more effectively when exposed to heat and moisture.
As with buying solid wood lengths, it is more cost effective to buy full size boards measuring 2440 x 1220mm, although there are smaller sizes of 1220 x 610mm and 900 x 600mm. The standard millimetre thicknesses are 4, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 22; with 3, 25, or 35mm available in some board materials, going up to 50mm in worktop chipboard.
Avoid purchasing bent or curved boards as they are tricky to straighten. Once you have bought the boards they should be kept upright but with support behind so that they do not bend.
Plywood boards are comprised of veneers bonded together with the grains facing alternate directions. Sheets are bonded to both sides of the original piece to sustain an equal tension. The basic number of sheets in plywood is three, and so the wood is known as 3-ply, increasing to 11-ply and above. There are various kinds of plywood on the market to suit a range of construction requirements:
3-ply board - the basic, inexpensive ply board is used for a multitude of purposes including drawer lining and backing bookcases etc. It is not very rigid but is frequently used for light domestic purposes.
Exterior grade plywood - WBP plywood is an ideal choice for withstanding the elements in garden projects or anywhere that requires moisture resistance. It can be bought in thicknesses of 3mm to 30mm.
Marine plywood - this is comprised of water resistant hardwoods held together with a strong glue that is impervious to water, temperature change or mould.
Pine faced laminboard - more expensive and exclusive, this plywood has the conventional ply sheets on the outside, but the inner layers are made by gluing many thin strips of solid wood side to side.
Other forms of manufactured boards include:
Exterior grade flakeboard - another cheap option, this is formed from large wood flakes which are glued together against the board. This creates a strong material which can be used in loft flooring. Flakeboard, along with chipboard, is commonly used in the parts of construction that remain unseen.
Melamine faced chipboard - a well known form of this is Formica. The chipboard has a thin layer of plastic or melamine applied to be used as an easy clean surface or for storage units.
Hardboard - this is comprised of the small fibres from sliced up wood shavings which are then soaked in water. The soaked fragments are then pressed and heated to create the board. Hardboard is utilised as cupboard backing and is sold in thicknesses of 1.5mm to 12mm.
Medium density fibreboard - MDF is a particle board that is bonded with a resin. Its texture and smooth surface make it suitable for planning and shaping, as well as veneering and painting. MDF contains fine fibres which can irritate when the material is sawn. Moreover, the bond that holds the particles together is urea formaldehyde; sawing can release this and cause much irritation of the eyes and lungs.