Woodworking Wisdom & Know-How

Everything You need to Design, Build and Create


By Taunton Press

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From the experts at Fine Woodworking magazine, this complete and easy-to-follow resource has everything you need to know about the art of woodworking.

Woodworking Wisdom & Know-How is the essential go-to book for every woodworking project imaginable, from building kitchen cabinets to refinishing a deck, from the vast cache of Fine Woodworking‘s projects and advice. Topics addressed in this book include:
  • Types of Wood
  • Building a Workshop
  • Working and Finishing Wood
  • Design and Styles
  • Small and Large Projects

Each section is further broken down into chapters that cover specific skills, projects, and crafts for both the beginner and the advanced woodworker. Featuring step-by-step instructions, troubleshooting guides and discussions, and an appendix of essential resources for supplies, tools, and materials, Woodworking Wisdom & Know-How is your one-stop-shop for trusted, tried, and true woodworking advice.
This book is also a part of the Know-How series which includes other titles such as:
  • Country Wisdom & Know-How
  • Natural Healing Wisdom & Know-How
  • Craft Wisdom & Know-How
  • Garden Wisdom & Know-How


The Wood

Types and Species of Wood

Cherry: America’s Premier Cabinatewood

Maple: A Versatile Timber

Walnut: The Cabinatewood Par-Excellence

Red, White, and Live Oaks: A Versatile Trio

Pine: Special Charm from a Common Timber

Mahogany: Five Varieties of a Fine Furniture Wood

Ebony: The Dark Knight of Details

High-Quality, Low-Cost Woods

Overlooked Woods of the West Coast

Best Woods for Outdoor Furniture

Plywood for Woodworkers

Handling Plywood

Fine Furniture from Reclaimed Wood

Shopping for Lumber

Lumberyard Basics

Smart Shopping for Lumber

Grain, Figure, Moisture, and Movement

A Guide to Wood Grain

Understanding and Using Figured Wood

Water and Wood

Drying Wood

Understanding Wood Movement


Cherry: America’s Premier Cabinatewood

by Jon Arno

Of the hundreds of woods I’ve spent a lifetime studying, none has so captivated me as cherry. Even now, when I bring it into my shop, its pleasant scent, subtly warm appearance, and satiny feel soothe me with a sense of familiarity and comfort. And yet every time I choose it for a project, my confidence is shaken. This species often seems to have a hidden personality—always friendly but never totally forthcoming. There are, of course, tangible and physical reasons behind the mysteries and magic of cherry; at least, I’ve discovered a few of them.

In many ways, our native North American black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a nearly ideal cabinetwood. Its density, texture, stability, durability, working properties, color, and figure are as beckoning to some woodworkers as a cold beer on a hot summer day. And history would seem to second that conclusion, because cherry has figured prominently in American furniture. Museum-quality pieces turned out by skilled 18th-century cabinetmakers are among the finest examples of American craftsmanship of that period. Also, the Shaker craftsmen of the 19th century, who certainly knew a thing or two about practicality and function, chose cherry for much of their best work.

So, how could the beginning woodworker go wrong in selecting cherry? Actually, it’s surprisingly easy. In experienced hands, cherry yields results of uncommon beauty, and it deserves its place as one of the world’s most prestigious cabinetwoods. But learning the whims and ways of cherry is one of woodworking’s great challenges, and cherry bestows its many charms only upon those who toil for the privilege.

Why the Wood Can Vary So Much

You never can count on any two shipments of cherry being quite the same in either color or texture. Nor can you ever completely count on its consistency from board to board within a given shipment. While one board may display the classic flesh-pink color and subtly intricate figure that is most common to this species, another will reveal a noticeably wavy curl in the grain. The next may be peppered with jet-black gum pockets, while still another will be slightly coarser textured, perhaps even flaunting decidedly greenish or chartreuse highlights. And if you’re tempted to blame all of this inconsistency on sloppy handling and sorting at the mill, you’d probably be wrong. In fact, much of the varied lumber in each shipment you receive actually may have come from the same log.

The average cherry tree lives a hectic and stressful life because it is what ecologists and foresters refer to as a nurse tree. It performs the role of being one of the first species to get established when forest lands have been clear-cut or burned. Its roots help to hold the topsoil against erosion, while its foliage provides a sparse canopy for the retention of moisture and the protection of the seedlings of other species. In other words, cherry is a transitional player in the natural process of reestablishing a mature forest because it serves the needs of other species that will overtake it eventually. It helps to jump-start the reforestation process with its ability to disperse very quickly. Because birds eat the fruit and then pass the pit intact through their digestive systems, cherry arrives where it’s needed, so to speak, by airmail. Given this symbiotic relationship with birds, cherry can become established on fallow land even though the parent trees may be located many miles away. In fact, so mobile is this species that pockets of it exist along bird-migration routes as far south as Central America. Also, cherry grows rapidly in full sunlight, but it is exceptionally shade intolerant and doesn’t grow tall enough to compete for sunlight in the canopy of a forest with other more robust species like maple and oak.

What all this means from the woodworker’s perspective is that a typical cherry log represents a microcosm of perpetual change. Because a cherry tree spends its life struggling in an immature forest setting, exposed to constant shifts in the source of light and the ever-increasing competition from other species, it is in a state of constant adjustment. All trees compete for their place in the sun, but cherry virtually never wins. And as the surrounding canopy closes in above them, cherry trees often are weakened to a point where they are susceptible to infestation by insect larvae, triggering their natural defense mechanism to produce more gums. Those gums contain chemicals that affect cherry’s pigmentation, its patina-forming properties, and its potential toxicity—all topics of considerable importance to the woodworker.

A Color Like No Other

The chemical compounds produced by cherry, which wood technologists refer to as extractives, are the building blocks of the wood’s unique pigmentation. As with all species, once the living tree produces these extractives, they are transported inward through the rays, where they are stored in the inner wood tissue that eventually becomes heartwood. It is the greater concentration of these extractives in the heartwood tissue, and their tendency to form more complex compounds called polymers, that produces the wood’s natural heartwood color. With most species, these polymers develop more or less completely while the tree is still alive. They may oxidize and undergo subtle changes once the log has been milled, but the dominant pigmentation of most woods is relatively stable once the heartwood develops.

While cherry’s extractives do polymerize to some degree in the living tree and give the wood its initial flesh-pink color, they remain exceptionally reactive, even after the log has beenmilled. Unlike most other species, the extractives in cherry are photosensitive. They tend to darken, rather than fade, when exposed to light. There are a few other woods with photosensitive extractives—purple-heart, for example—but in most cases, the exposure to light causes a rather quick and complete conversion of their extractives into relatively stable pigments. Cherry is different: While the initial darkening effects of light can be seen almost immediately, continued exposure to light seems to result in an ever-deepening patina over the span of years or even decades. To be sure, strong light eventually will bleach the pigments in cherry, as it will in all woods, but it is a long time coming before it happens to cherry.

The patina that cherry develops is one of the key reasons cherry has such a dedicated following among experienced woodworkers. The beautiful translucence and ever-darkening depth of color can’t be faked, and there’s no substitute. But getting the most out of cherry isn’t an easy task, either when processing it from the log or when using it in the shop. As is the case with walnut, mills often steam cherry to make its color as uniform as possible. The heat generated by steaming darkens the sapwood in both species, but it seems to work more quickly and permanently with walnut because the extractives already present in the sapwood are more immediately and indelibly converted. At least up to the level of its raw, flesh-pink color, steamed cherry has this same initial advantage. However, the benefit is fleeting as its less stable, long-term patina-forming process kicks in.

I’m not certain whether the ultimate long-term color of cherry is more dependent upon differing quantities of extractives present in the sapwood versus the heartwood, but there is no permanent fix that will make cherry sapwood keep pace with the heartwood as the color changes over time. Woodworkers skilled in the art of touch-up staining can do wonders to mask the initial contrast between sapwood and heartwood, and the use of finishes that block ultraviolet light will retard the patina process, but nothing short of perpetual darkness will stop it. For this reason, most experienced cabinetmakers are a little more particular in avoiding cherry sapwood than they might be with other species.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with using cherry that contains sapwood, if your objective is to achieve a strikingly variegated appearance. But when you intentionally employ this artistic license, it is important to maintain a sense of balance so that the sapwood streaks are both plentiful enough to be an obvious part of the composition and well distributed throughout the piece.

From an artistic perspective, variegated cherry is just one of several legitimate options this species offers. I can think of at least four, or possibly five, subtly distinct cherry cabinetwoods: first, this variegated look, with its sharp contrast between heartwood and sapwood; the equally rustic look offered by the spotted or streaked appearance of gummy stock; the classic, mellow warmth you get when using top-grade, clear heartwood; and the fancier and more complex effect that comes from using a pronounced curly figure.

The fifth incarnation of cherry, and one of my personal favorites, is when the stock contains vivid greenish or chartreuse highlights. This unusual trait typically is seen in conjunction with stock that is a little coarser textured than normal and also is somewhat lighter in weight. It may in part be the product of cherry trees that have experienced spurts of unusually rapid growth, possibly in combination with something in the soil that interacts with one of cherry’s extractives to create the greenish highlights. But whatever causes it, this trait is beautiful to my eye. The highlights are fugitive, and stock with this unique pigmentation never seems to darken quite as deeply as typical old-growth cherry heartwood. As with any of the other four variations this species yields, it is important to sort the stock carefully and use whatever form you choose exclusively in any given project.

Admittedly, for the small-time avocational woodworker, being extremely picky when it comes to stock selection isn’t always an easy thing to do. Most hardwood retailers will allow their customers some reasonable freedom in sorting through their inventories. But in my experience, the best way to buy cherry is in the largest quantity you can afford. Because of the variability of cherry, I cannot overstress the advantage of having an abundance of it on hand in your shop while a project is in progress.

An Ideal Cabinetwood

Cherry is unique among cabinetwoods in that it is the only major timber belonging to the Rose family (Rosaceae). Its darker color, more pronounced figure, and unusual, light-stimulated patina also make it unique among the world’s most prestigious timbers.

Density: Medium

Stability: Good

Texture: Fine

Porosity: Diffuse

Durability: Good


North American black cherry primarily grows in the eastern half of the United States. Cherry trees reproduce with the help of birds that eat the fruit and distribute the seeds during migration.


Leaves are bright green, lance-shaped with serrated edges, and taper at both ends to a sharp point. Fruit is small (less than ½ in. dia.) and grows in clusters of six to 12 cherries, which become a dark, reddish black as they ripen in the early autumn.

The Quirks of Working with Cherry

No other wood is so demanding in every step of the woodworking process, from start to finish. Each cherry board needs to be chosen carefully at the beginning of the project. The woodworker who buys too little or miscuts a piece is in trouble. While the wood’s density and texture give it remarkably good machining and shaping qualities, cutting the joinery demands considerable concentration and care. Cherry’s brittleness causes it to chip more easily than most woods, and its natural gums burn almost instantly when exposed to friction from sawblades and router bits. To minimize heat buildup, use exceptionally sharp blades and bits. For the same reason, it is absolutely critical that the stock be passed at a steady rate of feed into shapers, routers, planers, jointers, and even sanders. Just a fraction of a second of stall in the rate of feed, and cherry presents you with virtually indelible and very dark burn marks. To avoid them, I prefer scrapers when working with cherry and use only a fine abrasive (220-grit aluminum-oxide paper) to remove the last vestiges of light scraper marks at the very end of the final prep-for-finish process.

The final finishing process also cannot be taken lightly. While some cherry has flamboyantly curly figure, virtually all cherry has a subtly undulating grain. This sneaky feature of the wood’s inconsistent anatomy is often missed by the inexperienced eye. However, the resulting variation it produces in the wood’s porosity can cause cherry to accept finishes unevenly. Even clear varnishes or penetrating oils can produce blotches or patches of uneven luster. And then there is the mystery of cherry’s light-sensitive patina-forming process: Patience pays a big reward to those who are willing to wait for the wood to darken from its exposure to light.

Maple: A Versatile Timber

By Jon Arno

Maple has something to offer every woodworker, from general contractors to turners. Even though maple’s inconspicuous figure lacks the striking contrast that gives ring-porous woods, such as oak and ash, their bold character, this diffuse-porous wood is subtly beautiful. Unlike colorful walnut or cherry, light-colored maple has warm brown accents and a translucent, opalescent quality in the way light plays off its surface. And most maple is easy to work and readily takes a finish, and can be used in anything from the finest furniture to packing crates, floors, bowling alleys and pins, cabinets, chairs and eating utensils.

Best of all, maple is exceptionally plentiful and often inexpensive. The latest USDA Forest Service statistics estimate that approximately 42 billion cu. ft. of maple stock (including both hard and soft maple species) is growing on timber lands in the Eastern United States. Most of it is relatively young second growth, but enough of it is of adequate size to produce sawtimber yielding more than 90 billion bd. ft. And this doesn’t include stands of bigleaf maple in the Pacific Northwest, maple in unharvestable reserves, or both soft and hard maple available for logging in Canada. Of the commercially important hardwood cabinetmaking timbers native to North America, only the oaks are more plentiful than maple. Sugar maple, Acer saccharum, which is harder than most oaks, is the most common maple cabineunaking wood; however, softer maples, such as red maple (A. rubrum), are also abundant and can be cost-effective substitutes.

There are about 125 species of maple distributed primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. About two-thirds of all these maples are native to China and the bulk of the remainder is spread out from England to Japan. North America claims only 13 native species and just 6 of these represent important commercial sources of timber. Despite the limited number of species, though, the United States and Canada provide the vast majority of the world’s total production of maple lumber. Commercially, the lumber is divided into two groups: hard maple and soft maple.

Differences Between Hard and Soft Maple

Hard maple is stronger than soft maple and is better suited to woodwork that takes abuse, such as floors and countenops. Hard maple is cut from two closely related species: sugar maple and the less plentiful black maple, A. nigrum. The woods of these two trees, which grow in the Northeastern and Central United States and Southeastern Canada, are virtually indistinguishable in appearance. While black maple tends to be slightly lighter in weight, sugar maple has an average specific gravity of 0.56 (oven dry weight/green volume). Both hard maples are about as heavy as northern red oak and heavier than black walnut and black cherry.

Even though all of the soft maples are substantially lighter in weight than hard maple (and therefore inferior for applications such as flooring), red maple really isn’t all that soft. Its average specific gravity is 0.49, which falls midway between that of black cherry 0.47) and that of black walnut (0.51). When it comes to first-rate domestic cabinetwoods, that’s pretty good company to be keeping. And red maple is more plentiful and usually much less expensive.

With a little careful selection, cost-conscious woodworkers can come up with some excellent wood among tlIe soft maples. The key is choosing the right species for any given job, and soft maples are diverse enough to span a great many applications. Most of the grain patterns found in hard maple also occur in soft maple, but some of the soft maple species actually possess more interesting color. For example, me heartwood of red maple, which grows throughout most of the Eastern United States, is usually darker man that of sugar maple. It has interesting gray highlights and sometimes dark, chocolate-brown markings.

The softest and lightest soft maple is box elder (A. negundo), which is found throughout most of me United States. It’s also me finest textured of me maples, making it very pleasant to work with and a favorite among turners. Bigleaf maple, a Western species, and silver maple (A. saccharinum), which is plentiful throughout the East, are the remaining two major U.S. timber-producing soft maples. Both of these species are relatively soft and easy to work, and they have the additional advantage of being much more stable man hard maple. In fact, bigleaf has an average volumetric shrinkage of only 11.6%, which is quite comparable to black cherry.

Maple’s Many Faces

In most woods, figure is produced by variation in texture between me springwood and summerwood. In maple, however, me figure is produced by bands of warmbrown- or amber-colored fibrous tissue demarcating the annual rings from the wood’s overall creamy yellow hue. Like the annual rings, the medullary rays in maple are much darker than the background tissue, and they pepper the tangential surface with short, thin lines, which are similar to the ray flecks in beech. But maple’s rays are softer and more subdued, like the weave of shear fabric. Even plain-figured maple, shown in me top, left sample on the facing page, seldom produces absolutely straight grain and me figure on its tangential surface usually curls and contorts like the veins in fine marble.

In some instances, ordinary maple trees may produce extraordinary figures, which are commonly referred to as fiddleback, quilted and bird’s-eye maple. Bird’s-eye figure ranks among the world’s finest and most sought after cabinetwoods. Curly figure (shown in me is sometimes called fiddleback or tiger-stripe maple and is often used for the back of stringed instruments, like violins. Quilted figure, which occurs most often in me Western bigleaf maple, A macropbyllum, is prized for tabletops and inlay. Only a small percentage of maple woods brought to market have these special figures, which are the result of abnormal growth. In some instances, the tree’s living, wood-producing layer (the cambium layer, located just inside the bark) develops spots that fail to produce wood tissue at a normal rate. While this process may not affect the entire tree, it generally persists for years, as the spots enlarge and build up layer upon layer of convoluted grain. Depending upon the degree of malformation and how you cut the log, a number of distinct figures may be obtained from a single piece.

Matching and Finishing Maple

Plain-figured maple machines exceptionally well and will hold very sharp details. In fact, the latin name for the maple genus, Acer, means sharp because lances and skewers made from it held a sharp point. Plain maple’s even grain allows it to be sawed, chiseled, handplaned or machine planed, or drilled without much chipping or tearout. When it is routed, it has a tendency to develop burn marks that are difficult to sand out, and so you must use a sharp, clean bit and keep your feed speed high. Because of hard maple’s density, working it with hand tools requires some muscle, but the results are gratifying. Figured maple, on the other hand, can be very difficult to handplane or scrape cleanly, and it requires using a plane with a surgically sharp blade. Hard maple turns so predictably and yields such defect-free products that it has long been favored for commercial production of round items: kitchen utensils, bowling pins, furniture parts, dowels, spindles, spools and heavy-duty conveyor rollers. And when hard maple is sanded on the lathe, it doesn’t gum up sandpaper as cherry does.

Few woods are as easy and as pleasant to finish as maple. It has a moderately high natural luster, and you can quickly smooth its surface with scrapers or fine-grit abrasives. Some soft maples can be more difficult to work to a smooth surface free of fuzzy grain, and they may require more sanding with fine-grit paper than hard maple. A single coat of tung oil on maple tabletops, counters and cutting boards may be sufficient protection against stains from food and drink spills. But bare maple does have adequate porosity to accept stain and allow glue to bond. Also, because of maple’s fine texture, you can finish it to a high gloss without using special fillers. Only a coat or two of light-bodied varnish is needed to build up a glassy smooth surface. And since maple is so hard, it supports virtually any finish without a great risk of denting or chipping.

There are no chemicals in maple that threaten its utility. Although there are minute traces of talmin in maple bark, it is absent from the wood. Volatiles in common varnishes, lacquers and glues don’t react adversely with maple to destroy their bond or affect drying time. In fact, given its fine texture, maple is excellent for painted projects because its featureless grain won’t telegraph through the finish.


Given maple’s pleasant working characteristics and subtle beauty, there is little mystery as to why it is used in so many diverse applications. But it is not suited to every purpose and indeed has some significant shortcomings. First of all, since hard maple is not very stable compared to most other popular cabinetwoods, woodworkers should prepare for wood movement. Hard maple’s average volumetric shrinkage of 14.7% (green to oven dry) is nearly 30% greater than that of black cherry (11.5%) and almost twice as large as that of Honduras mahogany (7.8%). Hard-maple spindles and tenons tend to loosen when exposed to seasonal fluctuations in humidity. Furthermore, hard maple has a rather pronounced tendency to warp because it develops severe stresses when drying. Its high volumetric shrinkage is compounded by a somewhat large difference between its 9.9% tangential shrinkage and its 4.8% radial shrinkage.

Another limitation is that maple has a low resistance to decay. Because maple lacks tannin or other strong chemical defenses often found in more durable woods, it is quickly attacked by fungi. On the positive side, though, the stains caused by fungi can producea very attractive spalted pattern, which is actually prized for use in cabinetry and in turned decorative bowls. Spalted box elder can be especially nice. It is susceptible to attack by the fungus Fusarium negundi, which produces beautiful, coral-colored streaks, rather than the usual brown or blue-black coloration found in most spalted woods. Spalted wood, however, must be thoroughly seasoned as soon as possible after the staining occurs in order to force the fungi into dormancy. Otherwise, the wood will structurally deteriorate as the fungi multiply and literally devour the wood tissue. Unless producing spalted wood is your objective, maple should be dried quickly to remove all surface moisture, before the fungi can get established. Even when properly dried, though, maple is a very poor choice for marine or exterior projects of any kind.

Walnut: The Cabinetwood Par-Excellence

by Jon Arno

In lists of the various properties of cabinetwoods, American black walnut, Juglans nigra, stands near the middle in every category. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of woods that are stronger and denser. There are a few woods with better figure and richer color. Some hardwoods are substantially easier to work than walnut. And many fine cabinetwoods are a good deal less expensive.

Yet walnut is so flexibly appropriate for a broad range of uses that, overall, it rivals any other wood in the world. It might, in fact, be the very best cabinetwood of all. What does walnut bring the party that causes it to stand out? To answer this question, we must consider not only its physical properties, but a number of subtle things that appeal to other senses and to our emotions.

Take gunstocks, for example. Of the four woods commonly used, only walnut is rated “excellent” in the physical attributes a gunstock requires. It has been the favored gunstock wood since colonial times, long before laboratory testing could confirm our pioneers’ instincts. The substitutes, hard maple, yellow birch, and sycamore may surpass walnut in one or two respects, yet, in the final balance, walnut becomes the standard, the perfect gunstock wood. In weight it is heavy enough to absorb some recoil, yet not so heavy as to be arm-wearying. For its weight, it is outstanding in strength, hardness and shock resistance. It is stable enough not to endanger the precise alignment between metal and wood. It machines beautifully. Walnut’s dark color, aesthetics aside, is a particular asset-the runners-up all require staining lest they be conspicuous in the field, and are, therefore, more difficult to touch up if dented or scratched.


On Sale
Nov 17, 2014
Page Count
480 pages

Taunton Press

About the Author

The Taunton Press has been a leading publisher of books and magazines on woodworking, home building and design, fiber arts and sewing, crafts, gardening, and cooking for the last thirty years. Their magazines include Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, and Fine Gardening.

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