Varieties of hardwood lumber are the staple materials for the woodworker, particularly those who focus on fine woodworking projects such as furniture. However, the term hardwood can be a bit deceiving, as it has less to do with the "hardness" of the material than the species of the tree from which the lumber is harvested.
Hardwoods come from deciduous, or broad-leaved trees, as opposed to softwoods
, that are harvested from from evergreens. In general, hardwood species are typically harder than softwoods, although there are exceptions (balsa wood is very light and soft, but is considered a hardwood). Most hardwood tree species lose their leaves in winter, and generally offer a much wider variety of colors and textures than softwoods.
Which Hardwood to Choose?:
When preparing to build a project, the choice of which hardwood material to use can be a daunting question. To make it easier, start with determining how you want to finish the project. Will you stain or paint
If you choose paint for your finish, you won't want to waste your money on woods known for their color and beauty when stained, so avoid richly-colored species such as oak, maple, walnut or mahogany. For painted projects, poplar would be a much better choice.
However, if you want to stain or clear-coat the project, you'll have a number of choices to look through. Since your local home center megamart will probably only carry a couple of hardwood species (poplar and red oak are common) spend time at a fine wood supplier and look through the vareties available. They should be able to help you determine how each species will look when finished, which will go a long way toward refining your decision.
Location, Location, Location:
In addition to the type of finish you want, the location of the final installation should be considered when choosing a hardwood species. While it won't have as much bearing on furniture pieces to be used indoors, you may want to consider some more moisture-resistant species (such as cypress or the ever-increasingly endangered teak) for outdoor projects. Again, your local woodworking supplier will be able to help with this decision.
If you'd like to learn more about the differences between hardwood species, I can think of no better resource than R. Bruce Hoadley's 1980 masterpiece, Understanding Wood: A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology
. Not only does Hoadley detail nearly every species used for woodworking, he does an exceptional job at describing how to prepare, work with and finish these hardwoods. This is an industry-standard resource, one that I'd highly recommend to every woodworker.