Copyright 1989 - 2006 John T. Kramer
First published in International Woodworking Magazine as Alburnum's Almanac
The following listing is a selected representation of woods commonly used in North America during the early nineteenth century. Some of the unique features and suitability of various specie to particular purpose is noted.


Primarily used for charcoal in making gunpowder. Holds tacks well as upholstery frames. Durable under water well suited to objects repeatedly wet. Good firewood few sparks.

Dense interlocking grain suitable to mallets and mauls. Can be finished with only a chisel or knife, turns well. Wears smooth with use good for long wearing moving parts like spinning wheels, bobbins, pulleys, and shuttles for looms. Resists cracking and checking when seasoned and imparts no flavor when used for cooking utensils; dough boards, spoons, ladles, bowls, &c.

Lightweight, springy and weathers well it makes excellent baskets and seat bottoms as it also splits readily. A good choice for bent or bowed pieces, like wheel felloes snowshoe frames, or ones taking shock as in shooting bows and striking tool handles. Unusual firewood as it burns well green or seasoned.

Not long lived weak soft wood was easily fashioned into implements but, is difficult to finish is plain and resists stain, and decomposes readily. Was occasionally used for temporary forts and outposts as the light logs were easy to cut and move. The inner bark after slight decay makes excellent tinder.

Easily carved and finished into bowls, scoops, spoons, cups, shovels and other necessities of life. Linden is used for sound deadening in musical instruments. Cut thin is readily bent and formed into square or round boxes. First choice for dry cooperage storing tea, flour, sugar, meal, &c. Paint and glue brushes can be made by pounding the ends of green twigs.

Close grain dense wood that seasons well with only minor checking, tends not to warp. Fresh beech will split when nailed, seasoned will not. Stable when well seasoned hence ideal for plane bodies, wooden screws for vises, clamps and presses. Some old trunks would rot in the middle providing habitat for bees, often felled to recover honey then sawn, hollowed more, fire hardened and used as "gums" for storage of grain or watering troughs. Fine for kitchen utensils.

Can be tapped like maples for syrup. Bark used extensively for boxes and storage containers as well as canoes; has been used for cooking pots. Highly figured it can be used for furniture and veneers. Strong and durable it is brittle and nail holes are best pre-drilled. Pounded and frayed branches make serviceable brooms.

Though brittle and needing pre-drilled nail holes it turns and carves beautifully. Seldom found without some wave or curl to the grain. Dense close grained and sometimes difficult to plane when highly figured.

Easily split is well suited to snake rail fences. Bark is used for tanning leather as it is rich in tannin. Straight grain is well suited to large members of household looms.

Excellent for dugout canoes needs to be hollowed when green. Inner bark is used as winter food for livestock as well as fire tinder.

Primarily used for charcoal in gunpowder it was used extensively for wearplates, bobbins, pulleys and shafts because of smooth wearing qualities. Rots easily in the weather and is susceptible to insect damage. Young slender shafts were favored for arrows.

A strong tough wood that resists splitting due to its interlocked grain was used for parts requiring exceptional strength; wagon hubs, knotty boards used for the wagon boxes. Early water pipes, wharves, piles, barge and fishing boat hulls all were made of elm because of its excellent resistance to water. Readily rived when green into the most durable shingles, it is nearly impossible to split when well seasoned. Sawn into clapboards it was preferred sheathing for homes and buildings. Burns well once started it has an unpleasant odor to its smoke. Requires long careful seasoning to prevent warping and shrinking. Lightweight and bendable was used for bowbacks and windsor seats. Furniture frames hold tacks well, longest lasting coffins, used for bowls and barrels. Nearly wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease.

Like beech sweetgum hollows with age providing honey and large containers. Twists, warps, curls and shrinks while seasoning; weathering well and easy to paint used extensively for house trim.

Easy to split as ash or oak it was primarily used for firewood, takes a fine finish with oil. Good legs for short stools.

We eat the nuts, enjoy the smoke flavor in cooking, make ink and dye of the husks, switch the youngin's, among the best firewood, it is among the most versatile of woods. The bark was woven into seat bottoms, used for lashing, or woven into baskets. Strong and resilient is excellent for tool handles, treenails, pegs, dowels, shooting bows, barrel hoops, arrows, shafts, wooden screws, bows of ox-yokes, bowback chairs, strong legs and spindles and a lot more. It wears well but, the surface roughens with use. Roots and burls being tougher with more interlocked dense grain they are fine for mauls and mallet heads.

The whitest wood it must be cut in winter and worked before warm weather to prevent a light bluish tinge spoiling the ivory color of the whitest wood. Difficult to dry without distortion is cut into small pieces to season. Used primarily in marquetry and inlay or layered with ebony for purfling or stringing of instruments like violins. Can be ebonized as a substitute for ebony.

A generic name given to the hardest wood in the area. Hornbeams are oft called ironwood. Whatever you call ironwood it is generally used for digging sticks, throwing sticks, firewood, mallet heads, shuttles, bobbins, war clubs, and cogs of gears.

Easy to split the thorns make it difficult to handle. Resistant to rot it makes good fence posts if, as with all, they are put into the ground up side down; to resist the capillary action of ground water. Tough and ready for abuse it makes excellent trunels and harrow teeth. Preferred firewood for cooking it offers long lasting hot coals.

Much like tulip-poplar it drys well with moderate shrinkage and serves as secondary wood for cabinetry and in interior joinery and trim. It turns and carves better than poplar as its hardness holds better detail.

Whether hard or soft, close grain and even texture make this readily turned, worked, or carved wood a perennial favorite of woodworkers the broad variety of color, texture, spalding and figure the owners. Properly finished is nearly iridescent with great depth and lustre, as it ages the richness of color, yellow or red, and patina is unequaled. Strong yet slender parts grace many beautiful designs employing this versatile wood. Providing syrup and sugar the wood makes the finest kitchen implements and cutting boards. Long wearing machine parts were made of this elegant wood.

Often called ironwood and weighing 55 lbs per cubic foot this tight grain wood is found only in western desert mountain country. If you can find a piece suitable to your project it'll make a goodun'.

Imported as fodder for silk worms the purple berries are delicious. Sometimes used for cabinet and trim the primary use was for inlay.

Strong, tough, resistant, easily split, good firewood, bendable, so useful it has been worshiped in past centuries. The unique cellular structure of white oak makes it ideal for wet cooperage, every part of this valuable tree found use. The bark is used to tan leather, the burls for bowls and mallets, the galls for ink, the wood for everything else. Easily worked it is suitable as a secondary wood in cabinet making; the open grain keys well the glue and is excellent ground for fine veneers.

The finest shooting bow wood, or never rot fenceposts which can be worked fifty years later into unequalled tool handles. The shavings make good dye. Dense, springy, tough, long wearing it serves as a heavy duty replacement for hickory or ash. Poor firewood as it sparks and pops noticeably, burns hot. The fruit, called hedgeapples, were stored away in nooks and crannies of cellars, cabinets and closets to discourage invasions of insects.

Used for tool handles, bowls, planestocks, and drawing instruments the primary uses were in inlay and marquetry. Strong, fine textured, tough and difficult to split it will distort while drying slowly if grain is irregular. It turns well and finishes smoothly but the grittiness of the fruit is rediscovered in blunted tool edges.

Whitewood was the general purpose wood of the south and midwest. Light, soft, straight grained, and easily worked it was made into everything from dugout canoes, cradles and chair seats to cupboards, tables and molded trim. Tulip poplar was the most common secondary wood in cabinetmaking and it takes stain and paint well, is easy to carve with sharp tools, and has a fie even texture excellent for floors furniture frames, shelving, musical instruments, sashes, door, and crossbanding veneer. The white sapwood and yellowish heartwood often have streaks of green, brown, blue or purple.

Called American or white ebony (the same genus as black) with a specific gravity greater than water it is strong, smooth wearing and resistant to impact. Shrinking considerably while drying with noticeable expansion and contraction with changes of humidity, it found use in textile shuttles, mallet heads and golf clubs.

Root beer and licorice are flavored with the roots and bark which also make good orange dye as well as delicious tonics and teas to ward off the chillblains and such. As firewood the smoke is exquisitely fragrant. Resistant to moisture, though not as strong as ash, it found use as butter churns which kept the butter sweet. A bedstead of sassafras insures pleasant dreams and sound sleep driving away the spirits that disturb.

Straight grained and fine textured, huge old trees may be hollow and suitable for storage gums. When quarter sawn the multitude of fine rays and flecked figure is called lacewood, when fumed called harewood. Most common uses were in inlay and veneering though many kitchen utensils including butcher blocks were made of it. Tending to warp while seasoning it makes the finest gluts.

Resistant to shock and changes of humidity; purplish cast if from the south, rich brown in the north; walnut was made into the finest furniture, most beautiful gunstocks, as well as hewn into beams for houses and barns. So plentiful that in many areas was held in contempt and called "black pine" because it wasn't as hard as maple. Also called "piss pine" because of the distinctive aroma in the shop while turning. Many fine shooting bows have been made of walnut. The husks make good wood, cloth or people dye.

The inner bark makes a fine tea to cure headaches, mixed with other barks, leaves and roots it was part of many smoking mixtures of our grandfathers. Saplings were woven into baskets, chicken coops and thatching; beaver hide hoops were bent of its branches; thin boards were steamed, creased and bent into boxes; cobblers made their "lasts" for forming shoes, hatmakers blocks for forming the hats were of willow as well. Pioneers built deer fences around their gardens setting a fifteen foot high sapling every five or six poles; this fooled the deer into thinking the entire fence was that high, so they don't try and jump it.

The oldest living thing and the largest living thing in the world are both called softwoods. Majestic Sequoia gigantea can live 3000 to 4000 years and attain heights over 270 feet, 36 feet in diameter at the base; stunted, gnarled, tenacious Methuselah is much older yet, a bristlecone pine clinging to life in the wind swept arid southwest.  The distinction between hard and soft woods is between porous and non-porous internal structure it does not necessarily, though generally does, refer to the specific gravity or density of the wood. The unique characteristics of softwoods made them indispensable to our ancestors lives.

Used for water storage casks on board ship as the wood kept the water fresh for months without algae growth. Makes unequalled fenceposts, crotches are highly figured and valuable for veneer. Is of the same family as Sequoia and redwood. The knees or fingers are used extensively in decorative lamps and such.

Light, strong, flexible, resistant to rot, repugnant to insects, fragrant, it has been a cornucopia of utility; light strong boats and canoe ribs, blanket chests and shingles, long lasting fenceposts, beautiful paneling or bent wood boxes all and more were best made from this useful wood. The bark is used in smoking mixtures and as excellent tinder, and burnt in ceremony. Expands and contracts readily, with no internal damage, with changes of humidity.

The blue berries are the chief flavoring agent in gin. Occurring in the desert west the harsh climate and blowing sand pack the wood so densely that tools quickly dull. Branches have been used for shooting bow staves as well as effective war clubs and digging sticks. Similar to cedar and used for same purposes.

Tough, strong and fairly heavy this wood serves well in bridges, houses, docks, wharves and piers. Weathering well it should be treated or charred before placing in the ground. Easy to work and readily finished it does not take stains well.

Different specie of pine grow in every part of the country. The light soft wood has been used for every purpose conceivable including masts for ships, homes of logs, the most common wood in use today: its primary importance in years past was for the production of Naval Stores. Blazed pine trees are drained of sap which is then distilled into tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin; further distillation yields camphene. Plentiful supply, easy to work and paint made this our most used wood for over 200 years.

A light strong wood not as resinous as pine; dries quickly with a fine texture. Used for masts, planking, oars, canoe paddles, sound boards and tops for musical instruments, the roots were used for lashing birch bark canoes and flavoring spruce beer. It is our second most commonly used wood.

For many old bow makers; it had to be yew. Close dense grain, strong and springy, fine textured and durable it sees limited use because of scarcity.

Long before the American revolution we were importing certain woods to specific purpose. Today we import a great number more because of more efficient shipping and distribution, and because carbide tools can stand up to the dulling effects of high silica contents most contemporary exotics are endowed with.

Must be dried carefully to avoid splitting, once dry shows little dimensional variation with fluctuations of humidity. Very dense grain which holds fine carved or turned detail, long wearing was often inlaid into the sole of planes at the point of most wear. Used for inlay and marquetry it was also made into combs, rulers, tool handles, navigational and surveying instruments.

Any plant offering a red dye used to be called "brazil" the premier red dyestuff was made of this special wood. Also known as pernumbuco it is used to make the finest violin bows, other uses include inlay and marquetry.

Inlays, surgical tool handles, philosophical instruments, buttons, chessmen and many more small things were made of this hard super dense wood. Primarily used for knife handles as the naturally waxy wood is unaffected by long immersion in hot soapy water.

Of fine even texture it nonetheless dulls tools due to its hardness. The blackest of woods it is used for purfling, fingerboards, piano keys, tool handles, walking sticks, &c.

The heaviest and hardest wood in the world is excellent for turnings, mallets, soles of planes, and for any purpose requiring resistance to wear like mortars and pestles, ships pulleys, bearings and bushings.

More durable than oak or ash, resistant to rot, dimensionally stable with little warping, the beauty and variety of figure and color is legendary. Used as veneer as well as lumber it has broad applications, chair frames, table tops, ship building, panels, doors, instruments, tools, musical instruments, and much more was made of this the most important imported wood of the early nineteenth century. Four types of mahogany were available known by from whence they came, Santa Domingan, extinct since Napoleon, was highly figured, Honduras the heaviest, Spanish or Cuban was of finer texture, paler color, harder and usually well figured. African was imported early but soon fell to disfavor as it won't hold glue and upon seasoning turns to a dis-agreeable dirty purple.

In all varieties is a dense oily wood that requires cleaning with strong vinegar before gluing, rub until no more red color comes off on the rag; the wood should be "keyed" before gluing especially veneer. Indian rosewood has the unusual property of not shrinking in either direction of the grain so is used for the most precise instruments of exact measurement, it is lighter than Honduras rosewood which is coarsely textured and difficult to finish, Brazilian is the most highly figured with sharp contrasts, tulipwood was the favored rosewood of the French. All were used for veneer, inlay, marquetry, tool handles; musical, medical, mathematical, navigational, and philosophical instruments of all description has a rosewood part or several. To obtain a uniform color stain with alkanet root, annotto seeds or dragon's blood.

Used extensively for veneer and inlays by Sheraton and Hepplewhite which influenced use in Colonial America. Often contrasted with dark woods in panels, tops and banding.  

Various trees throughout the world produce, in addition to lumber, fruit, & nuts: gums, resins, oils, waxes, &c. All of these gifts have specific uses. The finest varnish is made only with the products of trees; amber (fossilized tree resins) is dissolved in turpentine or wood alcohol. For extreme exposure (i.e., the pounding of the sea) pine tar, another tree product is the best wood preservative. Dry rot is prevented by good air circulation to the wood.
Warping is the natural tendency of wood as the grain tries to straighten itself during curing. The cup, crook, wind, bow, wain, etc. all indicate the exact location in the tree of the board. Warping defects are greatly reduced by quarter sawing the wood. Trees grown in the northern hemisphere are thinner on the North side of the heart due to magnetism. The thinner north rings are more brittle, weaker, and denser. Wood is stronger in the middle of the trunk than the branches. Knotholes are the terminals of branches, burls are disruptions to the cambium layer of the bark by damage or disease.
Charring the ends of posts before putting in the ground reduces rot. Rot, wet or dry, is a fungal growth, which breaks down the fibers and cells of the wood, that can be arrested and prevented best by natural products of trees.
Any tree with sweet sap can be sugared, every tree has sap, sugaring is the process of rendering down the sap by boiling or freezing to syrup or sugar. Best flow is on the south side of the tree above the main root and below a main branch. Trees which can be sugared include maple, boxelder, hickory, sugar pine, basswood, birch, and sweet gum. Pines and spruces are blazed for naval stores or scientific laboratory necessities.
When wood parts are made to wear against each other; like in window sashes, drawer glides or all the parts of a spinning wheel always use dissimilar woods wearing against each other to eliminate friction. Use open grain woods against close grain woods, use woods of similar relative hardness of different specie and little other lubrication will be needed. To increase friction use the softest wood available wearing against itself. Use lye soap to lubricate other folks mistakes.
Most timber weakens and rots when submerged in water for long periods. Some do not; birch, elm, cedar, oak are good examples. In New Jersey during the 1700's clear cut cedar swamps were mined for submerged logs which were dried out and split to shingles.
Food, shelter, tools, transportation, clothing, medicine, and comforts beyond description all are provided us by trees and their principal product wood. Without it we wouldn't be where we are now. If we kill all the trees we won't ever be again.