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Wonderful Woods of the West - Western Pennsylvania that is

Updated on November 11, 2014

Thinking outside the wooden box.

Working with wood can be a very rewarding pastime. One nice thing about wood working is that you can just touch the surface and make a simple birdhouse or go all out build furniture and cabinets. The only limit is how much time and effort you are willing to invest. With the advancements of the internet assistance and ideas are limitless. Most boys’ first experience with woodcraft was Junior High Woodshop. I think at one time or another everyone had a bird feeder in the yard they made in shop. I remember the excitement that I had when we were given a stack of boards, a handsaw, and some sloppily written plans. That excitement soon waned when I realized it would the entire 9 weeks to make the project. When the teacher needed to kill time he made us sand the wood. There was more sawdust than wood at the end of the day. But at home you had the freedom to play and experiment with and scraps you could find. Dad was happy that were interested in something other than television that he allowed us to freely mess around in his workshop.

Places like Lowes and Home Depot are filled with those grown up boys drooling over all types of machines for wood working. You can hear conversations between spouses about how necessary a certain type of saw is. “I can easily build that plant stand you wanted and still save us money in the long run.” “Yes, I need that to go with it, it will work so much better and the stuff I make you will be wonderful.” I love to hear that kind of talk because I get pointers of how to approach my wife with the same lines.

There is so much creativity since the days of the old birdfeeder. Just a few moments skimming the net and you can find some amazing talent when it comes to wood. So yes indeed think outside the box.

Popular species of lumber available

Below you will find a chart of various types of hardwood lumber available in Western Pennsylvania. To the right of the species is a list of the mechanical characteristic of that specie. This chart only contains lumber that is considered hardwood. The term hardwood is not based on the hardness of the lumber but on the type of lumber. Hardwood lumber are deciduous trees while softwood lumber are conifer trees. Sometimes there is confusion on this point since some conifers like hemlock are actually harder than aspen which is considered a hardwood. Its an easy mistake to make.

The rating system is as follows

  1. Poor - The type of lumber is does not perform well in this aspect and should not used in the manner unless extensive knowledge of the specie is involved.
  2. Acceptable - The type of lumber may be difficult to use in the manner. Some extra knowledge may be needed to get good results.
  3. Good - The type of lumber works well in the technique and results should satisfactory.

Machining is based on rip sawing and crosscutting of each specie of wood. Tests done with circular saws and band saws were employed.

Gluing is based on clamped edge gluing and determining the strength of the joint compared to the of the wood itself. Joints with a rating of 3 are stronger than the wood grain strength.

Screwing is based on a pre-drilled lumber and countersinking screws where distance from end stock was 3 inches.

Finishing was determined by a variety of factors. The factors were easing of planning and sanding, how well each specie accepted stain, and how well surface finishes such as polyurethane adhered.

Hardness is based on the Janka Hardness Scale. You can find more more information about how the scale is based at the following website. JANKA

Hard Maple
Soft Maple
Red Oak
White Oak
Black Walnut

Western PA

Not all wood is created equal

I have worked with wood in some capacity my entire life. At times it’s a love hate relationship since I am not always happy with my end product. Most of that is my fault, but as I have aged and gotten more patient I have seen my success increase. Luckily I now work directly in the wood industry so I am like a kid in a candy store at times with my eyes wide seeing what I can have next. I find myself looking for odd pieces of wood that would otherwise be thrown out and hoarding it for some future project.

I have not included all of the available species in my area but only the most common or most sought after. Clearly Red Oak and Cherry have always been in high demand. Hard Maple has been very popular lately but there are desires in other species as well.

Hickory for example has seen a huge push in production in the last few years. Many people have been seeing hickory as a desired option for kitchen cabinetry as well as molding and other finishes in their homes. The cost factor behind the price of hickory in the home is not the value of the wood since it sells rough for the same price as poplar. No, the cost increase comes in the difficulty in preparing the wood. The hardness and other properties of hickory make it very tough to work with. It dulls blades twice as fast as other species. It will get a burnt edge during cutting that is undesirable in the finished product along with any number of other problems. Skill wood workers have taken on the challenge and the cost of that challenge is passed on to the end user.

High end hickory cabinets with obvious problems
High end hickory cabinets with obvious problems
Blowup on the left shows a poor choice since the lumber has wane showing. Blowup on the right shows where the wood is warped and pulling away from the cabinet frame.
Blowup on the left shows a poor choice since the lumber has wane showing. Blowup on the right shows where the wood is warped and pulling away from the cabinet frame.

Pros and Cons of Various Species

As I touched on briefly before not all wood is the same. Below you will find a few tips that will help you in selecting the proper wood for your needs.

CHERRY(Black Cherry, American Black Cherry)

PRO: Cherry is probably the most sought after wood for its genuine beauty. Cherry has a natural deep red that stands out when finished properly. As hardwood goes its easy to work with and stands up to wear and tear really well. Its is one specie that has about every good point you can ask for.

CON: The cost is the major factor in the use of cherry, however lately the costs of upper end hardwoods have been leveling out.

ASH (White Ash, Green Ash)

PRO: The price point of ash is relatively low. It is easy to work with and stands up well to marring and regular abuse. For this reason it is many times used in flooring for brighter cleaning look room.

CON: The highly varying grain allows for stain to penetrate the open grain easily but the tight grain will not accept stain very well. A surface stain can be used that is a stain and a urethane mixture to cover the grains evenly. However, this is not recommended for flooring.

SOFT MAPLE (Box Elder, Silver Maple, Red Maple)

HARD MAPLE (Sugar Maple Rock Maple)

PRO: Soft Maple is not an actual specie of Maple. It is a group of maples that are different from Hard Maple. Soft Maple is easier to work than Hard Maple. It is considered the poor mans cherry since it is widely stained to look like cherry. Shh it's a secret.

CON: The price of maple is on the increase and much of it is being exported. The maple contains some very unique grain variations that are highly sought after but they can be hard to with even though it is very appealing. Hard Maple is much harder to work with since it density is so high and its tendency to split is a problem. Also many people use this for making Syrup so there is a struggle between the two sides.

RED OAK (Black Oak, Pin Oak, Scarlett Oak)

WHITE OAK (Rock Oak Chestnut Oak)

PRO: Oaks in general are a very well rounded wood that is easy to work with and moderately priced. Whites are slightly harder to work and contain a green to yellow cast compared to the red.

CON: Open grain makes painting oak a difficult process. Over use has made the desire for oak cabinetry take a back seat to painted cabinets thus lower the demand and value, but that is on the upswing lately.

POPLAR (Tulip, Yellow Poplar)

PRO: This is a very economically priced wood. Even though there is a high demand the poplar tree grows quickly and is in ample supply. With a tight even grain and semi-hard surface poplar is excellent for painting. The wood is soft enough to machine well, but hard enough to stand up to limited abuse.

CON: Unless it is stained or painted the greenish, brown streaking is not desirable. This wood should be used outdoors as it will deteriorate quickly even with treatment.

WALNUT (Black Walnut)

PRO: Walnut has a natural beautiful dark purple to black color that accepts finishes well and machines well for that matter. Walnut has sections of white creamy color wood. Manufactures will steam these pieces with walnut sawdust and the white will turn to the color of the rest of the wood. Widely used for gun stocks.

CON: The expense of walnut is its downfall. Its price point is almost 3 times as much as standard hardwoods. When using a piece with irregular grain it has a tendency to tear out during planning. Sometimes it is mistake for Butternut which another common wood in Western PA but side by side there is a clear difference.

HICKORY (Shagbark Hickory Pignut Hickory)

PRO: Strongest available wood in this part of the country. It is excellent where strength is key in the product. Its use has increased lately for more of an interior cabinet wood from one that was just used for its mechanical strength.

CON: Very difficult to machine and work with. The low cost of the woods is increased because it is problematic in the wood shop.


PRO: It has a nice golden cast to certain parts of the grain that make it very attractive. Since it is soft it is very easy to work with. Has a wonderful smell when being sawn.

CON: Since it is soft it will mar easily and crack under strain. It is not widely used so availability might be limited.

This is not the end.

Truly there are over 2 dozen species of trees that readily grown in North America that are considered manufacturable. There are probably 3-4 subspecies under those bringing the number well over 100. These listed about are some that are some of my favorite and/or that are very popular. I wanted to make a link to a few places for plans but it would not allow me. However, Wood Magazine publishes free plans once in a while and they are a very nice place to learn new tips. Please go and try to make something out of wood. It’s out greatest renewable resource.

© 2014 Foodeee


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    • Susan Recipes profile image


      4 years ago from India

      Thanks Foodeee for sharing this informative hub. Voted up.

    • Foodeee profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for your comment Eric. Yes it seems you are never done working on your home. Just when you think its over something needs replaced. HAHA thanks!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Wonderful, my mom said that when she was done building onto our home that she would not be breathing. So I was lucky to grow up with this stuff. We also had land with a forest. Our best wood was Black Walnut and our worst was Box Elder.

      Thanks for some great memories recalled.


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