Hardwoods are ideal for most woodworking projects because they combine good looks with proven durability. However, quality comes at a price, but you don’t have to spend much to procure some fine hardwoods. So, what are the best affordable hardwoods for woodworking?
The top affordable hardwood for most applications is black cherry. It is a durable, inexpensive, machinable hardwood with a hardness rating of 950 lbf. However, it still hand-carves and steam-bends well and can be used indoors or out, thanks to its rot resistance.
The only instances I wouldn’t recommend black cherry are if…
- You need a cheaper alternative. Red oak costs less but doesn’t offer the same strength as black cherry.
- You want a ton of lumber. Hard maple is the most abundant hardwood in North America.
- You need high hardness and beauty. Pecan is attractive and twice as hard as cherry.
- You need hardness and flexibility. Used for sports equipment and handles, white ash works extremely well.
This article will discuss the top affordable hardwoods for woodworking. I’ll discuss their benefits, drawbacks, common uses, and specifications. Let’s get started!
Most Affordable Hardwood: Oak
Red and white oak are durable and inexpensive hardwoods with natural beauty and even color, which makes them desirable for unfinished wood applications. That said, they take staining and painting without too much work.
Oak takes machining well and can be worked with hand tools. You also shouldn’t have trouble tracking it down. It can take a beating, so while it takes extra time and effort to work it, the reward will last for generations.
Oak is a heavier hardwood, so consider the weight of the finished project when making larger oak applications that you’ll have to move around. If you’re moving it outside, red oak won’t hold up to the moisture like white oak.
Bottom line: Whatever you make out of oak will last forever, so if you don’t mind the extra work involved, oak is a good option. It’s not hard to find and relatively cheap.
- Turning projects
- Exterior/interior doors
- Boats (white oak)
- Wine and spirit barrels (white oak)
- Affordable price. Red oak is inexpensive and abundant, making it the most economical hardwood on the list.
- Exceptional durability. Oak is famous for being tough, making it excellent heirloom furniture.
- White oak has high rot resistance. White can withstand exposure to moisture (like barrels of liquids) much better than red oak.
- Flexibile. Both oak species are good for steam-bending without much effort.
- Ages-old traditions. White oak becomes barrels for sundry wines and spirits that must be aged in charred, new, white oak barrels.
- Red oak rot resistance. Red oak isn’t nearly as water-resistant as white oak.
- White oak price. White oak is slightly more expensive than red oak because it weighs more and is less abundant.
- Hand tool trouble. Oak is harder to work with hand tools than other woods on this list.
|Average Dried Weight||43.8 lb/ft³ (red); 47 lb/ft³ (white)|
|Rot Resistance||Low (red); High (white)|
|Color range||Red-orange tan to English leather (red) sandy-brown to caramel (white)|
|Price Range (4/4 thickness, per board foot)||$2–3|
Most Abundant Hardwood: Hard Maple
Hard maple is a popular wood for:
- Basketball floors
- Baseball bats
- Butcher block countertops
Woodworkers know hard maple for its enduring quality. It takes low-speed machining well but can smoke at higher speeds.
It’s also very dense, so it is a difficult wood to hand carve; however, it turns very well, making it a great choice for bowls and other turning projects.
Suppose you’re looking for a hardwood with ample beauty in its unfinished and finished states. In that case, maple is prized for it, explaining why figured maple lumber can get pretty expensive. But you don’t have to drop a lot—or look too hard—to get good-looking hard maple.
Bottom line: Hard maple stands up to daily wear and tear and can last for decades. It’s slightly more expensive, especially if it contains figures. It has low rot resistance but still withstands temporary moisture if dried thoroughly afterward.
- Sports equipment
- Sports flooring
- Cutting boards
- Butcher blocks
- Strong and durable. The second hardest wood on our list, hard maple, stands up to a lot. It will last for ages, even under heavy traffic conditions like gym floors.
- Esthetic appeal. Hard maple often develops stunning figures woodworkers drool over.
- Steam bends well. Hard maple isn’t too hard to bend, so myriad shapes are possible.
- Low rot resistance. Maple can take some water, but not too much, or it’ll swell and rot.
- Needs low-speed tools. Hard maple is more susceptible to burning under high-speed machining friction.
- Slow hand carving. Hard maple can be difficult to work with hand tools as it is one of the hardest woods on this list.
|Average Dried Weight||44.0 lb/ft³|
|Color range||Buttercream to espresso|
Best Overall Hardwood: Black Cherry
Black cherry wood has a beautiful caramel-bourbon coloring when dry, making hand-carved cherry pieces pop. For this reason, black cherry is a prized and sought-after wood, and it’s widely available and not too expensive.
Black cherry is the softest wood on this list and has the highest workability factor. Hand tools and machines work equally well on it, making it ideal for most projects.
Spoon carvers love to work with it because it doesn’t fatigue the hands and tools as quickly as the other hardwoods on this list. Also, it isn’t plagued with grain switches and knots.
Black cherry’s high rot resistance lends it equally to indoor and outdoor creations, including structural and decorative pieces on boats.
You can steam bend cherry fairly easily, but as Fine Woodworking noted, you must provide a compression strap. Compression straps allow steamed wood to bend without breaking in this way.
Bottom line: Black cherry is the best affordable hardwood for most woodworking applications. It can go inside or outside, welcomes hand tools and machines, and looks stunning.
- Electric guitars
- Turned pieces
- Exquisite appearance. Black cherry wood has a beautiful copper-red color, making it perfect for any application where looks count.
- Flexibility. Steam bends well and is soft enough for finer work but hard enough to last. It’s ideal for a wide spectrum of designs.
- Weather-ready. High rot resistance means it can take water without warping or rotting.
- Workability. It’s easy to carve, and easy on the hands and tools.
- Machinability. Accommodates various tools and machines, so you can use them in any project.
- Solid availability. Black cherry isn’t threatened or endangered and can be found across the country at reasonable prices.
- Potential staining blotches. Staining black cherry is not as straightforward as other hardwoods, but you can correct the blotch-prone areas.
- Softer than other woods on this list. If you’re looking for a heavy and hard wood, black cherry may not be ideal.
|Average Dried Weight||35.0 lb/ft³|
|Color||Peach to bourbon|
Most Durable Hardwood (On This List): Pecan
Pecan produces one of the most durable hardwoods you can buy. It’s the hardest wood on this list at 1,820 lbf, so working it requires more effort than other picks.
That doesn’t mean you can’t work it, though. I’ve carved pecan, and while I had to work harder, I could still make good progress with very sharp tools.
Pecan will dull blades quicker than every other wood on this list. Still, the result is a rock-solid, attractive, heirloom-quality piece.
It is not especially rot-resistant, so I don’t recommend using it outdoors unless you seal it and keep it away from moisture.
Bottom line: Pecan is the hardest to work and heaviest wood on this list. That said, it’s also one of the most attractive and durable, so you can hand it down for generations if you protect it well.
- Turned pieces
- Cutting boards
- Unfinished beauty. Pecan is a stunning hardwood, especially if sapwood and heartwood share the same plane. The distinctive cream-to-chocolate shift gives you tons of contrasting color combinations.
- Good price. For a wood that delivers so much lasting, beautiful quality, pecan is priced well.
- Flexibility. Despite its status as the heaviest and hardest wood on this list, pecan responds surprisingly well to steam-bending.
- Toughness. The high Janka rating means it takes 1,820 pounds of force to drive a small steel ball halfway into a piece of pecan. So, yes—it can take anything you throw at it.
- Harder than hard maple. Pecan is harder to work than hard maple. This is especially true when using hand tools. If you’re assembling pecan with screws, I highly recommend pre-drilling.
- Dulls instruments fast. Can dull sharp tools and blades faster than other hardwoods.
- Low rot-resistance. Pecan dries slowly and can’t handle humidity or get too wet, so it needs a little extra care.
|Average Dried Weight||46 lb/ft³|
|Color||Creamy white to chocolate brown|
Top Flexibility and Strength: White Ash
White ash is a straight-grained, even-finishing, dense hardwood. It’s preferred for baseball bats, hockey sticks, and tennis rackets because the straight grain provides excellent strength and flexibility.
You can stain or paint ash however you like. Still, many give it a minimal finish to bring out its naturally lighter and brighter coloring.
The downside to using ash is the emerald ash borer beetle, whose proliferation has critically endangered ash trees in North America.
Bottom line: Use ash sparingly and see what action you can take to stop the spread of invasive species in your area. White ash is a great choice if you want ash for a project, especially one requiring consistently straight grains.
- Sports equipment
- Turned pieces
- Appealing natural appearance. A room-brightening light color looks good in most applications.
- Great for tool handles. Ash absorbs shock to help protect your hands from damage and fatigue.
- Flexibility. White ash is one of the most preferred woods for sports equipment since it’s tough and flexible.
- Steam bends well. White ash maintains integrity under bending between red and white oak at 1,320 lbf.
- Uncertain future. Emerald ash borer beetles have killed white, black, green, and blue ash species in the U.S. and Canada for decades. The IUCN considers ash trees in North America an endangered species.
- Rot and insect target. Its high insect susceptibility and low rot resistance affect ash’s long-term survival.
|Average Dried Weight||42 lb/ft³|
|Color range||Light beige to cappuccino|
Things To Consider
When choosing an affordable hardwood for woodworking, there are three main factors to consider:
- Hardness rating
I’ll discuss these factors in more detail below:
|Oak||1,220 lbf (red); 1,350 lbf (white)|
|Hard maple||1,450 lbf|
|Black cherry||950 lbf|
|White ash||1,320 lbf|
I have included the Janka Hardness numbers for reference. Hardness is not everything, but hardness rating still matters when considering how the wood will affect your tools and withstand wear and tear.
Also, there is a correlation between hardness and weight. A lighter hardwood like black cherry can make several pounds’ difference if you don’t want a heavy finished product.
Pecan is the hardest hardwood on this list at 1,820 lbf (pounds force). It can withstand dents and dings and will last quite a long time under normal conditions.
All the woods on this list are used for flooring applications and furniture and can withstand considerable use.
While black cherry is half as hard as pecan, this doesn’t mean it’s soft. But it does mean you can hand-carve black cherry with far less effort than pecan.
Providing species-specific lumber prices that are accurate for the entire country is nearly impossible for several reasons:
- Dimensions determine pricing. You’d need to know the dimensions to know how expensive your lumber will be. So, you’ll need to search your area’s lumber prices once you know how much you’ll need in what dimensions.
- Quantity matters. Most lumber suppliers have price breaks at greater board feet quantities.
- Price varies by supply and demand. U.S. lumber prices can vary from month to month.
- Lumber availability is relative to the region. Since trees don’t grow in equal numbers distributed evenly across the country, lumber has to travel, which increases expense.
- Invasive species can alter a landscape. The emerald ash borer beetle began wiping out North American ash trees in the 1990s, which is still spreading. This will continue to impact ash lumber prices negatively.
- Prices vary by company. Larger lumber yards with an online presence ship lumber all over the country, and specialty yards have harder-to-find species.
- Grades and figures. High-grade lumber is usually more expensive than low-grade lumber. Figured wood (curls, spalting, swirls, etc.) is usually more expensive than non-figured wood since it’s unique and less common.
Red oak and hard maple are the cheapest options on this list, providing the most bang for your buck in terms of looks and durability.
For our purposes, workability means that the wood suits most kinds of woodworking, including:
- Hand-tool applications
- Machine applications
- Indoor and outdoor durability
The Wood Database has a sortable graph of the Machinability of Domestic hardwoods, which you can find here.
Black cherry is the most workable hardwood on this list, making it suitable for various applications, from boat trim to musical instruments. It’s also the most rot-resistant on this list, standing up well to humidity and outdoor conditions.
After considering visual appeal, durability, price, and workability, I’ve concluded that the top affordable hardwood for most people is black cherry.
Compared to other affordable hardwoods on this list that are harder to work with, black cherry can be easily worked by most people in most applications.