Build / DIY

Getting Started // How to Choose the Right Type of Wood for Your Projects

03.04.15 By //
The Design Confidential Getting Started How to Choose the Right Type of Wood for Your Projects via @thedesconf
The single most frequently asked question that I get from you guys is all about the wood. Which is best for the project you plan to tackle? How do you know what to buy at the lumber supply store, when my plans only mention the size? For me, there are 3 things I take into consider when choosing wood for a project. You will need to weigh all 3 of these things and make choices along the way for your particular purposes so don’t be surprised if you feel like the info below gets a bit circular at times. It does, this is a bit of a circular process, so just keep on keeping on and know that once you work your way through these tidbits you will go through this decision making process without hesitation. Choosing your wood will soon be as second nature, as it seems for me, which is probably why it has taken me 3 days to figure out how to explain this to another human… It’s funny how the process of thinking about something can begin to feel more like you hardly give it a thought. Hopefully you can make sense of all the crazy that floats around in this head of mine.

Before I load you with info, just know that there really isn’t an exacting answer to this question and that while choosing the best products for your projects is a great starting point, it is almost never the make or break of those projects. A great many things determine the longevity of your project, but I can promise you that if you have children, how they use and abuse your projects will weigh far greater on how long that something lasts than anything else. I know the process of choosing lumber and wood for building can feel very overwhelming when you are presented with meellions of options. But truly, there isn’t one absolute and correct answer to this, so have no fear of making some sort of fatal mistake here, it’s nearly impossible to do so.

DEFINITIONS // How I will refer to the various wood products below

  • – Sheet Goods // Plywood, MDF, Melamine, Particle Board
  • – Lumber // 2x’s + 4x’s – 2×2’s, 2×3’s, 2×4’s, 4×4’s – often stud grade dimensional lumber
  • – Boards // 1x’s – 1×2’s, 1×3’s, 1×4’s all the way up to 1×12’s – also technically dimensional lumber, but it’s helpful to separate them in this way

WOOD SPECIES // I will get into the complexity of these next time, but this generalized guide will help for now

Soft Wood // Generally any cone producing tree – Pine, Fir, Spruce, Redwood, Cedar

  • – Typically less expensive
  • – Easier to build with
  • – Often of lesser quality in your big box stores
  • – Generally what you will find for stud grade lumber (all 2x’s and 4x’s) at big box stores
  • – Requires more work to finish – difficult to stain with

Hard Wood // Generally any leaf producing tree – Poplar, Oak, Maple, Birch, Walnut, Mahogany

  • – Typically more expensive
  • – More durable
  • – Slightly harder to build with
  • – Often of greater quality in your big box stores
  • – Easier to finish – requiring less work – better for stained finishes
  • – Generally found as boards (1x’s) and plywood in your big box stores

Now that we have those things out of the way, let’s dive right in for the remaining decision making ingredients – there are three.

The first of these is the project type and while all three factors are important, this one will dictate your options and limitations for the remaining two.

PROJECT TYPE // There are 3 different project types you will find plans for, here on The Design Confidential and these will directly affect your available choices for finish and cost.

Sheet Goods Only // Projects built entirely of sheet goods

  • – Interior and hidden pieces can be lesser quality – purchase partial sheets for these pieces when possible
  • – Quality of visible and exterior pieces should be determined by your desired finish.
  • – Stain – Avoid pine but otherwise simply choose a grain pattern you like that is of a slightly higher grade
  • – Paint – For smoothest finish choose MDF or a light grain species like birch. For rustic painted finish choose moderate quality, grain pattern of preference
  • – Washable – Melamine which is typically white is often used for cabinet interiors and children’s furniture

 Dimensional Lumber // Projects built entirely of lumber and / or boards

  • – Lumber + Board Combo – Projects that require 2x’s and 1x’s, maybe even 4x’s.
  • – If choosing the best boards for your budget and not all are pine, paint or go with a natural or wax finish to avoid mismatched stain absorption.
  • – Lumber Only – likely limited to soft wood studs if you are shopping a big box store
  • – beginners should avoid the pine and stain combo. Despite what DIY blogger pictures might make you think, pine can be a nightmare to stain evenly or even well.
  • – Boards Only – Choose according to budget and / or desired finish.
  • – Buying the best boards for your budget will save you time on the back end for sanding and finishing.
  • – Hard wood boards will be easier to stain

Mixed Bag // Projects built with sheet goods and lumber or boards (or both)

– It is possible to match wood type all the way through if desired, but likely limited to pine or fir if lumber is required.

The Design Confidential Getting Started How to Choose the Right Type of Wood for Your Projects via @thedesconf
// Aside from your project type and the materials required by that, you will ultimately arrive at your perfect product choice based on one of two remaining things: budget or finish. Deciding on one of these as being more important will dictate your options for the other so these two factors remain intertwined throughout, just as the project type does.
  • – If you decide to purchase product that suits your budget, then that will likely dictate how you can best finish your piece.
  • – Conversely, if you have a particular finish in mind, then you should choose the products that will best help you arrive at your desired finish.

Easy peasy, friends. The project type is determined by… well, the project, so that is done for you to a certain extent. Now you need to simply decide which to favor – price or finish – or a lovely compromise between both and call it a day.


Limited Budget // Soft woods like Pine and Fir are going to be the least expensive

  • – Purchasing furring strips or standard 8 foot boards will often be cheaper than 6 foot boards
  • – Quality can be substandard and will require greater effort on the back end, but will offer a great savings in cost
  • – Will likely dictate a painted finish for a beginner as pine is frequently difficult to stain evenly or even well
  • – Since Pine can be found in sheet goods, lumber, and boards it is possible to match your wood type all the way through
  • – While this may appear to provide a decent situation for stain – proceed with caution there and consider paint or a natural waxed finish instead

Moderate Budget // Looking to build a standout piece, buy the best boards you can afford – at the big box stores this is most likely a hard wood type like poplar or oak.

  • – If you are working on a dimensional lumber project type with both lumber and boards needed, this will likely result in a piece with mixed wood types since big box stores don’t tend to carry quality lumber like they do for boards.
  • – Mixing wood types likely dictates a painted finish, but that finish will be easier to achieve on the good stuff.
  • – For prominent boards, choosing a slightly more expensive board will make building easier and will save you considerable time on the back end.
  • – This might include select boards or hard wood boards such as poplar or oak.
  • – These will be straighter and have less defect making joints easier to accomplish and your overall build better looking without hours of sanding

Decent Budget // Quality boards and specialty wood types

  • – At a big box store this is not entirely possible if you require sheet goods, lumber and boards, at least not without a bit of effort, sooooo…
  • – If lumber is the odd man out, consider purchasing boards to face glue together to get you to the required lumber size in a wood type you prefer (2 – 1×4’s equal a 2×4)
  • – If you want a stained finish, consider venturing into the world of veneer
  • – Consider purchasing larger timber such as 4×4’s or 4×6’s in something other than pine (cedar or redwood perhaps), then cut them down on a table saw to create your 2×4’s
  • – If you just can’t match lumber and board wood types given availability, then paint or a natural waxed finish may be your friend here
  • – Consider heading to your local lumber supplier to get matching products for lumber, sheet goods, and boards
  • – Stain or paint as you see fit. Lighter grain pattern equals a smoother finish for paint.


Painted Finish // The good news here is that if you want a painted finish you can purchase virtually any wood type necessary and no one will know the better, but if you are looking for a smooth modern finish the tips below should help.

  • – Smooth Modern Finish //
  • – MDF or lightly grained plywood – spackle or edge band the exposed edges
  • – Hard wood boards require less effort on the back end

Stained Finish // This will limit your options I’m afraid and may result in the need for more expensive materials

  • – Best to match wood type all the way through – at a big box store you are either limited to pine or must get creative with the use of boards for creating the lumber sizes needed
  • – Hard woods are generally easier to stain with good result.
  • – Use edge banding (a type of veneer) on exposed edges for sheet goods

That my friends is just about all she wrote. When you are getting ready to build you will run through the project, determine the type, then choose the specific wood type and products that are possible or preferable for your specific purposes.

If you would like to read more from our getting started topic, check out some of our reader faves:

Lumber and the Raw Deal

Tool Time // The Real Skinny and Absolute Must Haves

Tool Time // Dream Team + 10 Tools that Make Building DIY Furniture Amazingly Easy

Taming of the Screw // 3 Tips to Help you Avoid Stripping your Screws

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4 comments on “Getting Started // How to Choose the Right Type of Wood for Your Projects”

  1. I’m glad that you talked about how you can glue lumber together to get the size that you need. I have been looking for some wood to build a dog house out of, and I wasn’t sure how to get pieces thick enough. I can see how it would be good to buy two and combine them, so it will be more sturdy.

  2. It’s good to know that when it comes to getting lumber that there are some different things that we need to look at to make sure that we get the right kind for our specific project. I am glad that you mentioned that one thing we need to remember that we need to choose according to the budget that we have set for it. This will really help with narrowing down our options and make it possible that we don’t spend more money than need be.

  3. What type of wood do you recommend for outdoor use that is widely available? I’d like something nicer than a 2×4. Not painted, but perhaps a light stain. For a dining chair.

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