Clients often ask us what the best wood for their table would be. It’s a difficult question, because there is no right answer. There are some wrong answers – wood species that simply aren’t well-suited to the job at hand. But a “best” wood? That’s not really a question that we can answer, because the table is going into our client’s home, not ours. It needs to look right to their eye, because, if we’ve done our job well, they’re going to have it, eat meals, and make memories around it for the rest of their lives. What we can do, though, is lay out the different options and offer our expertise.
There are three categories of wood that we use in our furniture, based on the way the wood has been cut before it gets to us: milled, reclaimed, and live-edge. We use the term “milled” to refer to lumber that has been cut into boards, which we’ll then glue together side-by-side to create a table top. Reclaimed lumber is also in board form, but it’s had a previous life, often as framing stock in now-demolished buildings, and has been salvaged from demolition sites. Reclaimed material typically has physical saw marks, nail holes, and typically isn’t processed to perfect smoothness and flatness – instead, we leave some texture and character in the boards. Live edge slabs are single lengthwise slices cut across the diameter of a tree, and so the edge of the tree remains the edge of the board, and the finished table will have this same natural outline.
Each of these three categories makes equally sturdy and functional tables, so there is no real distinction to be made in terms of quality. Each makes beautiful tables, as well. The only factor that needs to be taken into account is the aesthetic of the client and their home. An ultra-contemporary dining room, for example, may not be the place for a reclaimed table – but then again perhaps that contrast is exactly the target. Again, it all comes down to taste.
When it comes to the question of wood species, there are some functional differences, although we typically weed out wood species that have drawbacks before the process gets too far along. The essential issue here is simply the hardness of the wood. Wood hardness is measured on the Janka scale, a record of how much force is required to drive a small steel ball into any given type of wood. A type of wood with a lower Janka rating means that the wood will be more susceptible to dings, dents, and scratches, so we don’t typically build with anything rated much lower than 1000.
Once we’ve eliminated the softer woods, we’re left with our core species, walnut, oak, maple, cherry, ash, and hickory. Of course, there are lots of other types available, and we can build with just about any of them, but these are our most common. The primary differences between them are visual, but there are also textural differences. Maple, for example, will be remarkably smooth to the touch, whereas oak’s grain will always retain some texture. We’re happy to give advice on these factors but it always comes back to clients’ preferences. There is no right wood for making a table, but there is a right wood for you, and we’ll help you find it.