When you shop for wood furniture, how often do you take the type of wood into consideration? If we're being honest with each other, most of us are usually drawn to the look of a piece - like the colour of the wood - and are happy to buy it without thinking about any other characteristics of the material.
But wood furniture experts, wood workers, and former owners of mass-produced furniture know that the wood type used in furniture influences the quality, functionality, and sustainability of the item.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these attributes and why they’re equally important. First, different wood species possess distinct aesthetic qualities, such as color, grain pattern, and texture. There's something for everyone—suiting a large range of personal and interior styles.
Second, wood types vary in durability and strength, which influence the longevity and resilience of the furniture piece. Third, some woods possess unique characteristics such as resistance to moisture, pests, or warping, making them suitable for specific purposes and environments.
Last but not least, the wood type’s sustainability and environmental impact are major factors. Responsibly-sourced domestic materials contribute to eco-friendly and socially conscious furniture production—read more about this important topic at the end of the Guide.
Hardwood vs Softwood for Furniture
Sometimes we get asked why we don't use certain woods like pine or cedar. Pine is a popular furniture wood because it’s lightweight and inexpensive. Pine is also a softwood, prone to dents and scratches.
There’s a big difference between softwood and hardwood being used for furniture. Softwood is from evergreen or conifer trees, while hardwood is from deciduous trees which have leaves and seeds, e.g. oak, maple, and walnut.
These trees are slow growers, generally making them denser, heavier, stronger, and very durable. Hardwoods take longer to dry and tend to offer a superior look in terms of colouring and grain. In a nutshell, hardwoods take time but they reward you with longevity and beauty as finished wood furniture.
All of these characteristics make hardwoods more expensive to work with, which is why you find them in high-end furniture making and not at the big-box retailer.
Softwoods aren’t truly ‘soft’ in texture. Several species like cedar, spruce, and fir are used in structural applications like construction. You’ll also find fir and pine in reclaimed wood furniture (see Reclaimed Wood below).
Our Furniture Wood
Narrowing down the scope of wood types even more, there are two broad categories of hardwoods:
- Tropical - from Southern climates such as South America and Asia
- Non-tropical - found in Northern climates of North America, Europe, and Russia
Based in Western Canada, Union Wood Co is located in an ideal place to source beautiful hardwoods for furniture, helping keep our carbon footprint lower than if we imported tropical woods like teak and mango wood. North America is home to several highly-valued hardwood species for furniture making. Each type possesses a different set of characteristics like we mentioned above, i.e. colour, density, grain, and finishing.
The team at Union Wood Co prefers to use ash, walnut, and oak for our solid wood furniture. Let's explore the characteristics of each one:
Ash wood is known for its strength, durability, and appealing grain patterns. Lightweight and relatively easy to work with, ash is often a favourite of furniture makers. It’s also known for its excellent shock resistance, making it suitable for pieces that might endure rough use or impact—like kitchen tables for young families (or baseball bats). Besides dining tables, ash is commonly used in furniture construction like chairs and cabinets. `
Ash wood has a light to medium brown color with prominent grain lines. A natural finish (above) enhances its distinct blonde patterns. The airy colouring has a casual, contemporary look and Scandinavian vibe.
Since ash absorbs wood stain well, we whitewash it to soften the look or darken it with a blackened finish (seen above). Either way, the finish or stain still allows you to see the grain.
Walnut is highly regarded for its rich look and beautiful grain patterns. It's often used to create elegant, high-end furniture pieces. Without a doubt, walnut is a favoured wood for crafting fine furniture throughout North America. It’s known for its strength, stability, and moderate density. You’ll find this wood in dining tables, cabinets, and desks.
Walnut is a rich brown colour often with darker streaks. It has a straight grain with occasional wavy or curly patterns, adding to its visual appeal. It finishes well and can showcase a range of tones, from lighter sapwood to darker heartwood.
Oak is a classic hardwood that has been used in furniture making for centuries. It's known for its exceptional strength, durability, and distinctive grain patterns. There are two primary types of oak used in furniture, and we prefer to use white oak. It’s widely used in a large range of styles—from traditional to modern—and all types of pieces.
Oak Colour - Natural
White oak has a light to medium brown colour with prominent, visible pores that give it a unique character. It has a tighter, straighter grain and ability to take on a range of light to dark finishes.
Because oak wood is high in tannins, the oxidized finish really pops. The oak wood gains varying tones of grey and black while still keeping the character of the grain visible.
Wood sourced from demolished buildings or dilapidated structures was an integral to Union Wood Co’s beginnings in handcrafted wood furniture. We crafted a lot of reclaimed wood furniture, and became well known for our work in Vancouver. Now the reclaimed wood market is so tapped it’s tough to find decent boards.
Reclaimed Fir Colour
When we do get our hands reclaimed fir for tabletops, we can’t guarantee the wear or look, which some clients aren’t (understandably) comfortable with. Additionally, trends have changed and our furniture designers prefer contemporary designs over rustic looks.
Back to our main wood types—all three hardwoods that we use for our furniture have their own unique qualities and are excellent choices for furniture making. Ultimately, your wood choice boils down to personal preference, design considerations, and the wood’s specific characteristics.
See all of our woods and finishes on our Materials page.
The Wood Furniture Process
Ordering the Lumber
The raw lumber is ordered by our Shop Manager two to three times per month specifically by project. This means we keep an economical stock selection that doesn’t take up valuable workshop space.
We have a long-standing working relationship with our primary lumber supplier which helps ensure we receive high-quality FSC-certified wood for our furniture.
Next, the woodworker assigned to the project carefully selects boards to complement each other. They might hone in on a particular grain pattern knowing that the client has requested a specific finish, or focus on what each wood piece will look like in the finished design. This personal touch by an experienced eye makes a big difference in the finished piece compared to factory-produced wood furniture.
The Hard Work
The woodworker mends any wood imperfections—knots are filled and surfaces are sanded. After sanding and construction of the piece, a finish or stain, is applied to the surfaces. When the woodworker is happy with the look of the finish, the surfaces are sealed with a durable commercial-grade clear coat.
Insider tip: When shopping for solid wood dining tables, check if the end grain of each plank is alternating (not matching), i.e. up, down, up, down. This is a sign that the furniture is high quality and made with care. Alternating the planks helps prevent the wood from warping over time as temperatures fluctuate.
The raw lumber is transformed into quality-made furniture to be loved by, and to outlast, generations to come.
Now more than ever we get asked about the sustainability of the wood that we use.
When you buy furniture from Union Wood Co, you’re making a responsible decision connected to maintaining a healthier planet. To begin with, as a natural material, wood is recyclable and a renewable resource—one of the main reasons why we started building reclaimed wood furniture in 2009.
These days we buy lumber from suppliers that responsibly source woods domestically, i.e no tropical woods with questionable origins. The wood we buy is FSC-certified in order to prevent deforestation and preserve a balanced ecosystem.
In 2022 we began contributing to the Blue Green Planet Project, a small but mighty organization focussed on forest stewardship, to reduce our environmental impact. Every year a percentage of our furniture sales goes towards reforesting Canada.
Forest stewardship is crucial for balancing the use of forest resources with their long-term conservation. It ensures that forests continue to provide all their benefits to present and future generations while safeguarding the integrity of the ecosystems.