by Eric Meier

Brief disclaimer: In writing this article, I am in no way stating that any particular wood is “bad” or of low quality. In this age of phenolic fakes, MDF, OSB, LVL, and other abbreviated products, real, solid wood is to be appreciated. However, my purpose in composing this list is to simply highlight ways in which woodworkers have perhaps overly valued certain wood species.


Bois de Rose (Dalbergia maritima)

Bois de Rose

(Dalbergia maritima)

Why people love it: This true rosewood is a rich, eggplant purple.

Why it’s overrated: Like a flower, Bois de Rose’s beauty fades, and the wood turns very dark purple, to nearly black. And the fact that it’s also an endangered species, and the flashpoint for illegal logging in Madagascar is only icing on the cake. 

Try this instead: Purple colors in wood simply don’t last. Use dyes instead, and you’ll never be sorry.


Koa (Acacia koa)

Koa

(Acacia koa)

Why people love it: Figured Koa is probably among the most stunning hardwoods on the planet.

Why it’s overrated: The price-tag is also among the most stunning on the planet.

Try this instead: It’s hard to dispute Koa’s beauty, but many woods come very close for much, much less. Australian Blackwood is, for all intents and purposes, identical on all points but price. Some very nice figured Monkeypod or Claro Walnut also have good “wow” factor.


Padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii)

African Padauk

(Pterocarpus soyauxii)

Why people love it: Rich reddish orange color and good workability.

Why it’s overrated: Much like other colorful woods, Padauk’s color doesn’t last, and turns a dark brown over time.

Try this instead: Find a nicely colored piece of the more color-stable Chakte Viga, or just use dyes.


Kauri (Agathis australis)

Ancient Kauri

(Agathis australis)

Why people love it: Pulled up from bogs in New Zealand, Kauri is thousands of years old, making it the oldest wood on the market.

Why it’s overrated: When you get past the novelty, it’s basically just an old-growth softwood. True, there are some nice figured pieces, but on the whole, not worth the exorbitant costs over, say, Douglas Fir.

Try this instead: For huge tabletop slabs, waterfall Bubinga or curly Claro Walnut have a lot more visual interest. 


Bloodwood (Brosimum rubescens)

Bloodwood

(Brosimum rubescens)

Why people love it: The startling red color makes the wood true to its name.

Why it’s overrated: Much like other colorful woods, Bloodwood’s color doesn’t last, and turns a dark brown over time. It’s also horrific in workability, being extremely dense, blunting sharp cutters, and splintering easily.

Try this instead: If you want a wood that will truly stay vibrant red, use maple. And red dye.


Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Oak

(Quercus spp.)

Why people love it: Abundant, economical, easy to work, visually interesting grain lines, and solid strength characteristics.

Why it’s overrated: This wood is everywhere. I’m typing this at a desk made of oak. The cabinets in the office are oak. The door and trim in the room are oak. The wood has become so commonplace, people simply don’t even see it anymore. It simply becomes generic “wood.” 

Try this instead: Something… anything. Break out of the ordinary. Quartersawn Sycamore is a visually interesting domestic hardwood that’s under-utilized.


Ambrosia Maple

Ambrosia Maple

(Acer spp.)

Why people love it: The dark streaks contrast well against the lighter colored maple sapwood.

Why it’s overrated: This color is not natural, it’s from beetles that infest and bore into the tree, leaving a series of holes in the wood itself, bringing in fungus that discolors the wood. For those creepy types that keep pet tarantulas, this should warm your heart; for the rest of us, it’s disgusting.

Try this instead: Goncalo Alves, or have a look at other striped woods.


Gaboon Ebony (Diospyros crassiflora)

Ebony

(Diospyros spp.)

Why people love it: It’s pitch-black.

Why it’s overrated: The highest grades of ebony are totally black, with no discernible grain patterns, ironically resembling black plastic. (And most laypeople/customers unfamiliar with ebony have no appreciation for this expensive and endangered wood.)

Try this instead: Katalox. Or, for something that might actually be taken for real wood and not plastic, Black Palm, Pheasantwood, or Wenge.


Bamboo: vertical (sanded)

Bamboo

(Bambusa spp.)

Why people love it: Currently riding a wave of popularity, bamboo is fast-growing and eco-friendly. It says, “I love old barns, owls, and other all-natural, outdoorsy stuff.”

Why it’s overrated: This isn’t real wood, and bamboo is technically not a “tree,” but is in the Poaceae (grass) family. Hundreds of small strips of bamboo material are machined and glued together, making quasi-boards. Sustainable? Yes. Natural? Hardly.

Try this instead: Real wood. It has character, uniqueness (two different boards actually look… different), and isn’t a series of tiny processed shards held together with glue.


Purpleheart (Peltogyne spp.)

Purpleheart

(Peltogyne spp.)

Why people love it: Am I seeing things, or is this wood… purple!? Purpleheart is revered by woodworkers across the globe.

Why it’s overrated: Interested to see how your project will look in a decade? Have a look at this wood instead: Brownheart. Or read up on color changes in exotic woods.

Try this instead: Purple colors in wood simply don’t last. Use dyes instead, and you’ll never be sorry.


 See also:

  • andy

    Any more suggestions for huge slabs?

    • ejmeier

      Try Guanacaste, aka Parota

  • ChrisDac

    Okay, so you hate color fade on interestingly colored woods. And, you like dye. I get that. But, what do you do for cutting boards?

    • ejmeier

      You can either just use whatever wood you want, and keep realistic expectations, or limit yourself to certain colors.

      Some pieces of Chakte Viga (aka Paela) can have a very nice orange color that lasts a bit longer than Padauk; Yellowheart really contrasts darker woods well, etc.

      There’s a list of suggested alternatives at the end of this article:
      http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/preventing-color-changes-in-exotic-woods/

  • Sam

    Mahogany and rosewood proper should be on this list IMO. Also, what about a most underrated woods list? Wouldn’t be the same as the “top ten you’ve never heard of” one, cause they’d be ones that are at least somewhat well-known. Just black sheep, so to speak.

  • martin

    If you don’t expose it to Sun light it won’t get that dark and a little sanding brings color back

  • Steve

    Comparing Kauri to Pine and Dug Fir, really? Obviously don’t know what you are talking about. Have you seen Kauri wood (ancient or otherwise)? How about “oh have you seen my 50 thousand year old prehistoric Kauri table”, or here, “no it’s not plywood, it’s my pine table”. You may be referring to the grain pattern alone, because Kauri grows straight with no branches until the canopy, yes the grain can be plain, but beautifully tight and straight and with steaks of glowing white. The Swamp Kauri also comes in very different shapes than what is possible from most other trees because the size of the trees were enormous 40 feet dia /200 feet high (almost twice as wide as General Sherman).

    • ejmeier

      I do concede that there are some nice pieces of Ancient Kauri out there. I admit that. But on the whole, all the stuff I’ve seen for sale (including the piece I have) is quite bland, and nearly as expensive as rosewood.

      Case in point: Look at Woodcraft’s offerings, and notice how it was initially outrageously overpriced (IMO), and now it’s on clearance at about 1/3 original cost.
      http://www.woodcraft.com/category/4/2083026/2082713/Kauri.aspx

      • graham

        there is no way that swamp kauri should cost close to rosewood, its a novelty garbage
        in comparison to fresh cut.

    • Robert Perry

      LMAO! Steve

  • Axman

    Sycamore? Have you ever worked Sycamore? More correctly, have you ever tried to keep Sycamore straight? It is very unstable, although it has an interesting grain.

    • ejmeier

      I have indeed worked with Sycamore. I’ve seen where it may be tough to initially dry (which is moot as I would just buy it kiln dried anyway) but once it has dried, it seems to be of about average stability — probably better than oak.

      Secondly, I was referring specifically to quartersawn sycamore, which should be more stable than flatsawn stock. If anything, I’d say the main drawback of Sycamore is its softness.

    • Andrew

      There seems to be so much hate out there for Sycamore. I’ve air dried a lot of it in stacks and it seems to stay pretty straight once it’s been liberated. I love this wood, especially the quartersawn stuff. Keep it out of the bathtub and you’ll be fine!

  • Hrz

    any suggestion on type of woods available worldwide for manufacturing Rotary cut commercial veneer for Indian Market please? (Apart from Gurjan @ Keruing- dipterocarpus )

  • Derek

    I’m sitting here looking at a project box I made for my wife out of curly maple with a padauk lid insert. Between the grain and the color in the padauk, it looks like little flames flickering over the surface of the wood. One of the most interesting combinations I’ve ever seen. I agree that I could probably duplicate the basic coloring of the padauk with dyes. But do you have a recommendation for a wood with similar grain structure to receive the dye to replace the padauk?

    • ejmeier

      Inlaid wood is tough because it’s hard to sand dyed wood without sanding through the dye layer.

      As far as grain structure, it sounds like you are referring to flatsawn wood, which can look somewhat flame-like. If hardness isn’t a huge issue, it might be interesting to try dyeing some flatsawn softwoods, such as Douglas Fir or southern yellow pine, and see how that turns out. Otherwise, there’s a lot of light-colored hardwoods that you could use flatsawn for that grain pattern, such as Hard Maple.

  • ejmeier

    I call them overrated, but not ugly.

    I think that for most people, their automatic perception when they buy/make something out of wood is that, cared for properly, it will continue to look more or less the same over the years. Having mahogany or cherry patina over time is one thing, but for a wood species to turn from purple (or orange, or red) to brown is something else entirely. To me, that’s an example of over-inflated expectations, hence the label “overrated.”

    Many of these woods are quality woods in their own right (Padauk is very stable and easy to work; Purpleheart has excellent rot resistance), but to the newbie who’s shopping for an exotic hardwood for a new project, they’re almost sure to be “overrated” at first glance.

  • Anthony Barker

    I agree that using ebony raises some questions, mainly regarding ethical issues, but unless it is buried ten layers deep in polyurethane, it doesn’t look like plastic at all. And “customers” may not be familiar with it most of the time, but in the musical instrument business, customers are familiar with everything, and these customers are the most finicky there are. Gibson did use plastic on some of their guitars, after the government raided their illegal wood stock, to the outrage of their customers.

  • J

    Ambrosia maple should come off the list since it’s unswappable. When I put my toys in a line to show them off, whether it’s select unfinished canarywood or even select finished bloodwood (even best colors, people), they always point to the ambrosia. Vastly underrated in all respects. Most people have never even seen it before.

  • Nice Post

    I agree with that we can you oak in everywhere
    in home. Oak is one of the most popular styles in wood flooring
    because engineered oak floors are great alternative of real wood floors. Oak
    flooring offer excellent protection and an easily maintainable finish.
    Keep Posting…….

    Thanks

  • Ritsuko Tanaka

    Oh gosh I love this! Hahaha. Some of these I’ve not heard of but I’m kind of a new wood worker. Honestly I think mahogany is underrated at leat among my hardcore wood buddies. It’s actually pretty soft compared to uhh some of these and I find it easy to work with as new beginner. I know it isn’t on this lis but some of the comments suggested it should be so this is more of a response to those. Not sure how it holds up over time though. Instead of ebony why not try persimmon? It’s white ebony. and smells like buttered popcorn. You can even use the shavings to grill with! Yum. It’s from the same category as ebony….interestingly! I adore Katalox also! underrated!!!

  • Rodney

    Is it wrong of me that I actually prefer the old faded look of padauk? I cant get many other woods in my area that match that color. The orange color I find garish but that lovely chocolate brown is amazing in my opinion.

  • Jonn Mero

    Hoi, leave the oak alone :-) I live next to Oakland Road (translated) here in Norway, so I am biased!
    But the variety in patterns and colour in Norwegian oaks is really fascinating. If we need straight-grown oak we have to go to Denmark or further down the continent. But as interesting wood, our oak is ‘top drawer’.

  • Jake Lewis

    Eric, you’re hilarious. Is there a list of articles you’ve written somewhere? I want to read them all.