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:

Are you an aspiring wood nerd?

The poster, Worldwide Woods, Ranked by Hardness, should be required reading for anyone enrolled in the school of wood nerdery. I have amassed over 500 wood species on a single poster, arranged into eight major geographic regions, with each wood sorted and ranked according to its Janka hardness. Each wood has been meticulously documented and photographed, listed with its Janka hardness value (in lbf) and geographic and global hardness rankings. Consider this: the venerable Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sits at only #33 in North America and #278 worldwide for hardness! Aspiring wood nerds be advised: your syllabus may be calling for Worldwide Woods as part of your next assignment!

37 Comments

  1. Sierrafrogs October 26, 2018 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    At least in the lutherie world koa was initially used as a substitute for figured mahogany. Honduras mahogany is occasionally seen with maple-like curl, birdseye, “quilt,” and “flame,” and until the late 1960’s much of the imported material had such figure and went into custom guitars and other stringed instruments. It apparently takes an old tree to yield figured sets, and old Honduras mahogany trees are long gone. As the supply of figured mahogany dried up, luthiers and others sought a substitute. Koa popped up–its grain is strikingly similar to mahogany, much of it is highly figurted, and back then the price was reasonable. Some figured mahogany is still available–wood from “The Tree,” a Honduras log putatively felled in 1965 but sawn much more recently yielded incredible “quilt” figure in guitar sets that are being offered for $1500-$4000 (plain mahogany sets run about $100 these days, when available). For the most part figured Koa has replaced figured mahogany in lutherie.

  2. Ryan August 18, 2018 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    Can anyone identify this wood??

    • Jeremy September 6, 2018 at 8:32 am - Reply

      English oak? (Had a sideboard at home with similar grain patterns)

    • Bruce September 10, 2018 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      Looks like fir to me.

      • Sierrafrogs October 26, 2018 at 6:59 pm - Reply

        Agreed–Douglas fir plywood

  3. John L August 11, 2018 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    I made a kleenex box holder out of beautiful purpleheart with a wavy figure back in the 1980s. The color looks great! Just don’t set it in the direct sun. That’s just common sense.

  4. Gayle July 5, 2018 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    I had a Red Flowering Quince bush in my yard, a long, long time, over 60 years. It finally died, and I found that the wood has very nice color and grain so close it almost looks like it does not have any grain. Very hard wood I have a friend who is craving knife handles using this wood. He had never heard of it but really likes and wants more. Just wanted to share – you never know what you might find in your own yard. Gayle, Manteca CA

  5. peter May 2, 2018 at 11:08 pm - Reply

    No listing here (apparently) of the Australian native Lilly Pilly (Syzgium Smithii).
    The timber from trees that can grow to 30 mtrs is sometimes used for floor boards.
    If any details re strength, insect & moisture resistance, & availability please publish.

  6. Ted Ernstberger April 12, 2018 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    What can you tell me about a Peruvian ( I believe) wood called Aripari.

    • Eric April 12, 2018 at 7:51 pm - Reply

      Don’t have too much info available at the moment. Scientific name is Macrolobium acacifolium. I have a sample but have not yet added it to the site. It appears to be of medium density with a hardness roughly equivalent to oak.

  7. Pete mccurley March 24, 2018 at 4:11 am - Reply

    G’day Eric , I’m wondering why Gidgee , Acacia cambagei doesn’t make you top ten for density ? Fairbairn states the density at 1283 kg/m though I have tested samples out to 1350
    Love your work
    Pete
    Curly timbers

  8. Ray Styer March 9, 2018 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    I am a custom cue maker. I dearly love Purple Heart. When it is first exposed to the light it almost a light brown but soon darkens to a burgundy color. When paired with something like tulipwood which is like a yellowish tan with purple grain it is absolutely beautiful

  9. Nightmare Minion December 28, 2017 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Ebony and various rosewoods have a long history of being used for guitar fretboards, and koa has more recently been finding its way on acoustic guitars. Part of koa’s appeal in this case is admittedly appearance, though that’s mostly seen as a bonus to its qualities as a tonewood.

    On the other hand, ebony seems to have lost favor to African blackwood in woodwinds due to workability. At any rate, discussion of alternatives to traditional tonewoods seems to me to be a worthwhile inclusion.

  10. Jake Lewis December 6, 2017 at 2:30 pm - Reply

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

  11. Jonn Mero May 12, 2017 at 6:33 am - Reply

    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’.

  12. Rodney January 23, 2017 at 3:33 am - Reply

    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.

  13. Ritsuko Tanaka November 1, 2016 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    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!!!

  14. SourceWoodFloors February 2, 2016 at 5:25 am - Reply

    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

  15. J October 21, 2015 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    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.

  16. Anthony Barker September 14, 2015 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    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.

  17. ejmeier July 28, 2015 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    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.

  18. Derek May 26, 2015 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    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 May 26, 2015 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      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.

  19. Hrz March 27, 2015 at 4:30 am - Reply

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

  20. Axman January 27, 2015 at 11:55 am - Reply

    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 January 28, 2015 at 1:07 pm - Reply

      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 August 10, 2017 at 10:16 pm - Reply

      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!

  21. Steve July 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    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 July 18, 2014 at 12:33 pm - Reply

      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.
      https://www.woodcraft.com/category/4/2083026/2082713/Kauri.aspx

      • graham July 15, 2016 at 9:26 pm - Reply

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

    • Robert Perry May 22, 2017 at 11:30 am - Reply

      LMAO! Steve

  22. martin June 24, 2014 at 6:36 pm - Reply

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

  23. Sam May 18, 2014 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    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.

  24. ChrisDac May 13, 2014 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    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 May 14, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

      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:
      https://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/preventing-color-changes-in-exotic-woods/

  25. andy May 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Any more suggestions for huge slabs?

    • ejmeier May 10, 2014 at 8:21 pm - Reply

      Try Guanacaste, aka Parota

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