American hardwoods do vary greatly in character from species to species; but trees of a single species can also vary from one region to another, depending on climate, soil, and altitude as well as forest management. Almost all hardwood species in USA are re-generated through natural selection of seed distributed by wind, rain, animals and even fire – planting by man generally being unnecessary.

  1. Fit for Purpose Most U.S. hardwoods are not naturally durable and so are mainly suitable for interior applications. Some can be treated for exterior use.  So rule number one is to select species that are ‘Fit for Purpose’.  For example, Maple is superb for interior furniture but is not a good wood for exterior use.
  2. Check the Properties There are many sources of information on the characteristics and working properties of American hardwood species and these are well worth checking to avoid mistakes in processing. For example, Oak is very strong and Hickory is very hard for flooring, but some others are not.
  3. Consider the Colour The looks, or aesthetic, are one of American hardwoods’ most attractive features, so consider colour, grain and finishing before selecting. For example, Cherry polishes to a very fine finish, which is hard to achieve in Cottonwood.
  4. Check out Regional Differences One single species can vary according to where it is grown, influenced by climate, length of growing season, temperature according to altitude and more. American exporters can help explain these differences. For example, Ash from the north will likely be quite different to southern Ash. These differences can be minimised by buying from just one geographical area.
  5. Watch for Variances A single species can also vary within a single source, according to the amount of sapwood and heartwood. For example, Tulipwood (aka Yellow Poplar in USA) can have huge variances within a single parcel of logs that may be determined just by their diameter.
  6. Same but Different Other species have many sub-species. There about eight Red Oaks commercially available and, while they are generally the same and all sold as Red Oak, there can be fine differences. For example, some Red Oaks grow faster and these may have more open grain, also affected by provenance.
  7. Size Matters There is considerable difference in size of trees grown in the natural hardwood forests of the USA, which determines the lumber specifications available. For example, Tulipwood is one of the tallest and Walnut much shorter, which the NHLA Grading Rules take account of.
  8. Know the Limits So, when buying hardwood lumber from the USA, know the practical limitations of length, width, thickness, drying shrinkage, and availability of quality in a given species. FAS grade Walnut does not come in 25 foot lengths!  Specify air dried (AD) or kiln dried (KD) to defined moisture content (MC).
  9. Understand and Exploit Grades It is absolutely essential to understand the NHLA grading principles, which indicate yield for specific purposes, to avoid overpaying or underspecifying. For example, generally furniture manufacturers can achieve excellent yield from #1Common ‘furniture’ grade or even lower, whereas joinery and door manufacturers may need the long lengths only achieved in FAS grade. Your cost is determined by yield, not just price. Grades can be modified by suppliers.
  10. Find a Friend Finally – the best advice is to work with, and listen to, your supplier – whether direct U.S. exporter or an in-country distributor, to understand your needs.

Compiled by World Hardwoods