Save some scratch using secondary woods

Cabinet with bottom drawer open
Poplar, soft maple, pine, and plywood: These oft-maligned also-rans of commercially available wood products bring stability, strength, and -- most importantly -- savings to your furniture projects. Use these tips to squeeze even more out of secondary wood

Hide it

Master furnituremakers of centuries-past hid common, unremarkable woods behind a showy and expensive primary wood. You can, too, by keeping a supply of poplar or soft maple on hand to cut by half the cost of hidden project parts -- dust dividers, bracing, nailing cleats, and drawer sides and backs.

Save even more by shopping in your scrap bin first. Those early furnituremakers notoriously mixed and matched whatever was nearest at hand for their secondary woods. You might be surprised by the amount of secondary wood you can cull from your scrap -- or even the sawn-off sapwood from your primary wood.

Color it

Do you really want to hide high-dollar hard maple under a dark stain when inexpensive poplar will do? Other inexpensive woods mimic pricier species, as well. For example, alder makes a low-dough cherry substitute with only minor color tweaks. And well-chosen soft maple is a dead-ringer for hard maple, especially for bookcase backs, shelves, or case dividers that will be partially covered or obscured. Even that infamously contrasting walnut and cherry sapwood can be tamed with dyes.

Tall book case
A dark gel stain combats poplar's tendency toward blotchiness and lends this inexpensive bookcase a classic walnut look.

Celebrate it

Finally, many species considered "secondary woods" due to their low price have their own unique beauty. Soft maple more commonly displays eye-popping figure, such as curl and birdseye, than hard, but isn't always sorted for figure. So, you can find some steals with careful rummaging. Sapwood streaks that might otherwise be sent to the scrap pile can be used to deliberately display striking patterns, separating your project from a world of factory-made furniture.

More Resources

  • Find the classic bookcase plan, slide 2, at woodmagazine.com/classicbookcase. $
  • Find the Shaker dresser plan, shown on this slide, at woodmagazine.com/shakerdresser.$

$ Requires a small fee.

Mission style side cabinate

Cabinet with bottom drawer open
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