Red Alder, Hickory and Sycamore.
Light wood

Red Alder

The low-cost, high-end chameleon
Inexpensive, light weight, and easily workable, red alder, shown above, has been the unheralded preference for mass-produced furniture manufacturers for years. Lately, it's been showing up as trimwork, catbinetry, and doors in high-end homes. Why the excitement?

Red alder (Alnus rubra) takes stain well, so it can be matched to a wide variety of woods. Its close grain, pinkish hue, and subtle figuring makes it a dead-ringer for cherry (at about half the cost). Just as with cherry, a quick, initial seal-coat with shellac controls minor blotchiness that might show up when dyeing or staining. Red alder also matches red birch plywood, cementing its usefulness in bookcases, cabinets, and other casework.

Thriving in moist conditions, red alder grows abundantly in the coastal Pacific Northwest. Availability diminishes as you track east, but most specialty hardwood stores and online wood retailers stock it. Graded under a proprietary grading system, "Superior" generally translates to the National Hardwood Lumber Association's Select and Better grade, while "Cabinet" and "Frame" grades equate to No. 1 Common and No. 2 Common, respectively.


Wood with 2 colors

An easy choice when you need a hard wood
Long famed for its hardness and shock resistance, hickory goods claimed valuable cargo-space in the horse-drawn convoys of westward-bound settlers who used it in everything from axe handles to wagon wheels.

In more recent times, hickory's distinct appearance has earned it a place outside of the smokehouse and barbecue pit. With a pronounced contrast between its nearly white sapwood and tan heartwood, sprinkled liberally with dark brown streaks and inclusions, hickory displays a dizzying randomness treasured in flooring, cabinetry, and furniture.

Ranging throughout the Midwest, South, and Northeast, hickory enjoys an ample supply and a price on par with inexpensive red oak. Difficult to dry, you'll seldom find hickory in thicknesses over 4/4.

Be prepared: Hickory's toughness comes hand-in-hand with brittleness and chipout when machining it. Slow your feed rate, back up all cuts, plane at a slight angle, and predrill for screws.


Spotty wood

Exotic figure made in America
Much of the world's most gorgeously figured wood comes from tropical forests, but you'll also find it in those giant sycamore trees in neighborhoods across the South and Midwest. When quartersawn, sycamore's heavily rayed grain displays a spectacular flecked pattern that rivals lacewood and leopardwood. Use it in decorative projects, such as jewelry boxes, that call for striking figure. In stark contrast, plainsawn sycamore's grain looks disappointingly plain and proves prone to warping when hastily kiln-dried. Properly processed, though, plainsawn sycamore becomes serviceable as a secondary wood in drawer sides, dust partitions, and cabinet nailer cleats.

Prices for quartersawn sycamore hover in the walnut range, making it an inexpensive choice for such a distinctly figured wood.

Can't find these woods locally? Try:

  • Woodworkers Source:
  • West Penn Hardwoods: