An essential guide
Slant-front desk
Creating an heirloom-quality piece, such as this slant-front desk, requires more than a good plan. To get great results, you need to understand how to select and combine woods, a process that starts long before the building begins.

What separates a really good project from a great one? Though joinery skills, tool selection, and design savvy help, it often comes down to the wood itself.

Why? Because knowing how to select, cut, and assemble your stock to best match the wood's grain and color gives your projects a professional look. Here, you'll learn to choose and use wood to achieve consistency and to create flair in your projects. And it may be easier than you think.

The slant-front desk shows the results of skillful wood usage: All of the cherry parts share a similar color. Grain patterns blend to create attractive panels with barely visible joints. The curly maple adds contrast yet remains complementary.

Check out the photos below that show key wood-selection strategies. Then, read on for tips on why the appearance of wood varies how to match grain figure, and how to combine species to achieve striking effects.


The name game and other causes of inconsistent looks

When looking through the lumber bin, we all regularly find boards of the same name with varying grain and color. Why?

For starters, trees of the same species often take on different appearances because of where they grow. Northern trees grow slowly, leading to tighter growth rings than found in southern trees. Trees from open fields grow faster than woodland trees, and branch out lower, yielding more knots and wilder grain patterns.

Remember, too, that as trees pull in water through the soil they also draw in minerals that will color the wood. The mixtures of those minerals may vary widely in different types of soil. Sometimes, woods sold under one name are actually different species. Red oak, for example, may include "true" red oak, live oak, black oak, pin oak, and hybrids. So you'll often find inconsistencies in their color and grain, as shown below.


If you buy directly from a small sawmill, you may be able to request lumber from one tree or from trees harvested together. At volume retailers, though, you'll likely have to compare color and grain to match boards that were cut from different trees.

Mate boards carefully to get the best appearance

In the shop, you'll soon realize that carefully selecting boards simplifies the process of laying out parts. Joining those boards, though, still requires careful attention. With straight-grained boards, you may be able to match grain to create a seamless-looking panel. Matching wild grain proves tougher, but can be done.

When joining two boards, as shown in the photos below, turn them over, flip them end for end, and try mating different edges until you find the best combination.


Sometimes, you can even achieve success matching woods of different species. For example, woods with similar hues or grains, such as maple and birch or oak and ash, often can be paired with little visible difference. Just be sure to use them on different surfaces, say a cabinet face and side. Don't edge-glue them in the same panel. You can even stain some similarly grained woods to serve as substitutes. Ash, for instance, mimics oak, and stained birch can pass as cherry.

What to do when you want woods to look different

Sometimes, projects call for woods to contrast rather than conform. For example, the curly maple panel on the slant-front desk (opening photo) transforms a great-looking project into a knockout. When it comes to mixing species, there are fewer hard-and-fast rules than are used in matching. Again, examining grain and color remain important, but in different ways.

The color wheel, below, contains a variety of popular domestic species that you've likely used, but may have never thought of mixing. Notice how some look great together, while other combinations just don't work.

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On the second color wheel, below, we've grouped some easy-to-find exotics, along with several varieties of figured maple, a perennial favorite.

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When creating contrast or highlights, "complementary" takes on a different meaning. Light colors are usually paired successfully with darks. You can pair woods with prominent grains, as long as the patterns are different, so that they don't compete or cause oddly intersecting lines.

Specific numbers do not exist regarding what percentage of each wood should be used, though a 50–50 split rarely works well. One wood should dominate. Usually, the wood that dominates will be the one used in the highest percentage, but not always. Even when used in small quantities, contrasting woods that are vividly toned or strongly figured can easily overpower muted, fine-grained woods. Read "Our builders' advice for a good mix," (below) for more insights from WOOD® magazine's on-staff designers and builders. In the end, beauty lies in the beholder's eye. So if you think two woods look great together, pair them up and enjoy.

Our builders' advice for a good mix

The WOOD® magazine project designers and builders have years of experience selecting woods. Here are their insights on successfully mixing species.

Kevin Boyle: "I'm a fan of strong contrast when I mix woods, but I make sure to use a much higher percentage of one wood than the other. Remember, too, that when you surround one wood with another, you'll draw attention to the wood at the center, even if there's only a little bit of it.

"I enjoy mixing maple with cherry or mahogany, and like blending walnut with cherry. For exotic woods, I often combine wenge with either lacewood or bubinga."

Chuck Hedlund: "On traditional projects, subtle color differences work well. I'll go for sharper contrast on contemporary styles. In addition to color, I pay attention to grain. If one wood has coarse grain, so should the other. By the same token, fine-grained woods usually pair best with other fine grains. "My favorite combinations are cherry with maple, and mahogany with maple.

Jeff Mertz: "I use woods with a lot of contrast as accents on smaller projects, and woods that co trast subtly on larger pieces. When using highly contrasting woods, I make sure that neither one has a grain pattern that's overbearing. "Like Kevin and Chuck, I'm a big fan of maple—either figured or regular—paired with cherry or mahogany."