The Best Woods for Woodturning Projects

The Best Woods for Woodturning Projects

Discovering the Art of Turning Greenwood

As a passionate woodturner, I’ve spent countless hours exploring the captivating world of greenwood – the freshly harvested, moisture-rich timber that holds the key to creating truly remarkable pieces. Whether it’s a delicate bowl, a striking vase, or a whimsical sculpture, the choice of wood can make all the difference in the final outcome.

Let me take you on a journey through the fascinating interplay between wood and lathe, where the right selection can elevate your woodturning projects to new heights of beauty and functionality. From understanding the basic characteristics of different wood types to navigating the nuances of working with greenwood, I’ll share my personal experiences and insights to help you make informed decisions that will enhance your craft.

Embracing the Challenges of Greenwood

One of the primary considerations when embarking on a woodturning project, especially when it comes to turning bowls, is the type of wood used. As a pole-lathe turner, I’ve learned that not just any wood will do – the wood’s inherent properties can profoundly impact the turning process and the final product.

Freshly cut, or “greenwood,” presents its own unique set of challenges. These logs haven’t had the chance to dry out, which means they retain much of their natural moisture content. This can create some interesting – and sometimes frustrating – situations. For example, I’ve turned sycamore that literally oozed sap as it spun on the lathe, leaving me covered in a thin layer of the sticky substance.

The uneven drying process of greenwood can also lead to another common issue: checking. As the wood loses moisture from the cut ends faster than the center, the resulting pressure can cause the wood to crack or “check.” This is something I’ve had to contend with on numerous occasions, and it’s a phenomenon that requires careful attention and a bit of patience to manage.

Unlocking the Secrets of Wood Types

To truly maximize the potential of your woodturning projects, it’s essential to understand the distinct characteristics of different wood types. The distinction between ring-porous and diffuse-porous woods can have a significant impact on the workability, finish, and durability of your final creations.

Ring-porous woods, such as oak and ash, are characterized by large pores in the earlywood and smaller, denser pores in the latewood. This distinct pattern results in visible annual growth rings, which not only add a unique aesthetic to any piece but also have practical implications in woodturning.

The large earlywood pores in ring-porous woods can absorb finishes differently than the denser latewood, leading to interesting effects when applying stains or finishes. However, this can also pose a challenge, as the uneven absorption might require additional attention during the finishing process to achieve a uniform appearance.

On the other hand, diffuse-porous woods like maple, cherry, and beech feature a more uniform distribution of smaller pores throughout the wood, without a clear distinction between the earlywood and latewood. This gives them a more consistent grain pattern and texture, which is often sought after for its aesthetic qualities.

Diffuse-porous woods are generally easier to work with on a lathe because of their uniform density, which allows for smoother cutting and less risk of tear-out. They also tend to absorb finishes more evenly, simplifying the finishing process and helping to achieve a fine, smooth surface – ideal for high-quality bowls and other woodturning projects.

Selecting the Best Woods for Woodturning

Now that we’ve explored the unique characteristics of different wood types, let’s dive into the specifics of which woods are considered the best for woodturning projects.


Highly regarded for its uniform grain and smooth finish, maple is a fantastic choice for intricate turnings. The diffuse-porous nature of this hardwood makes it easy to work with on the lathe, and the resulting pieces often showcase a clean, elegant aesthetic.


Offering an appealing reddish hue and a fine, straight grain that finishes exceptionally well, cherry is a favorite among woodturners. This diffuse-porous hardwood lends itself well to creating beautiful, functional pieces that are a delight to the senses.


With its rich, dark tones, walnut provides an air of sophistication and durability to any woodturning project. While classified as semi-ring-porous, this hardwood offers a unique blend of characteristics that make it a popular choice for both decorative and practical items.


A robust ring-porous wood, oak can be a joy to work with when still in its green state. The distinctive grain pattern and range of colors, from light beige to deep chocolate brown, make oak a versatile option for a variety of turning projects. However, its tendency to become brittle and the difficulty in achieving a smooth finish on certain areas can present some challenges.


One of my personal favorites, beech is a diffuse-porous hardwood with a fine, tight grain and a pinkish-brown color. It takes detail exceptionally well and is relatively easy to work with on the lathe, making it a go-to choice for many woodturners.


The light reddish-brown heartwood and nearly white sapwood of silver birch create a subtle, uniform appearance. While not the most visually striking wood, birch is fairly easy to turn and provides a good finish due to its close grain.


Fresh walnut is a delight to turn, and once oiled, it becomes truly beautiful. With its tight grain that takes a finish well, walnut – including the striking black walnut variety – is a semi-ring-porous wood that stands out for its rich, dark tones and the contrast between its heartwood and sapwood.

Sweet Chestnut

A diffuse-porous hardwood known for its durability, sweet chestnut is easy to split and highly resistant to rot. It turns very well and can produce an attractive bowl with a unique character.

Fruit Woods

Woods like apple and plum, with their diffuse-porous growth rings, offer a range of colors and good finishing characteristics. However, they tend to crack quite easily, so a well-planned drying routine is crucial to reduce the risk of failure.


A common and readily available wood, ash is a strong, durable option that delivers a good finish. Unfortunately, the growing threat of ash dieback in the UK means this wood may become less readily available in the future. Ash also has a tendency to split easily, which can pose a challenge when turning, particularly near the rim of a bowl.

As you can see, the “best” wood for woodturning is largely a matter of personal preference, balancing factors like workability, finish, and the desired aesthetic. The key is to experiment and discover which woods resonate most with your individual style and the requirements of your projects.

Sourcing and Storing Greenwood

Finding a reliable source of greenwood can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s well worth the effort. One option is to reach out to local tree surgeons – the professionals who remove and trim trees. They may have access to a variety of wood types and can provide valuable information about the condition and origin of the materials.

Another excellent resource is local sawmills and wood suppliers. These establishments often have a good stock of greenwood that can be used for various woodworking projects. This can also be a great way to source wood that has been sustainably harvested from managed forests.

Once you’ve acquired your greenwood, proper storage is crucial to ensure the wood remains in optimal condition for turning. I prefer to keep my greenwood stashed behind my garage, in a shady, northerly-facing area of the garden. This helps slow down the drying process and minimizes the risk of the wood developing any unwanted pests or damage.

It’s important to remember that greenwood can contain woodworm, so it’s essential to store it away from your home or other buildings to prevent any infestations. By following these simple storage practices, you can enjoy the benefits of working with fresh, moisture-rich wood while minimizing the potential pitfalls.

Embracing the Unique Characteristics of Greenwood

As a pole-lathe turner, I’ve come to embrace the unique characteristics of greenwood and the way they influence the turning process and the final outcome of my projects. While power lathe turners may prefer to allow their bowls to dry and re-turn them, I’ve found that the unpredictable warping and movement of greenwood as it dries can actually add to the charm and character of the finished piece.

Whether it’s the sap-flecked sycamore, the striking grain patterns of oak, or the delicate nuances of cherry, each type of greenwood presents its own set of challenges and rewards. By understanding the distinct properties of these natural materials, I’m able to make informed decisions that allow me to enhance the beauty and functionality of my turned creations.

So, as you embark on your own woodturning journey, I encourage you to explore the vast array of greenwood options available and to let the inherent characteristics of the wood guide your creative process. Who knows – the next time you turn a bowl, you might just discover a hidden gem that elevates your work to new heights of artistry and craftsmanship.

And if you’re ever in the mood to learn more about the art of woodturning, be sure to visit timber-building.com – I hear they have some pretty fantastic courses and resources that could take your skills to the next level.


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