Amateur makers are often confused about where and how to source the boards they need for their next project. Moreover, they aren’t sure what terminology to adopt and what species are available to them.

Considering the many options available not knowing where to begin is understandable.

We’ve made this guide to help you through the maze and make better decisions about what to buy.

Hardwood or Softwood?

The terms hardwood and softwood are a little difficult to decode. Hardwood is a catch-all term for timber from broadleaf trees; similarly, softwood is timber from conifers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all broadleaves produce timber that is very dense and heavy, or that all conifers produce lightweight timber.

Balsawood (150 kg/m3) which you may have used to make models is a very low-density hardwood. Yew (675 kg/m), a relatively dense timber, belongs to the softwood family.

While there are exceptions to the rule, as a general rule of thumb hardwood species are usually heavier and denser than softwoods, and display a more varied range of colours and grain patterns.

Commercial Hardwood & Softwood Species – UK

There are about 140 commercially available species sold in the UK. The majority are classified as hardwood and the rest are softwood. Here are the most commonly available sold as solid sawn or waney edge boards.

HardwoodSoftwood
Ash, American – Fraxinus sppDouglas fir – Pseudotsuga taxifoila/P. menziesii
Ash, European – Fraxinus excelsiorEuropean redwood/Scots pine – Pinus sylvestris
Beech – Fagus sylvaticaParana Pine Araucaria angustifolia
Cherry, American – Prunus serotinaLarch – Larix decidua
Elm, American – Ulmus americanaWestern red cedar – Thuja plicata
Iroko – Chiorophora excelsaHemlock –  Tsuga heterophylla
Keruing – Dipterocarpus sppEuropean whitewood – Picea abies/abies alba
Mahogany, African – Khaya ivorensisYew – Taxus baccata
Meranti – Shorea sppSitka spruce –  Picea sitchensis
Maple – Acer saccharum
Oak, American Red – Quercus spp
Oak, American White – Quercus spp
Oak, European – Quercus robur and other
Sapele – Entandrophragma cylindricum
Teak – Tectona grandis
Tulipwood Liriodendron tulipifera
Utile – Entandrophragma utile
Walnut, American – Juglans nigra
Walnut, European – Juglans regia
Wenge – Millettia laurentii
UK Grown Timber – From specialist suppliers
Sycamore – Acer pseudoplatanusCedar of Lebanon – Cedrus libani
London Plane – Platanus x acerifoliaYew
Sweet Chestnut – Castanea sativa
Cherry – Prunus avium
Apple – Malus sylvestris
Pear – Pyrus communis
Plum – Prunus domesticus
Hornbeam – Carpinus betulus
Boxwood – Buxus sempervirens
Holly – Ilex aquifolium
Tree of Heaven – Ailanthus altissima
Lime – Tilia x europaea
Elm
Walnut
Oak
Beech
Commonly Available Timbers in the UK

Where to Buy

In the UK we have several options:

  • Buy from one of the big DIY stores like Wickes, or B&Qsupply a limited range of solid softwoods sold as European redwood and European whitewood. Packaged and sold in a fixed number of common sizes, some treated against pest attack for outdoor work. In the main, this is construction grade unsuitable for high-end cabinet work due to a large number of knots and/or resin pockets. Don’t expect the staff to be knowledgeable about the products.
  • Buy from a builders merchantsimilar to buying from a DIY shop but usually have a wider variety of timbers including hardwoods. Staff might be better informed.
  • Buy from a timber merchantas the name implies these companies primarily sell solid timber. They usually have a wide range of imported sawn hardwoods and softwoods and can offer to mill them to your preferred size.
  • Buy from a timber merchant specialising in homegrown treesthese companies sell timber grown in commercial woodlands or from urban trees. You’ll find an array of interesting species and boards not stocked by bigger timber merchants. Specialists may also harvest and dry their boards and may be able to offer you unseasoned boards.
  • Buy online from Ebayinteresting bits and bobs and hard-to-find rarities if you are lucky.

Where Can I Buy Ethically Sourced Timber?

Buying timber while trying not to be part of a global chain of mismanagement and human rights abuses can be difficult to navigate. Here are a few suggestions.

Forest Stewardship Council

Buy FSC-certified timber – ask your supplier which of their timbers are certified if any.

FSC forest management certification confirms that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers, while ensuring it sustains economic viability. FSC-certified forests are managed to strict environmental, social and economic standards. 

Forest StewArDSHIP COUNCIL WEBSITE

Buy UK Grown Timber

The market here is small, but there is a growing number of companies actively seeking to supply more homegrown trees and forest products. Many of these suppliers can tell you exactly where the tree was felled.

Fallen & Felled – We repurpose felled urban trees into hardwood timber for furniture makers, architects and designers.

Whitney Sawmills – Whitney Sawmills has always supplied both UK and European hardwood and softwood timbers. With Woodland Heritage’s aim being to increase the proportion of native timber sourced from the UK, especially from the West Midlands and Wales we will continue to increase the amount of timber we source from this country.

English Woodlands Timber – As sustainable wood suppliers, we champion the use of timber sourced from forests that are under silvicultural management. We believe it all starts with the trees…

The Quarter Sawn Oak Company – We source, prepare and sell the finest quality British oak to both DIY and trade.

Vastern Timber – Vastern Timber manufactures oak beams, timber cladding and hardwood flooring. We specialise in British grown timbers, including English oak, sweet chestnut, ash, sycamore and larch.

Interesting Timbers – We have always been keen to prevent the decline in British Woodlands by promoting the use of locally grown timber as this is a more sustainable resource and this is why we have resisted the trend to source our timber across Europe and the World.

The Wareham Woodshop – Our British Timbers are locally sourced within Purbeck and Dorset. Hardwoods are often wind-fall and end of life trees from local estates whilst softwoods are from local forests

Check out our Core Skills Understanding Wood course to discover more about buying, drying and using timber.

Student on a field trip to a local timber merchant

Next up in this series: Buying Timber – How Much?