When you go to the hardware store to pick up finish boards for your new project, you are likely to see several different options. You need to know the characteristics of each type in order to get what you want from your final product as well as not overpay.
Pine is softwood that is inexpensive and easy to get at even the most basic hardware store. This wood has a shimmering, soft yellow look that gives warmth to a piece of furniture. Pine takes stain and cuts easily so it’s a good board for a beginner project. If you want a really even stain color, definitely grab a pre-stain conditioner so that you don’t have splotches.
Poplar tends to have a lot of variation in the color and grain pattern even within a single board. It is a hard board that is good for making furniture but due to its variation in pattern, it is usually used for painted projects. I’ve actually seen several boards that vary between green and purple. Because it is not a pretty board, it is less expensive than other hardwoods.
Oak is the king of all hardwoods and it is readily available at basic hardware stores. It has a distinctive heavy grain pattern that people recognize easily. Oak stains beautifully and is rarely painted. It is likely that every home in America has at least one if not several pieces of furniture made from Oak. It is more expensive since it is typically stained and because of its sturdiness.
Maple is a less common to find at the hardware store but, in my opinion, more beautiful hardwood than oak. It has a far lighter gain pattern and a light tan color. It is roughly the same price as oak and allows you to build a lighter looking piece of furniture. Maple has become very popular for cabinets in recent years.
Cedar is a softwood available at most hardware stores that is known for several unique properties. Cedar is naturally resistant to bugs and rot due to its natural tannins. Cedar also has a pleasant smell and when you combine these two properties, people love to use it for chests and closets. Its rot resistance also allows cedar to be used outside quite effectively. Be prepared to pay a premium for these properties.
Even within each major type of common finish lumber, there are different variations. Birdseye maple is incredibly beautiful and there is a vast difference in look between red oak and white oak. Once you become comfortable with the different types of wood, you can tailor each of your furniture or moulding projects to make something truly unique.