Ranking the Best Woods for Woodturning

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Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time on the lathe can tell you how enjoyable it is to turn a prime piece of wood. Or conversely, how awful it can be to turn wood that chips out, dulls tools, or covers the shop in a layer of red dust (I’m looking at you, padauk!).

There are also dozens of wood species that can trigger mild to severe allergic reactions, so those will immediately make the naughty list in my book.

In the years I have spent woodworking, I have never had much of a reaction to any specific wood species until just last week! I was flattening some wood cookies on my new CNC. They were a variety of local species like pines and juniper.

Once I got to the juniper, my eyes and nose immediately started going crazy! So I can now attest that wood sensitivities are a real thing. It’s a shame, too, because I had wanted to try turning juniper as it is all over here and has some really interesting color and figure.

Anyways, over the years, I have turned dozens of wood species, and this is my list of the best and worst woods for woodturning.

  • Best Wood for Woodturning – Maple
  • Best Wood to Turn Wet – Walnut
  • Best Wood for Turning Bowls – Cherry
  • Best Wood for Pen Turning – Cocobolo

The Best Wood for Woodturning

My choice of the best wood for woodturning is plain old maple. Depending on where you live, maple may come in several different varieties.

In the Pacific Northwest, big leaf maple seems to dominate the landscape, and although it can have many beautiful figures and burl, it isn’t my favorite type of maple to turn. Big leaf maple tends to be one of the softer maples, leading to a lot of tearout while turning. Keeping your tools sharp and focusing on light finishing passes will help mitigate this, but it can still be a bit of a pain.

The other maples, on the other hand, like silver, sugar, etc., are all a joy to turn. They are easy to turn wet or dry, sand to a beautifully smooth finish, and can be easily dyed, burned, carved, or inlaid to turn the wood into whatever form you wish.

I turn a lot of hard maple for products in my Etsy shop and always love how smooth it feels than walnut after sanding to 220. It takes on a glass-like finish even at that grit.

A few other reasons why maple is the best wood for woodturning.

  • Maple woodturning blanks are relatively cheap.
  • It grows all across the country, so it is readily available for most turners.
  • It is a stable wood that typically doesn’t crack much during drying
  • The wood can be as plain or as fancy as you need, with figured, spalted, or burl wood readily available

The Best Wood to Turn Wet

Over the course of your life, I hope everyone can find those moments of true zen. Moments where everything seems right. These moments come when I’m turning a fresh from the tree walnut bowl blank.

Walnut is, without a doubt, my favorite wood to turn wet. With a sharp gouge, wet walnut cuts like absolute butter, leaving thick curls all over the shop. The contrasting colors of the sapwood and heartwood make for a fun adventure as you shape the wood into its final form for drying.

I know that walnut is popular and expensive so finding wood for bowl blanks is a bit more of a challenge (in both time and money), but the payoff is worth it.

The Best Wood for Turning Bowls

My pick for the best wood for turning bowls is a wood that, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as abundant as I wish it were out here in the PNW. And that pick is cherry.

That’s not to say there isn’t cherry available out here because there is. Our old house in Portland had two old cherry trees in the backyard!

While urban cherry can be fun to turn, it isn’t quite the same as the huge cherry trees that are much more commonly found in the hardwood forests of the east coast. This cherry grows huge and makes for some seriously massive bowls blanks!

The few times I’ve had the chance to turn wood bowls out of cherry have always left me wanting more. I love how easy the wood is to turn and finish, and the color is unmatched. Overall I think cherry is a criminally underrated wood!

The color of a large cherry serving bowl has such a warm and inviting tone that only gets better with age.

The Best Wood for Pen Turning

best wood turning blanks

Turning pens is great in that they are quick to make, a great beginner woodturning project, and small enough to allow you to experiment with expensive woods that may otherwise break the bank on larger projects. Cocobolo is one of those woods that fit into this category and is my favorite wood for pen turning.

Cocobolo is an extremely hard, oily wood from Central America that has suffered the same fate as many of its rosewood cousins. Overharvesting has led to severe restrictions on the harvesting, import, and sale of cocobolo. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still cocobolo wood available for turning pens. You can even buy them on Amazon!

The beauty of pen blanks is their small size means they can be made from offcuts, warped, cracked, or otherwise undesirable pieces of wood. While cocobolo pen blanks are expensive, they certainly won’t break the bank.

Turning cocobolo at high speeds almost feels like you’re turning a completely different material than wood. The hardness and high of the wood mean a near-perfect finish right off the skew chisel. Once you begin sanding the wood, it looks like glass as it takes on an incredible shine.

Be careful with the dust, though, as it is extremely fine and can lead to reactions for some folks.

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