Woodworking is, without a doubt, an expensive hobby. The costs quickly add up from shop space to tools to consumables like sandpaper and glue. Not to mention there is the cost of buying wood as well! Luckily, not all hardwoods are equal when it comes to cost, and there are plenty of cheap hardwood options that both look great and won’t break the bank.
The great thing about woodworking is it can take on so many forms. Even though most of the products that I sell in my woodworking business I make from walnut (which is EXPENSIVE!), that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a ton of woodworkers out there making a killing selling products made from cheaper hardwoods like poplar or alder.
One of my woodworking neighbors in the Pacific Northwest just put out a BEAUTIFUL alder coffee table. He used a rich, dark stain that transformed the wood, and you’d never have guessed the lumber probably cost less than $4 per board foot.
The Cheapest Hardwoods for Woodworking
If you want to start woodworking without breaking the bank or are just looking to cut some costs, the cheapest hardwoods are available.
Note that the prices listed below were from mid-2022 and were pulled from several lumber retailers. Obviously, prices in your specific location will vary.
Poplar is well known for being a “paint-grade” wood as it is one of the cheapest hardwoods available. Meaning that it is wood used on projects where you want to use solid hardwood, or at least hardwood accents such as edgebanding, that will eventually be painted.
If you’ve ever built a bed, you’ve probably picked up a stack of poplar boards to use as the support slats for the mattress.
While poplar may not be the prettiest wood, a lot of the lumber tends to take on a slightly greenish hue; it is perfectly workable and finishes nicely. A hardwood poplar cabinet or table with a few coats of paint will look just as good as any other hardwood with a few coats of paint applied.
How Much Does Poplar Cost?
Prices for 4/4 poplar range from $3 to $5 per board foot.
Best Projects for Poplar Lumber
Poplar is a great choice for any woodworking project that will be painted and won’t be subjected to abuse or used outdoors.
It finishes very well but is a relatively soft hardwood which doesn’t make it an excellent choice for projects like tables where it will quickly get scratched and dinged. Poplar also does not stand up well to the elements, so it is recommended to use it for indoor projects only.
Projects like bookcases, cabinets, and shelves are all a great way to take advantage of this inexpensive wood.
Ash is a cheap hardwood with a pronounced open grain pattern similar to oak. Unlike poplar, ash is a relatively hard domestic hardwood species with a Janka rating of 1320. This puts it just a step below other domestic species like hard maple but well above popular species like cherry or black walnut.
Ash is also an easy wood to work with and takes a finish well. As long as you’re comfortable with the grain pattern, this makes ash an attractive and cheap hardwood for furniture projects.
How Much Does Ash Lumber Cost?
4/4 ash lumber costs between $3.50 to $5.50 per board foot.
Best Projects for Ash Lumber
Ash is great lumber for furniture projects that require extra durability, like dining or coffee tables. While the pronounced grain pattern can make it tough to get an even paint surface, the wood does take finish and stain well.
I’ve seen several cool projects using ash where the wood is dyed a jet black, and the grain gives the surface an interesting depth. I could see this application being used successfully in chairs, kitchen islands, or floating shelves.
A few years ago, Ash was a popular choice for baseball bats. While maple has taken over as the wood of choice in that arena, ash still makes great shop projects like tool handles.
Alder may not make everyone’s list for the cheapest hardwoods, but it makes mine as I live right in the backyard for most of the alder production in the US.
It is a fast-growing, soft hardwood that thrives in the wet climate of the pacific northwest. While the wood doesn’t have the durability of ash (it comes in at approximately the same hardness rating as poplar), it has a lovely color and grain pattern reminiscent of cherry or even walnut at times.
Alder is generally available in either standard or rustic (knotty) variations. Knotty alder, in my experience, is a fun wood to work with as the knots add a lot of interesting grain and textural variations to the finished piece.
How Much Does Alder Lumber Cost?
Alder lumber costs between $4 to $9 per board foot. A general rule of thumb is that the closer you are to the pacific northwest, the cheaper the price will be.
Best Projects for Alder Lumber
Like poplar, alder is best used for projects that will see little abuse. But unlike poplar, alder is a great wood to highlight its natural tone and figure.
The wood takes both stain and dyes well, so it can be transformed to match almost any space. I love alder for low-use coffee or console tables, laser engraved name signs, picture frames, or toys.
Note that alder is a fairly small tree, so finding stock wider than 6″ can be difficult to impossible.
Red oak will not top many woodworkers’ lists of their favorite woods to work with. Common complaints include the smell, extreme open pores, and general ugliness. Like ash, red oak is a relatively hard domestic hardwood and comes in on the cheap end of the scale.
Despite all that, red oak is generally easy to work with and makes for a suitable lumber choice for larger projects like furniture. Its open pores don’t take paint well, so if you’re planning on using it, keep in mind that its “beauty” will most likely be on display.
How Much Does Red Oak Cost?
Red Oak costs between $4.50 and $6.50 per board foot.
Best Projects for Red Oak
If you’re familiar with houses built in the 80s, then you’re probably familiar with places where red oak has been used around the house. Cabinets, molding, trim, and ceiling fan blades used this wood prolifically. This wood can look nice in those settings in the proper context, and its workability and durability make it a suitable option.
I think red oak is a good choice for CNC’d name signs. The price is right, it’s available in wide widths, and it takes stain reasonably well, so you can easily highlight the different layers of the sign.
Hickory is an extremely hard and heavy domestic hardwood that has managed to stay cheap. Hickory is known for being difficult to work with both due to its hardness and tendency to blunt the edges of your tools quickly.
Despite that, I like working with hickory, especially rustic hickory, as the price is right, and it has a really interesting color. The heartwood is reddish-brown, while the sapwood takes on a light tan.
How Much Does Hickory Cost?
Red Oak costs between $5 and $7 per board foot.
Best Uses for Hickory Lumber
The unique colors and grain pattern of rustic hickory make it an excellent option for cabinets or flooring. I also really like it for stool seats as it is extremely durable and can match other reddish hardwoods like cherry, alder, or even walnut.
Hickory is also a popular choice for tool handles due to its weight and strength.
Final Thoughts on the Cheapest Hardwoods to Buy
Whlie cost should always be a consideration when choosing lumber for your next project it shouldn’t be the only consideration.
I buy a lot of walnut and have worked my way through all the grades from rustic to plus. With rustic grades the price was great but I always found myself wasting a lot of wood because I was working around knots or checks and trying to minimize sapwood in projects where I didn’t need or want it.
The same goes for cheaper hardwoods as well. Figure out how you want your finished piece to look and what the best woods are to get you to that point.
Derek grew up woodworking in his father’s shop and has since gone on to start up a successful woodworking business on Etsy. In his spare time, you can find him mountain biking, skiing, or writing.