Your home build projects are only as good as the lumber you choose

Exotic woods like black cherry and snakewood, ranked by their hardiness.

Experienced artisans can fashion almost anything from wood—as long as they have the right material. These four options offer them increasing levels of hardness.

American chestnut

Carpenters once used this hardwood for everything from construction to furniture. That changed in the early 1900s, when a fungus decimated the native population—but you can still find choice boards that have been reclaimed from old buildings or fallen trees.

Black cherry

Cabinetmakers prize black cherry as one of the finest all-around materials for the job because of its durability and innate beauty. It starts off as a light pinkish color and darkens to a deep reddish-brown over time. Many craftspeople finish it with a simple layer of clear coat.


The strength of this strikingly striped lumber makes it great for decking and other outdoor applications. It’s naturally resistant to rot, so you don’t have to stain it for protection, although you can oil it once a year to prevent it from fading to a lackluster gray or silver color.


Named for its visual similarity to a serpent’s skin, this rare South American timber is one of the hardest and most expensive in the world. Despite its density, it splinters easily, so carpenters generally use it for small specialty products like violin bows.

This story appears in the Spring 2020, Origins issue of Popular Science.

John Kennedy
John Kennedy

John Kennedy is PopSci's DIY editor. He previously covered legal news for Law360 and, before that, local news at the Journal Inquirer in Connecticut. He has also built and remodeled houses, worked as a fencing coach, and shelved books at a library. When he's not taking things apart or putting them back together, he's playing sports, cooking, baking, or immersed in a video game. Contact the author here.