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.