May 26, 2021

The Best Wood to Turn on a Lathe

The best wood to turn on a lathe is an essential question for any woodturner. The tools of our trade are sharp and precise and need to be used on a material that will give the best results. Each type of wood has its qualities and is best for different projects. Each wood can be used for intricate and detailed works of art that showcase the turner’s skill and be used for pieces of simple practicality.

Be sure to view our Wood Lathe Projects for Beginners post.

What to look for in wood to turn on a lathe

Choosing the perfect wood for a project is challenging since there is a wide range of wood to turn on a lathe. However, there are features to consider that comprise beauty, durability, and versatility. When you are not sure, a type of wood that makes a wide range of items is ideal. You need to know the requirements of your project so that you make the perfect pick. Below is a list of characteristics to be considered.


I recommend high-quality wood that works on a variety of projects. It contains low resin content. That makes it easier to work with a variety of saws. 


The durable wood material is resistant to harsh weather conditions. These include rain and snow. It is not easily affected by insects such as fungal attacks and termites.


When choosing the best wood for your project, you have to look at the best quality. Good quality wood comes from mature trees. They have a sweet smell and a radiant appearance. 


The color of the wood material determines the item’s color, although you add coating or paint. Quality woods come in a darker color on its exterior. It has a beautiful grain in its grain. 


Good wood should regain its original shape without losing its accuracy. It does not have to break. That is perfect for fishing rods and archery bows. I advise a user who specializes in sports equipment.


Top-quality wood makes a ringing sound that is clear when struck. You might have come across items that make this sound when dropped. The inferior quality wood makes a dull and heavy sound. That is a sign of internal decay.


High-quality wood takes time to deteriorate from mechanical wear and tear. It does not get affected by physical abrasions easily. 

Resistance to fire

Dense wood is resistant to fire. That means they do not catch fire easily. 


Good quality wood contains firm and straight grain. Woods with twisted fiber shows that it does not last long.

Wood Types

Figured Maple

Figured maple wood contains aberrations in the grain that forms different shapes. It comes in multiple forms such as tiger, fiddle back, and makes musical instruments, cabinetry, and kitchen utensils. The color ranges from white to brown. It has irregular borders with a maple pattern.


The perfect speed for walnut is 800-1,000rpm. It creates an end grain at the bottom of the item made. It is challenging, a hardwood that needs a sharp tool for turning.


Cherry comes in pale yellowish-white to reddish-brown color. It is interspersed with a dark streak that makes lovely patterns when sanded and polished. It responds well to varnish and oil finishes. 


It has a raspberry and colored streaks and flecks. It is for bright bowls and platters. The red streaks come from a pigment that is from a fungus. The color ranges from brown to purple. It comes with fine and interlocked fibers. It is ideal for high-end furniture. It is strong, durable, and dense.


The rosewood trees are about 100 feet in height, and the trunks are between 35 to 50 feet. The standard diameter is 30inches. The colors vary from 

Pacific Madrone

It comprises heavy wood that has reddish-brown heartwood and yellow-white sapwood. It requires sharp tools for cutting and shaping. However, it tends to chip rather than splinter. It makes durable items since it is strong and durable.

Red Elm

Red Elm is for turning, although it has an odor. It is not for holding food. It comes in a brown-reddish color. The grain patterns vary. Sometimes they are fine, and in some, they are wild. They do not last very long since they die young.


Sycamore does not interfere with the original flavor of food. That is why it makes bowls and kitchenware. It is ready to move when it is green. Even when it is dry, it keeps moving. The Sycamore wood is hard, and it needs sharp tools for shaping.


Mesquite is a hardwood that comes in red to chocolate brown heartwood and lemon-yellow sapwood. It comprises interlocked and closed grains. I advise you to use it on small projects such as making pepper grinders and bottle stoppers. It is sturdy and dense. It comes with a high texture. Although some users struggle to use it, it has unique qualities. I advise you to use it on small projects.


Hickory is a tough hardwood that suits heavy-duty projects. As much as it is tough, it remains attractive. A sharp tool works well on hickory. You have to be careful with the sharp tool since it does not cut through easily. I advise you to sand hickory along with the direction of the grain. 


Ashwood is a general term used to describe all types of ash trees. It can be used in furniture or as an adjective like “ashwood furniture.” It is great for wood-turning projects. Ashwood trees are often beautiful in the fall when their leaves turn orange and red. It is also easy to work with at home. If you prefer, you can purchase pre-made ashwood logs that are already cut into smaller pieces of wood.


Beech is hardwood. The sapwood is white, and cream and the heartwood is reddish. It is firm and resistant to shock. However, it remains flexible. It comes in pin or reddish-brown heartwood. It is heavy and comes in a linear style. It is for wooden toys and instruments. What makes it perfect for turning on a lathe machine is its durability and resistance to abrasion. It is for cabinets, furniture, and floor decor.

When to Use each type of wood

After collecting your wood, it does not mean that it is ready for turning. The wood has to be hazard-free. We use a handheld detector as we look for hidden metal. That is growth from waste metal. 

There is a need for rough cutting so that pieces become smaller and safer to control. I advise you to cut them into halves. The building of jigs follows, and keep your fingers away from the machine. Drying wood is a choice, and it depends on the type of wood you are using. You have to cover the ends of the wood with paint.

Cutting with each type of wood

There are specific tools for cutting each type of wood. Softwood is easy to cut with less sharp tools, unlike hardwood. You have to sharpen your cutting tools, such as chisels. Blunt-cutting tools cause inaccuracy. 

Finishing techniques

What determines the finish is how your item is going to be used by the next person. If it is handheld most of the time, I recommend melamine, plastic, or CA finish. I advise toy or food-safe finish because the chances are high that users expose their hands to the mouth. For safety reasons, the item has to be protected. 

You are allowed to make coloring with spirit stains if your project allows it. Decorative turnings attract a sanding sealer after sanding. There is a final sander that polishes your items. You may apply wax on ornaments for a shiny finish. More coats last longer and are resistant to wear. Find out how to turn a pen with a mini lathe.

David D. Hughes

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