15 Best Woods for Lathe Turning (Woodturning Guide)

Last Updated on December 21, 2023 by Charles Wilson

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the best wood for woodturning. The type of wood, the hardness, the color – all of these things come into play when you are trying to create a beautiful piece of art.

In this article, we will discuss fifteen of the best types of wood you can turn with your lathe and what you need to consider before purchasing your next blank.

Let’s dive in!

Characteristics of the Best Wood To Turn

When choosing a piece of wood for your lathe turning project, there are a few key characteristics you should keep in mind. These are hardness, density and dryness. Color is also a consideration, but I will not be talking about color in this review because it is a matter of personal taste.

Hardwood vs. Softwood

The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to use hardwood or softwood for your project. Hardwoods are more durable and have a longer lifespan, but they can be difficult to work with because they are harder to shape. Softwoods are easier to work with and cheaper but are not as durable.

There are pros and cons to both types of wood, so it really comes down to personal preference. If you are a beginner, I would recommend starting with softwood because it is easier to work with. As you become more experienced, you can experiment with hardwood.

Wet Wood vs. Dry Wood

The next thing you need to consider is whether you want to use wet wood or dry wood. Wet wood is easier to work with because it is more pliable.

However, it can be difficult to get the desired shape when using wet wood. Dry wood is more difficult to work with, and more expensive, but it will hold its shape better once it dries. If you’re working with dry wood, make sure to use sharp tools.

I always recommend a beginner to start with wet wood because it is easier to work with because of the price. That said, dry wood almost always results in a better finished product, especially if cracks and warping would ruin your creation.

The Best Woods For Woodturning

With all that said, let’s get into the best species of wood for woodturning. These are the most popular varieties. Where available, I’ll attach a link so you can easily get your hands on some blanks.

1. Walnut

Walnut is a hardwood that is typically easy to work with. It has a beautiful grain pattern and a creamy white color that makes it perfect for a wide variety of projects.

The only downside to walnut is that it can be difficult to sand. This is because the wood has a pronounced end grain. However, if you take your time and finish with several coats of oil, you should be able to get a smooth finish that brings out the natural beauty of the wood.

2. Ash

Baseball bats are traditionally made from ash wood, and for good reason. Ash ranks between maple and cherry wood on the Janka scale of hardness, making it relatively easy to turn.

It’s also great for making shock resistant tool handles. And because of its drying properties, you can turn it green without issue. So if you’re looking for a good wood for your next baseball bat or tool handle, ash is definitely worth considering.

3. Hickory

Hickory is a very hard wood, making it a tough wood to work with. However, it turns well with very sharp tools, making it ideal for certain projects like bowls.

It does scratch easily, so it is important to sand hickory with the grain to

avoid damaging the wood. Hickory is also prone to checking, so it is important to be aware of this when working with it.

Overall, hickory is a difficult but rewarding wood to work with, and the results can be very impressive.

4. Ebony

Ebony is one of the darkest woods available, and it has a beautiful deep grain. It’s very hard, so you need to sharpen your tools well or invest in some carbide tools.

Unfortunately it also tends to be very expensive. Additionally, there are some sustainability concerns with ebony as it’s often sourced from regions where the trees are being logged at an unsustainable rate.

So if you’d prefer not to use ebony for one of the above reasons, you can use aniline dye powder to “ebonize” other woods and achieve the same black color as if you used the real thing.

5. Cherry

Cherry is another hardwood that is popular among woodturners. Cherry woods range in color from red-brown to yellowish-white.

Cherry is typically easy to work with and takes a nice finish. The only downside to cherry is that it can be difficult to find in larger sizes.

6. Box Elder

Box Elder is a softwood that is typically easy to work with. It has a beautiful grain pattern and a raspberry-like color that makes it perfect for a wide variety of projects.

Some common uses for box elder wood are bowls, platters, and goblets. The only downside to box elder is that it can be difficult to find in larger sizes.

7. Rosewood

If you’d like to turn chess pieces, you’ll love rosewood. This species of wood is popular among woodturners because it is easy to work with, has a beautiful finish and has a pleasant fragrance that can last for years.

8. Maple

Maple is one of the most popular woods among woodturners. Maple is a hardwood that is typically easy to work with. It has a beautiful grain pattern and a creamy white color that makes it perfect for a wide variety of projects.

If you can get your hands on it, opt for spalted maple. Spalting is a process that naturally occurs when wood rots. This gives the wood unique patterns and colors that are highly sought after by woodturners.

9. Cocobolo

Cocobolo is a beautiful wood that is popular for use in woodturning and creating finely crafted cutlery handles. It is easy to work with, but the sawdust can be an irritant, so it is important to take precautions when using it.

The dust can cause a rash, so it is important to wear gloves and a mask when working with this wood. In addition, it is important to work in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling the dust.

However, if you take these precautions, cocobolo is a wonderful wood to work with and can create beautiful and unique pieces.

10. Red Elm

When most people think of elm, they don’t typically think of turning it. Despite mostly being used in construction, elm is a type of wood that can be turned into beautiful wood bowls and other objects.

There are two main types of elm: red and white. Red elm is the more popular of the two because it typically has a better grain pattern.

11. Sycamore

If you like to turn bowls, plates, or other objects that will come into contact with food, sycamore is a great option. Sycamore typically doesn’t impart any flavor or scent to food, making it a great choice for serving bowls and platters.

One downside is how much the wood can move when it dries. So make sure you turn it dry, otherwise, it could warp and crask

12. Bradford Pear

Bradford pear is an excellent wood to turn but it doesn’t have a very distinctive grain pattern. It makes up for this with a beautiful organge color.

It’s a dense wood, and it’s soft when wet but turns hard when dry. So many woodturners like to turn it wet, let it dry and then apply the finish.

13. Pacific Madrone

If you’re looking for a wood that’s easy to work with and takes stains and finishes well, Pacific madrone may be a good choice. Madrone comes from a mountain range between British Columbia and California. 

It compares similarly to hard maple in working characteristics, making it a good option for lathe work.

However, it is prone to warping when it dries, so you’ll need to take care when drying and storing it. For this reason, I recommend turning it dry with sharp tools.

If you’re willing to take the time to work with this wood, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful finished pieces.

14. Yew

Yew is a beautiful wood with a unique grain pattern that makes it ideal for creating detailed carvings and inlays. It has a pleasant smell, and its light color makes it perfect for painting or staining.

However, yew is not typically used for making bowls or other containers because it is not food safe. The wood of the yew tree contains irritants, so take care when handling.

15. Beech

When it comes to turning, beech is a versatile and popular choice. It can be used for everything from functional pieces like bowls and spoons to decorative items and tool handles.

Beech turns similarly to maple, making it fairly easy to work with. However, it is somewhat prone to scratching, so it’s important to sand with the grain while the lathe is off.

With a little care and attention, beech can be transformed into a wide variety of beautiful and useful items.

Frequently asked questions:

What’s the worst wood for wood turning?

The worst woods for turning are soft woods, like pine and balsa. That said, many turners use them for practice because they are so cheap.

You can make some impressive ornaments out of pine. But if you turn with the intention of selling, pine won’t fetch as high a price as harder woods. It’s also less durable.

What’s the best wood to practice turning?

Without a doubt, pine is best to practice wood turning! It’s cheap. It’s soft, so you won’t need to sharpen your tools as much. Pine is a good wood to learn the basics on.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to harder woods.

What’s the best wood for turning bowls?

Hardwoods like cherry, maple or walnut are good choices for turning bowls. They’re strong and durable, so your bowl will be able to withstand everyday use.

Softer woods like pine or balsa are not as good for bowls because they’re more likely to scratch and chip.

Make sure to use a food-safe finish for your wood bowls!

What’s the best wood for turning pens?

Hardwoods are the best for making pens because they’re more durable and feel nicer in the hand. The specific hardwood doesn’t matter.

If you want to experiement, you can try using burl wood or other woods with unique grain patterns.

What’s the best lathe for turning wood?

The beauty of turning is that any lathe can be used to turn wood, it doesn’t matter if it’s a midi lathe, a mini-lathe, a full-size lathe, or even a metal lathe

What’s the best lathe for turning bottle stoppers?

You can make bottle stoppers out of just about any kind of wood. It’s relatively common to make them out of mesquite because mesquite blanks are only available in small sizes.

Can you turn wet wood?

Yes, you can turn wet wood. Wet wood is easier to turn than dry wood. However, there is a chance that the finished product will split as it dries.

For this reason, many woodturners opt to rough the wood wet, let it dry for a few weeks, and then finish the product dry.

Final thoughts

Woodturning is a fun and rewarding hobby, and there are many different woods that can be used for it. The best wood for turning will depend on the project you’re working on.

No matter what wood you choose, be sure to use a sharp tool and sand with the grain to avoid damaging the wood. With a little care and attention, you can create beautiful and useful items from any kind of wood.

Of course, you can’t turn wood without a good lathe. So while you’re here, why not check out some of the best wood lathes on the market?