How to Choose The Best Wood For Your Table Top

Choosing the best wood for your table top is a vital step in buying or making your own table. The material you choose will affect not just the look of your table – and how it ties in with your existing decor and design – but also its durability and maintenance.

The right choice of wood will bring your kitchen or dining room alive; the wrong choice might stick out like a sore thumb!

Below we’ve looked at the three important factors you should consider – softwood vs hardwood, traditional vs contemporary, and durability – as well as introducing five popular types of wood (Red Oak, White Oak, Maple, Cherry & Walnut) and why their advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s jump right in!

p.s. Know what wood type you want but not sure where to get the perfect table? Check out our article that showcases beautiful tables created by eco-friendly manufacturers.

3 Factors To Consider When Choosing Wood For Your Table

While you are going to have an almost unlimited amount of options to pick and choose from when it comes to the type of wood you use for a dining table, there are three key considerations you’ll want to focus on more than anything else to find the right choice for your home.

1. Should You Choose a Softwood Table Top or a Hardwood Table Top?

Whether you’re buying or making a kitchen table, dining table, or even restaurant tables, the first factors you’ll want to consider is which wood type you want: softwood or hardwood.

Hardwood species such as oak, walnut, or mahogany, are a better choice for a table top than a softwood. They have a tighter grain structure and are more resilient, which helps them survive the use (and abuse) that kitchen and dining tables receive.

The average hardwood scores much higher on the Janka hardness test (a measure of hardness – more on that on the durability section below) which makes them more durable. There are exceptions, of course – Yew is a softwood but has a high Janka hardness score.

Depending on your usage, this choice may not matter. Pine tabletops (and pine dining room furniture in general) are featured a lot in country style and farmhouse aesthetic designs, and pine is about as soft a softwood as you are going to come across! However, if you do choose a softwood you should be aware it may need a hard finish such as polyurethane to help increase its durability.

2. Style: Are You Looking for a Traditional or Contemporary Table Top?

Another important factor is the style you are going for. Most woods can be used for tables in a wide variety of looks and designs, but some lend themselves to particular styles.

For example, walnut looks amazing in midcentury modern designs but doesn’t really come across quite as well any more traditional or farmhouse style look. On the other hand, hard maple or oak can work for both farmhouse style tables and more modern designs.

Think carefully about the natural aesthetics of the species of wood you’re using and you’ll have a good idea of which style that material is best suited for. It really all comes down to how you use the wood and how it is finished.

3. Tables Made From Hard & Durable Woods Will Last Longer (And Require Less Maintenance)

As a general rule, you’ll want your dining table to be as durable and as resilient as possible. No, you don’t necessarily need a restaurant table that can handle hundreds of people sitting at it on a 24/7 basis, every day of the week, but you do want something that can withstand everyday use – especially if you have a lot of guests or young children.

Like we highlighted above, the wood type you choose for the wood tabletop is going to make a world of difference when it comes to the hardness and resiliency of this piece of furniture. A tight grain pattern guarantees a more resilient and durable tabletop, whereas a more open grain wood species is prone to dents, dings, and scratches. If you are building your own table, another aspect to consider is that you need the wood to be workable. Very hard woods might make your job much harder!

For woods, hardness is measured by the Janka hardness test, which measures how much a piece of wood resists denting. You can see the Janka scores for some woods below to compare hardness between popular woods:

Wood Type Janka Hardness Score
Red Mahogany 2,697 lbf
Hickory 1,820 lbf
Hard Maple 1,450 lbf
White Oak 1,369 lbf
American Beech 1,300 lbf
Red Oak 1,290 lbf
Black Walnut 1,010 lbf
Cherry 995 lbf
Red Maple 950 lbf
Western White Pine 420 lbf

If you need to know the score for more woods, there’s an extensive list on this Wikipedia page.

5 Popular Types of Wood for Table Tops

Below we’ve listed five popular wood types that are commonly used for solid wood table tops. Each of these wood species can create a beautiful table – let’s find out which one is best for you:

Choose a Red Oak Wood Table Top For Durability and a Beautiful Red Hue

Red oak is one of the most popular hardwoods for wood table tops (and it also makes a really nice coffee table, too) in large part because of its hardness and durability.

With a slightly orange or reddish hue (when finished naturally), it’s possible to bring out the “fire” in this material quite easily for a more lively kind of look – all without sacrificing the resiliency of the material itself.

In addition to its beautiful color, its grain pattern is much more open than what you might expect with a traditional hardwood, which allows this material to absorb a lot of stain. That makes finishing it a breeze, though you have to be careful not to go overboard.

This type of wood is a bit on the heavy side of things, though. It’s also best used in more traditional furniture styles compared to more contemporary options.

White Oak Table Tops Are Great For Mission, Midcentury Modern, and Arts & Crafts Styles

White oak (especially quartersawn oak) is one of the most popular materials for wood table tops on the planet. It’s also the most popular choice of wood material for the mission style of furniture, the midcentury modern style of furniture, the arts and crafts style of furniture, and other styles that require clean lines.

The quartersawn approach creates a very unique grain pattern, showing off the growth of the wood itself while still allowing it to maintain strength and resiliency. The grain pattern is also semi-open, allowing it to absorb stains very evenly, too.

Like red oak, though, white oak is very (VERY) heavy. If you make your dining table out of this you might not want to move it around too often!

Maple Table Tops Are Affordable and Durable

Maple wood materials (brown and hard maple alike) have very unique characteristics that make them very high quality options when you’re building a kitchen or dining room table.

The hardness and durability of the hardest types of maple are similar to oak and it has a similar texture and ability to absorb stain quite easily and quite evenly. Soft maple, or brown maple, is less durable (the brown maple is taken from a different part of the maple tree rather than being a difference species), but with a Janka score of 950 is close to the equal of Cherry wood.

Cherry Wood Is a Great Choice For Traditional and Formal Tables

Cherry is a beloved material for both kitchen tables and dining room tables and is the perfect option for more traditional and formal dining room sets. The color is quite warm and rich with a silk smooth texture and a grain pattern that isn’t very disruptive. Cherry wood tables look good when they’re made and typically look better over time.

Durability with this material is a bit more of a question mark, though. Cherry is technically a hardwood but just doesn’t have the same kind of resiliency and resistance to scratching and denting the way that oak, maple, and walnut will.

Walnut Table Tops Go Great With Modern and Contemporary Styles

Walnut wood is top choice for many buyers (and makers) looking for a wood to match with a modern and contemporary style and walnut’s grain pattern is beloved by many.

This hardwood has been used to make everything from spoons and bowls to gun stocks and tables, and everything in between because of its unique characteristics. Walnut has a rare mixture of durability, feel, and a golden glow that comes through the dark surface wood – a glow that really comes alive when finished correctly.

Not quite as hard as oak or maple (the Janka hardness scale of walnut registers at 1010), walnut is still going to resist denting, scratching, and other accidental damage, that come with use. However, the high demand and lower supply (walnut trees grow smaller than some other hardwood trees) for walnut does mean that you will pay a premium for the wood or a piece of furniture made out of it.

Conclusion

Make no mistake about it, one of the hardest things you’ll have to do is sift through all the amazing material options out there to find the right wood. The five species we mentioned in this article are just the most popular choices – there are plenty of others to choose from as well.

If you’re not sure where to start, we recommend you return to our three original factors – you probably want a hardwood, you should choose a wood that matches the style of your room, and you should choose a level of hardness that matches your likely use (and if you’re making the piece yourself, is workable enough).