Types of Wood for Desks

Benna Crawford

Marie Antoinette scribbled at a purplewood, sycamore and rosewood veneer desk at Versailles. The purplewood is out of reach but a wood desk is very doable.

Write your novel, keep your accounts, come up with brilliant blueprints for your clients at your wood desk. Wood is a warm material with distinctive character and solid durability. There is a wood type and style for every budget, although at the lower end you might not find too many hardwood desks. Check out a few ideas and clever green solutions for the right wood-grained work surface at the heart of your home office or on hand for the serious business of homework production.

High-End Hardwoods

Quality hardwoods are available in premade and bespoke desks and represent an investment in fine furniture. The woods are prized for their rarity, beauty, unusual or fine grain, and hardness and are typically challenging to work by hand. An artisanal hardwood desk takes more time, more skill and more expensive raw wood than a factory-manufactured desk. Due to the cost of fine hardwood, less expensive woods are often used for factory-made desks and hardwood veneers may be applied to "upgrade" a base of more available, still sturdy, but cheaper wood. Some sought-after hardwoods used for desks include:

  • Cherry -- close, distinctive grain; light brown to deeper reddish-brown; color deepens over time. 
  • Elm -- light to dark brown with occasional red streaks; rare due to Dutch elm disease. 
  • Mahogany -- medium-brown to deep red-brown or dark red; very distinctive grain; a traditional furniture favorite increasingly rare due to overharvesting. 
  • Maple -- dense grain; very strong; light brown with a reddish tint; grain may be straight, curly, wavy or bird's-eye; more unusual grains are expensive. 
  • Rosewood -- prized for fine furniture and increasingly hard to find; dark brown to dark purple with strong black streaking. 
  • Teak -- smells divine; colored golden-yellow to darker brown with light and dark streaks; fades to silvery gray when exposed to weather. 
  • Walnut -- chocolate-brown with occasional dark brown or purple streaks; distinctive grain; becoming rare and expensive. 

Good Woods

Oak is a very hard, sturdy, open-grained wood that ranges from a light, ashy color to light reddish-brown -- white oak and red oak -- and can be bleached very pale. It takes stain well and is often stained to match other woods in the decor. Beech and birch are lighter in color and common choices for wood furniture. Beech, a heavy wood, may be stained to look like cherry, maple or mahogany. Birch has a slight yellowish cast, is close-grained and actually looks a lot like maple. Pine and poplar are lighter, softer woods -- creamy yellowish-brown for pine and brownish-yellow with a hint of green for poplar. Good woods may make up the entire desk or be paired with more expensive hardwoods to lower the cost of production or to extend a limited supply of a hard-to-obtain hardwood. In that case, the more visible and detailed features of the desk are made from the best wood.

Save the Rain Forest

There is a finite supply of wood in the world and aggressive logging and export of fine hardwoods from tropical forests has severely depleted ancient stands of trees that will take generations to replace. In some cases, the devastation is so complete that the landscape is permanently altered and the trees will not come back. Research the woods you prefer for your desk to be sure you are buying an older, reclaimed or antique piece in the case of the most threatened species. And hunt for readily available woods from sustainably managed forests for any new work you commission. Some of the most vulnerable and endangered popular hardwoods are ebony, mahogany, rosewood, redwood, walnut, wenge and several species of pine. Zebrawood, teak and yew are considered at risk.