Understanding Wood Properties for CNC Woodworking Projects

Machinists oftentimes confuse wood for being an “easy to machine material” because of how much softer the material is than metal. In some sense this is true, as you can program wood cutting parameters with much higher feed rates compared to that of most metals. On the other hand, however, wood has many unique properties that need to be accounted for in order to optimize the cutting process for maximum efficiency.

Types of Wood

There are 3 main categories of wood: hardwood, softwood and engineered wood.


The textbook definition of a hardwood tree is an angiosperm, more commonly referred to as a broadleaf tree. A few examples would be oak, birch, and maple trees. These types of trees are often used for making high quality furniture, decks, flooring, and construction components.


A softwood is a coniferous tree, sometimes known as a gymnosperm. These are typically less dense than hardwoods and are therefore associated with being easier to machine. Do not let the name fool you: some soft woods are harder than some hardwoods. Harvey Tool’s Speeds and Feeds Charts for its offering of Material Specific End Mills for Wood are categorized by Janka hardness for this exact reason. Janka hardness is a modified hardness scale with a test specifically designed for classifying types of wood.

Softwood is used to make furniture, but can also be used for doors, window panes, and paper products. A couple of examples are pine and cedar trees. Table 1 lists 20 common woods with their Janka hardness.

Common Name:Janka Imperial Hardness:
Buckeye, Yellow350
Willow, Black360
Pine, Sugar380
Cottonwood, Eastern430
Chesnut, American540
Pine, Red560
Douglas-Fir, Interior North600
Birch, Gray760
Ash, Black850
Cedar, Eastern Red900
Cherry, American Black950
Walnut, Black1010
Beech, American1300
Oak, White1360
Maple, Sugar1450
Cherry, Brazilian2350
Rosewood, Indian3170
Table 1: Janka Hardness of Common Woods

Engineered Woods

Engineered wood, or composite wood, is any type of wood fiber, particle, or strand material held together with an adhesive or binding agent. Although some of these materials are easier to machine than solid woods, the adhesive holding the material together can be extremely abrasive. This can cause premature tool wear and create difficulties when machining. It’s important to note that some types of engineered woods are more difficult to machine than others, specifically those with a higher amount of binding material. These types should be programmed with less aggressive speeds and feeds. For example, medium density fiberboard (MDF) if more difficult to machine than plywood, but much easier to machine than phenolic.

Figure 1: Example of Medium Density Fiberboard

Properties of Wood

Grain Size

Technically speaking, wood can be considered a natural composite material as it consists of strong and flexible cellulose fibers held together by a stiffer glue-like matrix composed of lignin and hemicellulose. If you think in terms of construction, the cellulose fibers would be the steel rebar, and the concrete would be the lignin and hemicellulose. Wood with large cellulose fibers are considered to be coarse-grained (oak and ash). Woods that have smaller and fewer fibers are considered fine-grained (pine and maple). Softwoods tend to be fine-grained and are therefore stereotyped as being easier to machine since they do not have as many strong fibers to shear. It’s important to note that not all hardwood trees are coarse grained and not all softwood trees are fine-grained.

Figure 2: Simplified diagram of fibers that constitute natural wood. The cellulose fibers run vertically in this depiction.

Moisture Content (MC)

Moisture content (MC) is one of the most important variables to consider when machining wood. An extremely common problem with building anything with wood is its tendency to warp. Moisture variability in the air inevitably affects the moisture content within the wood. Any change in moisture content (whether an increase or a decrease) will disturb the shape of the workpiece. This is why one must take into account what type of moisture a product will be exposed to in its final resting place.

Equilibrium Moisture Content (EMC)

Equilibrium moisture content (EMC) occurs when wood has reached a balance point in its moisture content. Interior EMC values across the United States average at about 8%, with exterior values averaging around 12%. These values vary around the country due to the differences in temperature and humidity. For example, the southeastern United States have an average interior EMC of 11% while the southwest averages about 6% (excluding the coastal region). It’s important to consider what region and application the final product is going to encounter so that the wood with the correct moisture content can be selected before machining. Most species of flat-grain wood will change size 1% for every 4% change in MC. The direction of warping depends on the grain orientation.

Figure 4: Average regional indoor EMC

Generally, power requirements for an operation rise with increasing moisture content, mainly because of the surge in density. Density of wood increases with rising MC. The additional power may be necessary to push a heavier chip out of the cutting zone. It’s worth noting that, like synthetic polymers, wood is a viscoelastic material that absorbs energy as it becomes wetter. The proportional limit of its mechanical properties intensifies as MC increases.

When machining some types of wood, cutting region temperature will surge with increasing MC, but in other species it will decline. Be safe and avoid rapid tool wear by decreasing SFM when machining a wood with a moisture content above 10%. Harvey Tool Speeds and Feeds Charts suggest a decrease of 30 per MC percentage point. As always, though, it depends on the type of wood being machined and the type of operation being performed.

Temperature change is not the only reason higher moisture content is associated with rapid tool wear. Moisture within wood isn’t just associated with water, but also with resins, sugars, oils, starches, alkaloids, and tannin present within the water. These substances react particularly well with high speed steel, and to a lesser degree with carbide.


A knot is a portion of a branch or limb that has become incorporated in the trunk of a tree. The influence of knots on the mechanical properties of wood is due to the interruption of continuity and change in direction of wood fibers associated with it. These properties are lower in this portion of the wood because the fibers around the knot are distorted and lead to stress concentrations. “Checking” (cracking due to shrinking) often occurs around knots during drying. Hardness and strength perpendicular to the grain are exceptions to generally lower mechanical properties. Because of these last two exceptions, machining parameters should be reduced when encountering a knotted portion of the workpiece to avoid shock loading.

Figure 5: Photo of a typical knot