How to Design with Hard and Soft Woods in Interior Design

Design School Diaries 1.2 – Natural Materials, Wood

interior of a restaurant

Hello Designers and Future Designers,

Welcome back to another installment of Design School Diaries! In this post we will cover natural materials, and specifically wood.

This is a handy reference on the topic for practicing interior designers, or for self-study of materials for students of interior design.

Previous posts in this series:

What You Will Learn in Interior Design School

Design School Diaries – Materials, Stones and Suppliers

Where would you expect to find timber (wood) in the built environment? 

The possible answers to this question are many.

Wood is used in the construction of cabins, in framing, floors, beams, cabinetry and furniture, to name just a few. 

As an interior designer it is important to understand where wood is sourced from; about its materials qualities, safety (fire-rating, allergen information), and also its many possible uses. 

One important factor when considering wood as a material is whether the wood in question is a hardwood, a softwood or an engineered wood product. 

You will also want to know which wood product is best to use in each circumstance when designing using wood.

What follows is information gleaned from my first study of wood in interior design school.

I hope that you find it useful!

Note: Design School Diaries posts are gleaned from select portions of my student design work. It does not include the textbook material, nor does it reflect all of the student work done.

For this reason I will try to include some helpful references for self study that are available on the internet or at your local library.

Please note that due to the necessary emission of copyrighted material there might be images missing.

Materials was a year one class (1/3). One of the first things we did was learn to distinguish natural materials from man-made or “synthetic” materials. We were also introduced to a third category; “hybrid” materials.

For this period of our studies we were asked to collect illustrations, brochures and samples of as many woods as possible. We kept these on file, as explained in Design School Diaries: Materials, Stones and Suppliers.

For this assignment we placed our collected materials into softwood, hardwood and engineered wood categories.

We were asked to examine one softwood and one hardwood of our choosing in detail.

Students put together a presentation of our two example materials, covering the following seven characteristics and use cases:

Characteristics of Wood as an Interior Design Material

slice of brown wooden log

What to consider:

1. Appearance – color and graining patterns

2. Suitable uses

3. Workability

4. Likely defects, e.g. large knots

5. Availability and sources of origin

6. Fire resistance qualities or, if the grading is poor, methods used to improve them

7. Appropriate paint colors and textile fabrics that will go well with each one


trees during day

You can live for years next door to a big pine tree, honored to have such a venerable neighbor, even when it sheds needles all over your flowers or wakes you, dropping big cones onto your deck at night.

~Denise Levertov.

Scientific Name:

Pine (Pinus) Common varieties include Southern, Sugar, Ponderosa (Ponderosa), Short (echinada) and Long Leaf (palustris) Pines.

Appearance, Color and Graining Patterns

Appearance: Pine is classified as fine to medium and is often described as being ‘silky’ in texture. Being a ‘softwood’ pine is actually very hard, with a high structural density. The heartwood of Pine is much darker and heavier than the sapwood. On longitudinal surfaces of the heartwood resin-ducts may be prominent; these appear as fine dark brown lines.

Color: Typically the heartwood is a reddish-brown and the sapwood yellowish-white in hue.

Graining patterns: This wood presents with closed pores and is straight-grained.

Example of Pine Wood in an Interior

Danish home outfitted with pine cleared from building site of residence, featuring plank flooring and beam wall structures.

Danish home office shows wood paneling and outdoor decking constructed of pine harvested from site. The type of pine tree timbered is visible in the backdrop.

Other Examples

Pine Nut Cabin by DAAB Design on Arch Daily

5 Perfect Examples of Smart Modern Pine Wood Interiors on Decoist

Suitable Uses for Softwood Pine

Construction: Permanent wood and raised-floor foundations, structural components, joists, piles, roof trusses and stringers. Pine has a naturally excellent strength-to-weight ratio.

Interiors: Most often applied as subfloor and sheathing. May also be used decoratively, for custom cabinetry and as furniture.

Exteriors: Often used as decking and siding for patios. It is usually pressure-treated with preservatives, according to local standards. Pine’s properties make it especially good for absorbing applied treatments.

Softwood Pine’s Workability

Renowned for taking nails and screws well, Pine can be glued and is also painted very satisfactorily.

Pine works well with almost any carpentry tool. It has a relatively modest dulling effect on cutting edges.

One negative characteristic worth noting is that pine resin can clog sandpaper and cause tools to become gummy.

Likely Defects of Pine Wood

Blue stain may occur; this is a discoloration caused by mold.

Dead or ‘loose’ knots—the result of a dead branch that was not integrated into the tree before being felled. It should be noted that tight knots, though sometimes removed for aesthetics, do not affect the strength of the wood. Some pines i.e. “Knotty Pine” is prized for this particular feature.

Resin and sap may be profuse and require attention when handling and working.

Pine’s Availability and Sources of Origin

green grass field


Pine is very widely available in most of Europe and the Americas. It is widely cultivated and forested for the production of paper and timber. Because of its broad distribution it is very reasonably priced. Thus, Pine may be considered affordable and available for most any project where it is deemed suitable.

Sources of Origin:

Pine is native to most of the northern hemisphere but found as far afield as the Philippine islands, Far-eastern Russia, and even equatorial Sumatra. Several species have been introduced in sub-tropical and temperate zones of the southern hemisphere where they are also readily-available as timber.

Fire Resistance Classifications


0-25Enclosed vertical exits
26-75Exit access corridors
76-200Other rooms and areas

Pine’s Fire Resistance Qualities

Building codes with respect to interiors are primarily concerned with the flame spread index (FSI) which may grade on a scale between 0 and more than 1,000.

Varieties of pine are listed between a 72 index for Idaho White Pine (Class B) and 230 for Pondorosa Pine (Class C).

The use of fire retardant treatments may bring the flame spread rate to as low as 25 or less.

Building codes for commercial interiors may mandate materials to be stamped with the flame spread classification of a bona-fide testing agency.

The designer should consult with the manufacturer as to availability of suitable timber.

Textile Fabrics that Pair Well with Pine

Sample Board for the concept of Pine with Wool

For pine I chose wool as my recommended textile to pair with it.

Reasoning: Pine has a soft, smooth look which I believe works superbly with rough-textured and handsome wool fabrics.

Also, pine is often found in slightly rustic settings, in cool climates where wool may offer comfort and warmth to the interior scheme.

Notes on Designing with Softwoods like Pine

The main pros of working with pine is that is is widely available and is usually responsibly sourced. Pine is highly versatile, and is fairly light but also strong. Pine has a light hue which can be treated in many different ways by staining and varnishing. Woodworkers find it easy to work with.


green meadow with a big tree

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver. ~Martin Luther.

Scientific Name: Mango (Mangifera Indica)

Appearance, Color and Graining Pattern of Mango Wood


Mango is a beautiful hardwood of medium density, with a texture which ranges from fine to medium. Its density is similar to Ash or Black cherry wood, which are more commonly known.


Mango’s colors are very unique when compared with most other woods. A variety of hues may present due to spalting (wood pigmentation caused by fungi) that is reasonably common to the wood. Both heartwood and sap can be a virtual kaleidoscope of colors. The most frequently found are shades of tan and brown; while yellow, green and even streaks of pink or black may also occur.

Graining Pattern:

Mango generally has a straight grain, though it may sometimes be interlocked or figured. Its end-grain is defined as diffuse-porous; meaning the demarcation between rings is unclear. The pores of mango wood are medium in size without specific arrangement. Tyloses and heartwood deposits may occur in this wood.

Suitable Uses for Mango Hardwood

Decorative: Arts and Crafts and decorative objects; particularly bowls and vases which are carved to reveal the distinctive graining.

Furniture: Almost any type; especially chairs, stools, tables and free-standing cabinets.

Other: Mango is also used for plywood, veneers and flooring as well as high-end ukuleles; especially in Hawaii.

Workability of Mango Hardwood

Strength: Although its composition is known to be quite dense, Mango wood is considerably lighter than hardwoods such as oak or teak, which makes it easier to handle.

Carpentry: The properties of mango wood lend themselves well to carving. This wood is easy to cut and shape, which gives it an advantage over other hardwoods.

Finishes: Mango is water-resistant and glues and finishes well. It is well treated with a couple coats of beeswax polish. Over time, this type of wood develops a pleasing patina and looks even better with age.

Likely Defects of Mango Hardwood

Mango wood is known to have a high silica content which predisposes it to dulling the cutting edges of blades, so this should be noted.

The grain of Mango is prone to being interlocked or ‘curly’ and in this state may be more difficult to work with. Shifting of the wood while it is being sawed will cause it to bind on the blade.

Mango Hardwood’s Availability and Sources of Origin

Local Taiwanese Brochure featuring Mango Wood furniture.


Mango wood is becoming increasingly popular due to its unique properties in terms of aesthetics and durability.

It is a good choice for designers and buyers concerned with sustainability issues.

In Europe and the Americas mango wood is an imported wood, and as such, its price is higher than that of domestically-available timbers. However, because it has recently begun to enjoy a wider distribution, it is fairly easily located and still moderately priced on account of being considered an ‘exotic’ wood.


Mango is considered a renewable source of wood since the primary purpose of the mango tree is to produce fruit for consumption.

A typical Mango trees may grow to be very large, reaching a diameter of five feet and a height of one hundred feet. As the tree grows into maturity it becomes more difficult to harvest from and eventually stops producing fruit.

Mango plantations replace mature trees with young fruit-bearing trees about every seven to fifteen years. The resultant timber product is an extra income source for mango farmers.

Sources of Origin:

The mango tree belongs to the Sumac family of trees and is an evergreen, believed to have originated from India. It was discovered by Europeans more than two thousand years ago.

It is cultivated across Southeast Asia where it has become a symbol of good fortune. It is also grown in Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Fire Resistance:


All wood generally has a low thermal conductivity (K-rating), and especially low in dense hardwoods such as mango. While the specific fire spread index for this wood can be difficult to ascertain on account of lack of sources, its density has been expressed as similar to cherry wood, which achieves an FSI of 76, or marginal Class C.


Fire resistance may be improved in structural timber by pressure treatment. Treatment chemicals are not usually applied outside of the manufacturing plant and suppliers should provide designers with timber suitable for specific projects at the designer’s request and according to appropriate codes and regulations.

Appropriate textile fabrics that will go well with Mango wood

Mood board for the concept of Silk and Mango Wood.


For my textile, I have selected a quality Asian silk/cotton blend, which I believe will complement the natural warm tones of the mango wood, while providing some shimmer and color.


Mango wood furniture tends to lean toward Asian stylistically and has a casual appeal along the lines of tropical minimal. The silk is a more sophisticated material, but the ikat patterns impart a contemporary vibe.

Supplement. Visiting a local saw mill which processes large raw hardwood timber from Indonesia.

Lessons Learned

In this earliest exploration into timber as an interior design material I was most impressed by the following:

-Hard and soft timbers are not always obviously distinguished by sight

-Soft timbers are generally faster-growing, more easily sustained and are used mostly for construction

-Hard timbers are generally slower-growing, more often less sustainable, and are used mostly for finishes, like floors and for high-end furniture

-Fire ratings for timber are extremely important in interior design

-Mango wood is a surprisingly sustainable hard wood

-Pine sourced from North America and particularly Canada is usually from well-managed forests

-Hardwoods from developing nations like Indonesia and Brazil are more subject to unsustainable foresting practices

-Check out the Wood Database Online for a great resource for looking up wood species (link below)

We’ve reached the end of this lesson on wood as a natural material. Check out the essay which followed this on the ecological responsibilities of designers:

Below are some of the resources I studied or cited. About 80% of the links for my internet resources from 2012 have since moved or are no longer valid, so if you see something below it is probably a decent quality resource.

Thanks for reading!

Happy design studying and see you in the next one.




Interior Materials and Surfaces, Helen Bowers/Firefly.

The Surface Texture Bible, Cat Martin/Abrams.

Fundamentals of Building Construction: Materials and Methods, Edward Allen & Joseph Iano/Wiley.



The Wood Database Online


Environment Agency UK—The Environmental Regulation of Wood, Position Statement.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Agency—General Technical Report FPL-GTR-113 “Wood as an Engineering Product”.

Society of Wood Science & Technology (Montana, USA)—Properties of Wood Educational booklet.


Economywatch Online: World Industries—Construction. Interior Design Services.


Designer, writer & educator living in East Asia since 2001

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