The past few nights, I finally got started on my next actual woodworking project. It was incredibly refreshing to be dimensioning and cutting into real hardwood after working nothing but MDF, hardboard, and birch plywood the past two months. It probably didn't hurt that I'm using American Black Cherry, which is one of my all time favorite materials. It wasn't even just the tactile feel of the wood or the ease at which my jointer, planer, and bandsaw made quick work of the dimensioning, but also the smell and the shimmer of fresh cut grain that I realized I had been missing.
The exercise got me to thinking (and I posed this same question on Twitter earlier today with some interesting responses). If I were on a desert island with a woodshop (am I the only one that's had this dream?), and had only one material to work with, what would it be? So far I haven't heard the same two responses from people, which to me indicates the answer really depends on not just personal preference, but the kinds of tools you use, the types of projects you do, and the materials you've had experience with. For example, one response I got was that cypress would be the best since it is versatile for both indoor and outdoor furniture, and has good anti-rot characteristics. I don't build much outdoor furniture, nor have I ever worked with cypress, so it would have never crossed my mind. But a very interesting and somewhat unexpected response.
So after much deep introspection (and coffee) I came up with two different answers. If the possibilities are wide open and I could really pick any material, it would have to be Cuban mahogany. Now endangered, the only way to get true old-growth Cuban mahogany is to find reclaimed material or uncover a stash in an old barn somewhere. The closest I've come to true Cuban is some “sinker” first growth boards pulled from a river in Belize. It's a pleasure to work with hand tools, the grain is tight and very consistent, unlike new Honduras or worse African Mahogany (which isn't really mahogany at all), first growth lumber has some very interesting figure, and grain patterns that almost dance as you hand plane it.
But I decided I should also come up with a more realistic (or perhaps eco-friendly) answer as well. If I had to choose from commonly available material, I do think I would have to choose cherry. Some people find cherry boring because unlike maple it doesn't come in a dozen types of figure. And the closed poor material can be challenging to finish without splotching. But as an avid hand tool user, hard, figured material can often be a real headache for me. Plus, I hate sanding and can almost always get away with finishing cherry with nothing more than a smoothing plane and card scraper. And a simple oil and wax finish on cherry can be just as dazzling as walnut or maple if you choose you grain and finish carefully.
I'm interested in hearing other peoples thoughts and opinions!