Getting Started: How to Choose the Right Wood
When people talk to me about lures, one question that often comes up is, "What kind of wood do you use?" This question is perhaps one of the most important and often overlooked when just getting started in lure building.
Generally speaking, you may hear wood described as "softwood" or "hardwood." This can be extremely confusing, since when used as a technical term, it refer to the types of trees from which the wood is harvested, and gives no indication of the actual properties of the wood. For example, balsa wood, which is known for being incredibly bouyant and soft, is technically classified as a "hardwood." For this reason, when selecting what type of wood I want for a new lure project, I pay more attention to the actual traits of the wood, such as that species' specific gravity. Specific gravity is a measure of the density of a wood, relative to the density of water, and can give you a solid indication of how a wood will act when in the water.
When choosing which wood to use, the first question asked should be, "What do I want the lure to do?" For the sake of simplicity, I am going to refer to lures as either topwater lures, or as sinking/deep diving lures.
Let's start with topwater lures. There are a number of different types of topwater lures, such as pencil poppers, polaris poppers, spooks, or surface swimmers, like a surfster. These are lures which are designed to generate commotion on the surface and entice fish to strike. When building a plug whose purpose is to stay on the surface, you will want a wood with a lower specific gravity, such as basswood, pine, balsawood, or a cedar wood. These specific species of wood also tend to be easily influenced by any weights inserted into the wood. This makes them ideal for topwater lures, due to the fact that topwater plugs often require lead weights to be inserted, creating their action, such as the heavy tail weight of a pencil popper, or the chin weight of a surfster (we will talk about designing, building, and weighting specific stypes of lures in the future). These species of wood will also create a "faster" action, appearing to be more lively in the water, when used to build metal lip swimmers. With the right shape, weighting, and metal lip these species of wood can also be used to build many styles of subsurface swimmer.
What if you want your lure to sink, or dive deep into the water column? With this being the case, a bouyant wood hardly seems like an appropriate choice. This is where woods with a higher specific gravity come into play. The most popular woods in this category are hard maple and birch. You may also see some guys building with woods like walnut or mahogany, but these are less common. These woods are less lively in the water, and require less weight to be added to make them sink. This makes them the perfect choice for fast sinking needlefish. These types of wood are also extremely popular for building darter lures, which characteristically have a slower, yet unpredictable, subsurface action.
Many of the all-time great lure builders often chose maple for their deep diving metal lip swimmers. Donny Musso and Danny Pichney famously used maple wood to build their large, deep diving plugs. While a handful of builders still use maple from time to time for their metal lips, it seems to be a less popular option among today's lure builders.
I would like to make note of a couple of things that can influence wood choice. First off, when building subsurface metal lip swimmers, a number of other factors play into how the lure swims, and how deep it dives. It is possible to build metal lip lures that dive to 10+ feet using the right combination of line tie location, metal lip angle/style, lure shape, and weight. This is a large part of why the use of maple wood is reserved only the largest deep diving swimmers, as many builders would prefer the more lievely action of a cedar wood plug, modified to dive deep. This is something we will go over later on, in it's own article.
Second, not all woods are created equal when sealing them. Harder woods, with a higher specific gravity, are often times more difficult to seal than their softer, lower specific gravity counterparts. When working with these types of woods, care should be taken to ensure that the wood absorbs as much of the sealant as possible. Woods like maple, birch, or popular, are more prone to splitting should water get into the wood.
Third and finally, I feel like I should point out that by far the most common choice among wood lure builders is cedar wood; with many regarding Alaskan Yellow Cedar as the gold standard. This is the case for a few reasons. Cedar woods can be used to build a number of different lure styles, are easy to work with and cut, and are are relatively easy to locate and purchase. In addition to this, cedar woods are also naturally water and rot resistant (which is why it is a prime choice for fencing and outdoor furniture). While you will still need to seal a plug built with cedar, it can be a more forgiving process due to this natural resistance.