Terpenoids (isoprenoids) encompass more than 40 000 structures and form the largest class of all known plant metabolites. Some terpenoids have well-characterized physiological functions that are common to most plant species. In addition, many of the structurally diverse plant terpenoids may function in taxonomically more discrete, specialized interactions with other organisms. Historically, specialized terpenoids, together with alkaloids and many of the phenolics, have been referred to as secondary metabolites. More recently, these compounds have become widely recognized, conceptually and/or empirically, for their essential ecological functions in plant biology. Owing to their diverse biological activities and their diverse physical and chemical properties, terpenoid plant chemicals have been exploited by humans as traditional biomaterials in the form of complex mixtures or in the form of more or less pure compounds since ancient times. Plant terpenoids are widely used as industrially relevant chemicals, including many pharmaceuticals, flavours, fragrances, pesticides and disinfectants, and as large-volume feedstocks for chemical industries. Recently, there has been a renaissance of awareness of plant terpenoids as a valuable biological resource for societies that will have to become less reliant on petrochemicals. Harnessing the powers of plant and microbial systems for production of economically valuable plant terpenoids requires interdisciplinary and often expensive research into their chemistry, biosynthesis and genomics, as well as metabolic and biochemical engineering. This paper provides an overview of the formation of hemi-, mono-, sesqui- and diterpenoids in plants, and highlights some well-established examples for these classes of terpenoids in the context of biomaterials and biofuels.