Whether you’re a professional wood crafter or a DIY weekend warrior, the chances are that you’ve come across a piece of wood that you couldn’t quite identify. Sure, there are loads of people out there that say they could identify any wood board simply by looking at it thanks to their years of experience, but how accurate are they? Is there a different way to acquire a concrete identification of different wood species? If so, how accurate can eyeballing a piece of wood really be? Let’s have a look at some of the characteristics of wood species you can look at in order to properly identify them, as well as how accurate identifying wood by looking at the grain really is.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Characteristics Should You Consider When Trying to Identify Wood?
- 2 Which Wood Types Are Common in North America?
- 3 Wood Identification Chart
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
What Characteristics Should You Consider When Trying to Identify Wood?
As we mentioned previously there are certain characteristics that you need to consider when you’re trying to identify a piece of wood board. However, you should keep in mind that even if all of the characteristics you’ve identified align with the wood species you’ve hypothesized, there’s a chance that you could still be completely wrong about what type of wood you’re dealing with. This being said, here are a few things you should keep an eye out for when trying to determine the species of wood you’re working with.
Ensure That You’re Dealing With Real Wood
It might seem a bit silly to mention this, but there are engineered woods out there that can be pretty convincing to even the most experienced crafter. Ensuring that you’re working with real wood by checking for things like repeated wood grain and ensuring that the wood has a genuine end grain are sure-fire ways to determine that you’re working with solid wood and not MDF (medium density fiberboard), plywood, or veneer material.
Keep in mind that other materials can also be painted to look like wood, but in these cases, the weight and texture are usually a dead giveaway. Running your hand along the surface of the wood to feel for the slight differences in elevation and the natural inconsistency of solid wood is another way for you to determine if you’re dealing with real wood or not.
Check the Color of the Wood
We all love how wood stain and varnish enhance, and in some cases, completely change the overall aesthetic of wood, but we never really stop to consider how challenging it can be to identify a wood species after it’s been stained. Keep In mind that both wood stain and varnish don’t just bind to the surface of the wood board but penetrate deep into the wood’s fibers in an effort to protect it.
While figuring out how to identify wood that has been stained can be resolved with a simple scratch test, it’s virtually impossible to comfortably identify the wood species that has been stained other than by asking the person who stained it. This can make identifying stained wood board rather frustrating, which is why most professionals simply don’t bother trying.
Check the Grain of the Wood
If you’re wondering how to identify wood species using the grain, it’s pretty simple, but it might not be as accurate as you’d like to believe it is. Wood species typically have similar grain patterns, especially wood that has been harvested from a particular area. It might not provide you with the exact genius of the wood, but it will tell you what type of wood you’re dealing with.
A good thing to keep in mind when considering the grain of the wood is that hardwoods like redwood and oak tend to have a diner, tighter grain pattern compared to softwoods like maple and/or pinewood. It can be challenging to make this distinction through looks alone, so you might not want to rely on this technique alone for wood identification.
Check for Unique Characteristics
Much like people who grow up in different parts of the world have unique physical characteristics, there are certain tree species and subspecies that have characteristics unique to their genus. This being said, there are certain characteristics you can look for if you know which area the wood was harvested from that could give you a pretty good idea of the tree species you’re working with.
Identifying wood in this manner is a bit more accurate compared to some of the other methods we’ve covered so far, but it’s still not completely accurate thanks to things like alien vegetation and genetic deviations in tree species. However, if you have prior knowledge and the wood has a unique characteristic, you’ll be able to make a fairly educated guess.
Check the Weight
Identifying wood is one of the best ways to determine, at the very least, whether it’s a hard or softwood species. Consider the fact that the denser wood is the heavier it tends to be because the mass has been compressed. You could either judge the weight of the wood by picking it up and comparing it with other wood species or use a scale for a more accurate reading.
You should also consider a hardness test. Density and hardness are interrelated so if you have a rough idea of wood’s hardness you can make an accurate assumption about its weight too. Just remember that identifying wood in this way means that you will have to take things like moisture content and decay into account, as wet wood and rotten wood can cause inaccurate readings.
Consider Regional Origin
While all of these scientific methods are great, it’s easy to forget that common sense can play a huge part in properly identifying a wood species. What do we mean by common sense? Well, if you’re passing through a small town and you’re purchasing a piece of furniture from a local store that uses locally sourced lumber, this dramatically decreases the possibilities of the wood species.
Looking to whittle down the candidates even more? Well, consider what the wood has been or will be used for once it’s been processed. Will it be placed in a highly trafficked area? Will it be used as trimming? Will it undertake a load-bearing application? Asking these questions will help you greatly narrow down the identity of the wood you’re working with.
Focus on the Specifics
If you’re still having trouble narrowing down what kind of wood species you’re dealing with, then you’re going to have to get deeper into the investigative process. This means using some specialized equipment, so we wouldn’t recommend going down this path unless you absolutely have to unless you have the money to spend.
What kind of equipment are we talking about? Well, the kind that you’ll need to look at is a wood’s end grain. In order to identify wood by grain you’ll need to get your hands on a sample, so saw a bit off and sand it down with progressively finer sandpaper. Next, use a magnifier (any unit that provides between eight to 15 times magnification).
So, how do you identify wood by grain now that you have a magnified sample? Well, you’ll have to educate yourself on the intricacies of the anatomy of wood end grain. Wood grain identification is divided into hardwood anatomy and softwood anatomy, which means you’ll have a lot of reading to do before you’re skilled enough to accurately implement your wood grain identification skills without any guesswork.
Try Alternative Means (Ask Around!)
Are you still kind of stumped (pun intended)? Well, different wood grains can be tough to isolate and identify accurately, which is probably why there are professionals for this sort of thing. However, if you’ve managed to get a decent magnified picture of your different wood grains (in which case good on you) then why not try reaching out to professionals?
We don’t necessarily mean reaching out to a lab or university, although they’re arguably more reliable sources, you could try reaching out online. There are loads of woodworking platforms for you to pose your questions on, and you might get an answer sooner than you expect! There are people out there who have dedicated their lives to figuring out how to tell wood types apart, as well as how to protect endangered species of trees.
If you’re still having trouble figuring out how to tell wood types apart then consider a university or institutions like the USDA’s Forest Products Library. If it’s a do-or-die situation, these guys are your best bet. It’s free to use for US citizens, but they can take up to a month to get back to you regarding your submissions so the sooner you get in touch with them the better.
Which Wood Types Are Common in North America?
One of the best ways to identify a wood species is by knowing what you’re likely to encounter on your woodworking journey. This being said, there are a few common tree species in North America that you should familiarize yourself with. These species are the trees that make up the majority of the forested areas in the greater US, and as a result, are some of the most harvested tree species in logging seasons. Here are a few of the tee species you should look for when trying to figure out how to identify wood types.
Ash wood is smooth wood that is lighter but also denser than its common counterpart, oak wood. Ash trees make some of the best finishing trim of all of the common wood species, and they’re naturally smooth to the touch too. This wood species is relatively light in color and is the go-to wood for mid-tier finishes.
Beech wood is a highly sought-after wood species that are typically used in pretty high-end finishes all over the US. If you’re trying to figure out how to identify wood types and you’ve found yourself with some beech wood, it’s good to remember that this wood has a slightly rough texture and little pores all over the wood grain. In terms of weight, this wood weighs around 46 pounds per square inch.
Birch is another common wood used in the construction of homes, typically the interior portions. Why? Birch wood is strong and heavy which means it’s ideal for load-bearing and insulation purposes. It is also used to create furniture and toy thanks to its durability. When it comes to identifying this wood species, remember that it is dark red or brown in color, and it tends to be quite porous.
If there ever was a working-class wood, this would be it. Basswood is relatively cheap and is pretty durable too. This is why it’s one of the most purchased wood types in regions where it’s abundant. It isn’t very durable, but it’s finely grained which means it can be used for finishing trim. This wood is pretty common in the creation of wooden blind slats, and because it’s cheap most mass-produced light-duty furnishings are made of this wood species.
Black Cherry Wood
If you’re looking for a really top-shelf wood, then black cherry might be just what you’re looking for. This wood is highly sought after and often in short supply, which translates to it being pretty pricey. Why? Black cherry trees are home to loads of little critters, and since we love using them to make high-end musical instruments and furnishings, the price and availability of this wood type have been limited.
How do you identify black cherry wood? Well, it tends to have a relatively straight grain and quite the difference in color between its heartwood and sapwood. While the sapwood is light brown or red, the heartwood tends to be a deep red-brown color. Another thing to remember is that the growth rings of this wood species are nearly always visible.
Black Walnut Wood
Black walnut wood is one of those materials that is so well-rounded that it can be used for pretty much anything if you have enough of it. Is pretty heavy and dense, which means that naturally it is used for applications that require a shock-resistant, load-bearing, and/or durable wood type. This wood is straight-grained, is available in light and dark brown, and can be picked up pretty much anywhere if you have enough money (it’s fairly expensive).
If you’re looking for a wood type that won’t break the bank, cotton wood is a great choice. This wood isn’t overly sought after because they aren’t very useful as firewood, and they tend to grow more like weeds or shrubs than like trees. This being said, this wood type can be picked up pretty cheap, and considering that it’s soft and easy to work with you can get a lot done with this wood type.
Elm wood is a lot like the basswood we mentioned previously. It’s pretty reasonably priced and since it’s a hardwood, it’s pretty handy to have around for lightweight construction and load-bearing applications. It’s durable and readily available, but since its grain is so dense it can be difficult to paint and treat with things like wood stain and varnish. Its heartwood and sapwood are an off-gray color, and its grain has a relatively coarse texture.
Hackberry wood is similar to elm. In fact, it even looks similar to Elmwood. Hackberry wood is a hardwood that happens to be reasonably priced and pretty easy to use, while its heartwood is an off-gray color the sapwood tends to have a yellow tinge to it. It’s a pretty hardwood too, and since it’s also really easy to stain it’s a cheap and easy alternative to more exclusive wood species like walnut and/or redwood.
Maple wood is one of the crowd favorites all over the US. Maple looks absolutely beautiful and has been the go-to hardwood for most professionals and DIY enthusiasts for decades. This wood is quite heavy, which naturally means that woods grain is quite dense. In terms of aesthetics, the wood’s grain is really straight and has a red/brown heartwood. The sapwood of this tree species is white in color, and it is generally used for high-end furnishings and finishes.
Oakwood trees are some of the oldest tree species on the face of the planet. These trees can grow to monumental heights and are highly resistant to things like impact, abrasion, insect infestation, and damage from wild animals. This is because oak wood grain is extremely dense, which also makes it really heavy and extremely durable. Oakwood is light in color in both its heartwood and sapwood, and because it also possesses quite a noticeable durability so it is often used in high-end furnishings which can last a lifetime (if not more).
Poplar wood is popular not only in the US but all over the world due to its availability and ease of use. What is poplar wood like? Polar is a medium-density hardwood that isn’t very durable, but it is really easy to work with and tends to accept wood treatments like varnish and wood stain really well. It has a fine grain texture with relatively straight patterns across most of its grained surfaces.
Red Alder Wood
Red alder wood doesn’t exactly have people lining up in droves to buy it, but this doesn’t make it an objectively bad wood species. It just tends to be kind of knotty, so it’s pretty challenging to work with compared to other hardwood species. Red alder board that is straightly grained tends to be used to make furniture, and because its grain is really fine and a light pink color, it makes for a pretty decent finish. Red alder is also pretty heavy and strong, which makes it ideal for making small couches and tables.
This is a bit of an odd wood species, and it can be challenging to identify considering how similar it is to other hardwoods like oak and ash wood. It’s a pretty niche wood that has a coarse grain pattern, it’s also a really thin tree which means you can’t get as much wood as you might get when harvesting from say, oak wood trees. It has a light brown color, and because it’s not really sought after but still pretty rare, it can fetch a hefty price in certain regions.
If you’re looking for some wood to use for paneling, sweetgum is a great choice. This wood type is typically used for cabinetry and/or exterior casings for modern electronic devices. Its grain is really fine, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to identify growth rings on freshly cut boards.
It’s not particularly heavy either, so it’s often used for turning up fine furnishings or used to create slats of veneer for finishing engineered woods like MDF and plywood. This wood is sought after, but unlike some of the hardwood species we’ve covered so far, it’s prized for its ability to finish other woods rather than its inherent characteristics (or lack thereof).
Sweetgum wood and sycamore wood are similar in their characteristics and applications. Like sweetgum, sycamore isn’t particularly heavy and is considered one of the lightest hardwood species around.
This being said, it isn’t very dense which means it’s not really used for load-bearing applications. Like sweetgum, it’s also used for finishing purposes such as creating veneer, interior trim for homes and other environments, or as a face wood for electronics. Sycamore has a dark red heartwood and light brown sapwood, which makes for a slightly better aesthetic than its sweetgum relative.
Willow wood is pretty easy to identify because its sapwood tends to be a green-brown color while its heartwood tends to be a very deep brownish-red. This wood isn’t known for its woodwork capabilities but rather for its medicinal applications, it is used in many medications used to treat localized pain like toothache and headache and can be found in various over-the-counter medications.
On the other hand, it can be used to make wicker furniture and things like prosthetic limbs. Willow wood is also really light so it’s often paired with other woods and reinforced when used for light load-bearing applications.
Wood Identification Chart
While there are various wood identification charts out there, none of them will ever be completely comprehensive. Why? Wood identification charts do their best to cover some of the most commonly used wood species or those that people often have trouble identifying.
This being said, there are various tree species that are unique to certain regions, and even more that haven’t even been documented. Crazy, right? This is why it’s best to consult a professional if you aren’t having luck with a wood type chart, especially if identifying the wood species is critical to the function and/or longevity of your workpiece. This being said, here is a wood-type chart with some of the key characteristics of the wood species we’ve covered so far.
|Wood Species||Identifying Characteristics|
|Black Cherry Wood|
|Black Walnut Wood|
|Red Alder Wood||Can be knotty|
Now that you know which characteristics you should look for attempting to identify wood species and some of the common wood species you’re likely to encounter on your crafting journey, it’s time for you to get out there and put your newfound knowledge to the test. Remember to consult a professional if you feel out of your depth, or simply ask someone with a bit more experience and/or knowledge than yourself, especially if identifying the wood special is critical.
View our Identifying Wood web story here.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to Identify Different Types of Wood Grain Patterns?
Identifying different wood grain patterns means that you’ll have to research and familiarize yourself with some of the common types of wood grain patterns found in the most used wood types. This is often regionally specific, and it can be difficult to identify wood through its grain pattern alone.
Is There an App to Identify Wood?
While there are developers working on the identification of wood through the use of a photo recognition application, the probability of you having to input other bits of information such as where it was found, its texture, approximate age, and common wood species in its area of origin still means that there is a significant margin for error.
What Are the Four Types of Lumber?
While there are loads of wood species, it’s widely accepted that there are only four wood types for you to choose from. These are softwood, hardwood, veneers, and MDF boards. These boards are distinct in their internal composition, applications, and tolerances.
I have been into woodworking since 2005 and woodturning since 2011. Because of my love for wood and woodworking, I started woodhappen.com to teach other enthusiasts about how to finish and seal wood, the best woodworking tools, the different types of wood, and everything else related to woodworking! Read more about me here.