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Whether you are someone who only occasionally works with wood, or are a professional wood crafter, you have likely found yourself with a piece of wood that you were not able to identify. While there are people can identify wood board by just looking at it (or sniffing it), due to years of experience, are they always, correct? Is there another way to ensure you have the correct identification of different species of wood? We will have a look at certain key characteristics of wood species that you can use to identify them correctly, as well as how accurate wood identification is, when based purely on looking at the grain.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Characteristics Should You Look for to Identify Wood?
- 2 Which Wood Types Are Commonly Found in North America?
- 3 Wood Identification Chart
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
What Characteristics Should You Look for to Identify Wood?
As mentioned, there are a few characteristics that you will need to take into consideration when you are attempting to correctly identify a piece of the wood board. However, remember that even if you can assign all the characteristics with the wood species you have hypothesized, there is still a possibility that you could be wrong about what wood you have. There are, however, certain characteristics that you can keep an eye out for when telling types of wood apart.
Ensure That You Are Dealing With Real Wood
It may seem unnecessary to mention, but these days there are engineered woods that are very convincing and may seem like real wood. You should check for any repeated wood grain, and that the piece of wood has a real end grain to determine if it is real wood as opposed to MDF (medium density fiberboard), veneer material, or plywood.
Remember that other types of materials can be made to look like wood with paint, but in those cases, it is normally a dead giveaway due to the texture and weight of the material. To feel any difference, simply run your hand along the wood’s surface. Real wood has natural inconsistencies, while man-made materials tend to have repeated wood grain.
Check the Color of the Wood
You can enhance your wood by applying varnish and wood stain, and in certain cases, change the wood’s overall aesthetic completely, but we never really think about how much harder it is to identify a wood species once it has been stained. Remember, that varnish and wood stain do not only bind to the wood’s surface but also penetrate deep into the fibers of the wood to protect it.
While working out how to identify stained wood, you can use a simple scratch test. It is practically impossible to identify the wood species that has been stained without asking the person who had stained it! it can prove to be very frustrating to identify stained wood boards, and often professional woodworkers do not even attempt to.
Check the Grain of the Wood
If you are wondering how, you can use the grain of the wood to identify the wood species, it is relatively easy to do, but you may not always be right. Wood species tend to have similar grain patterns, particularly if the wood has been harvested from a given area. you may not be able to gauge the correct genius of the wood, but it will give you an idea of the wood you are working with.
One thing you should remember when considering the wood’s grain is that woods like oak and redwood, which are considered hardwoods, tend to have a tighter, thinner, grain pattern in comparison to the likes of pinewood or maple which are considered to be softwoods. Though simply looking at the wood it can prove difficult to make this distinction, so we recommend you do not only rely on this technique alone to identify the wood species.
Check for Unique Characteristics
There are certain characteristics that are influenced by where the tree has grown, and what geographical area it was located in. With that, there are several characteristics you can look for if you are aware of the area that the wood has been harvested from that will point you in the right direction in terms of which wood species the wood is.
Identifying wood in this way is a lot more accurate in comparison to some of the other methods we have mentioned so far, but sadly, it is still not completely accurate due to aspects such as genetic deviations and alien vegetation in tree species. If you are lucky to have prior knowledge and the wood you are dealing with has unique characteristics, you should be able to make a relatively accurate guess.
Check the Weight
When identifying wood, you should at least be able to figure out if the wood is either a soft or hardwood species. Due to ensure wood has a more compressed mass it will therefore be heavier. You can simply pick up the piece of wood and compare it with other wood species, or should you wish to get a more accurate reading you can use a scale.
A hardness test is another method you can use. Hardness and density are interlinked so if you have a general idea of the wood’s hardness you can assume the weight of the wood too. Keep in mind that if you use this method to identify wood you will need to take into consideration aspects like decay and moisture content, as well as rotten wood and wet wood that can result in inaccurate readings.
Consider Its Regional Origin
While scientific methods may seem accurate and useful, remember that your common sense is a great tool in correctly identifying wood species. You may wonder what is meant by common sense, well basically if you are buying a piece of furniture from a local store in a small town that is known for using locally sourced timber, this drastically decreases the possibilities of the wood species.
Think about what the wood will potentially be used for when it has been processed. Will it be used to create trimmings? Will it be placed in high-traffic areas? Will it be used to support load-bearing applications? Answering these types of questions will assist you in narrowing down the identity of the wood you are working with.
Focus on the Specifics
If you are still struggling to narrow down what kind of wood species you are working with, then you are going to have to do further investigations. You will need to use some specialized equipment, but we suggest you do not begin with this unless you are willing to spend some money on the equipment.
So, what kind of equipment do we mean? To be able to identify the wood’s grain you will require a sample of the wood. Saw off a piece of the wood you are dealing with and using progressively finer sandpaper, sand the wood down. Then take a magnifier (anyone that offers between an eight- and 15-times magnification).
Now that you have a magnified sample, how do you identify wood by grain? You will have to educate yourself by doing some research, on the intricacies of the wood end grain’s anatomy. Wood grain identification is sorted into softwood anatomy and hardwood anatomy, so it will require a substantial amount of research before you can accurately implement your wood grain identification skills without any guesswork.
Try Alternative Means
Do you still have no idea what wood species you are dealing with? Sadly, different wood grains can be challenging to accurately identify. As a result, some professionals can assist with this. However, if you were able to get a decent magnified image of your different wood grains (if so, well done!) it may be time to turn to professional assistance.
We do not necessarily mean you need to reach out to a university or a lab, though these would be considered the most reliable sources, you can try reaching out online. There are many platforms dedicated to woodworking for you to pose your question, you may have the answer you are looking for sooner than you think. There are individuals out there that have dedicated their lives to telling wood species apart at simply a glance, while also doing all they can to protect endangered species of trees.
If you are still not successful when dealing with, how to identify wood types, then it is time to consult a university or an institute such as the USDA’s Forest Products Library. If you are a US citizen then this service is free, but then can take some time, up to a month, to get back to you.
Which Wood Types Are Commonly Found in North America?
One of the best methods to use when identifying a wood species is to have a good understanding of what tree species are commonly used in your line of woodworking. Within North America, certain wood species are worth mentioning. These specific species are trees that make up the majority of the forested areas in the United States and therefore are some of the most harvested tree species come logging season. What follows is a list of tree species that are relatively common within the US, and you should keep your eye out for them.
Ash wood is a light wood, while still being quite dense in comparison to its common counterpart, oak wood. It is also a smooth wood. Of all the common wood species, ash trees provide some of the best finishing trims, and are naturally smooth in texture.
This is a light-colored wood species and for mid-tier finishes, it is the go-to wood.
This is a very sought-after wood species that would usually be used for high-end finishes across the US. If you are trying to work out how to identify wood types and you are working with a piece of beech wood, keep in mind that this type of wood has a slightly rough texture to it and small pores across the wood’s grain.
About the weight, this type of wood weighs about 46 pounds per square inch.
Another common wood type is birch. It is often used in the interior of the house for construction purposes. This is because birch wood is a heavy and strong wood so it is perfect for use for insulation and load-bearing purposes. Thanks to its durability, it is also a great wood to use when making toys and furniture.
When identifying wood species, keep in mind that birch wood is brown or dark red, and it is normally quite a porous wood.
If you are looking for a working-class wood, then basswood is it. As a wood species, basswood is quite cheap and relatively durable. Where this wood is in abundance, it is usually the most purchased wood. It is an extremely durable wood, but the grains are very fine meaning it can also be used for finishing trims.
The wood is commonly used for making wooden blind slats, and thanks to its being cheap, it is often used for mass-produced, light-duty furniture.
Black Cherry Wood
If you are after a high-end wood, then black cherry is a great option. This is a very sought-after wood species and sadly is usually in short supply. As a result of this, it is usually very expensive. Why is that you may wonder? Black cherry trees are often home to an assortment of small critters, and as we love creating high-end furnishing, and musical instruments using this type of wood, the availability is limited and the price reflects this.
How do you identify black cherry wood? Black cherry wood’s grain is normally quite straight and there is a noticeable difference in color between its sapwood and heartwood. The heartwood is a deep red-brown color, while the sapwood is red or light brown. You should also note that black cherry wood’s growth rings are nearly always visible.
Black Walnut Wood
Black walnut wood is a well-rounded material that can be used for a variety of projects and products. It is a dense and heavy wood, meaning it is naturally used for applications that call for load-bearing, shock-resistance, and/or durability. It is available in either dark or light brown and tends to have a straight grain.
It is also available practically anywhere if you have the money (keep in mind it is quite pricey).
If you are looking for an affordable wood type, then this is the ideal choice. This wood grows in abundance and is typically used for firewood. Thanks to this the wood can be purchased quite cheaply, and thanks to it being easy to work with and a soft wood, you can do lots with it.
Much like basswood, elmwood is a well-priced wood, that is also hardwood. It is useful for load-bearing applications and lightweight construction. It is easily available and is considered a durable wood. Due to it having a dense grain it can prove challenging to paint it or treat it with things like wood stain and varnish.
Both its sapwood and heartwood are off-gray in color, and it has a relatively coarse texture to its grain.
This wood is quite similar to elm wood. It even resembles elm wood when you look at it. As a hardwood, hackberry wood is well priced and simple to use. Its sapwood has a yellow tinge to it, and the heartwood is off-gray in color. You can stain this wood with ease and it’s an affordable alternative to more pricey wood species such as redwood and/or walnut.
Maple wood is a very popular wood, used throughout the US. It is a stunning-looking wood and is the preferred hardwood for most DIY enthusiasts and professionals for years. This is a relatively heavy wood, making it understandably dense.
The wood’s grain is relatively straight and the heartwood is reddish-brown. on the other hand, the sapwood of this tree is white and is normally used for high-end finishes and furniture.
Oakwood trees are some of the oldest tree species in the world. These trees can grow to amazing heights and are extremely resistant to the impacts of things such as insect infestation, abrasion, and damage caused by wild animals. The oak wood’s grain is very dense, which makes it extremely durable and very heavy. Both sapwood and heartwood are light in color.
Thanks to their extreme durability, the wood is often used for top-quality furnishings that will last for many years.
Poplar wood is a popular choice throughout the world thanks to it being easy to use and readily available. Poplar wood is not that durable and is a medium-density hardwood. But you can work with it with ease and it accepts wood treatments such as wood stain and varnish well.
Its grain texture is fine and has quite straight patterns across the majority of its grained surfaces.
Red Alder Wood
Red alder wood is not particularly popular, but that does not mean it is a bad wood choice. The wood is often quite knotty, so it creates challenges when working with it in comparison with other hardwood species. The grain of the wood is quite fine and is light in color, the boards are often used to make furniture thanks to the straight grains, it offers a decent finish.
Red alder is a strong and relatively heavy wood so is great for use to make tables and small couches.
This is a strange wood species and it can be hard to identify as it is very similar to other hardwoods like ash wood and oak. It is quite a niche wood that due to it coming from a thin tree, you will only be able to get a limited amount of wood when harvesting, as opposed to the likes of say, an oak tree. It is quite a rate wood, but is not very sought-after, that being said in certain regions it can sell for high prices.
The wood is light brown.
Sweetgum is a great wood to use if you are doing paneling. This wood is also often used for exterior castings for modern electronic devices and/or cabinetry. It has a really fine grain, so much so that it is almost impossible to distinguish growth rings on freshly cut boards.
This wood is not too heavy, so it is ideal to use for turning up fine furnishings or to create veneer slats for finishing engineered woods such as plywood and MDF. This is a sought-after wood, but unlike the other species of hardwood that we have looked at so far, it’s loved thanks to its ability to finish other woods as opposed to its inherent characteristics (or lack therefore).
Sycamore wood is very similar to sweetgum wood in both its applications and characteristics. Sycamore is also not too heavy and is even though to be one of the lightest hardwood species available. As a result, it is not that dense and so should not be used for load-bearing applications. It is mainly used for purposes linked to finishes from interior trim in the house and other environments, to creating veneer, or even on electronics as a face wood.
Sycamore’s sapwood is light brown, while the heartwood is dark red, giving it a superior aesthetic to the likes of sweetgum.
This species of wood is quite easy to identify as its heartwood is a deep red-brownish color, while the sapwood is brown-green. This wood is known for its medicinal uses as opposed to its woodwork capabilities. It is used in an assortment of medications to treat localized pain such as headaches and toothache and can be found in an assortment of over-the-counter medications.
Another use for willow wood is to make prosthetic limbs and wicker furniture. It is a light wood that can be paired with other woods to assist in reinforcement when used for load-bearing applications.
Wood Identification Chart
There are many different wood type charts available, but they are never completely comprehensive. That being said wood identification charts try to cover as much as they can in terms of commonly used wood species.
However, certain tree species are only found in certain areas, and even more, have not been documented.
It is due to this that we recommend you reach out to a professional if you are not having any luck using a wood type chart, particularly if correctly identifying the wood species is imperative to the longevity, and/or function of your workpiece. We have put together our wood type chart as follows:
|Wood Species||Identifying Characteristics|
|Black Cherry Wood|
|Black Walnut Wood|
|Red Alder Wood|
Now that you have a good understanding of which characteristics you should keep an eye out for when attempting to identify wood species, and some of the more common wood species you will come across when working with wood, you are now ready to get started and put your knowledge to the test. If you feel you are out of your depth, remember you can reach out to a professional for assistance.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Four Types of Lumber?
There are many different types of wood species, there are however only four types of wood you can select from. These are MDF boards, veneers, hardwood, and softwood. These boards each have their characteristics in terms of their tolerance, composition, and applications.
Is There an App to Identify Wood?
There are currently app developers working on using photo recognition application, to be able to identify the wood type, in all probability, you will still need to input other pieces of information from its texture, common wood species in the area of origin, where it was found, and its approximate age still means that there is a high likelihood for errors.
How to Identify Different Types of Wood Grain Patterns?
You may be wondering how to identify wood by grains, you will need to familiarize yourself, through research, with some of the more common types of wood grain patterns, found in the most used wood types. You will then be able to identify different wood grain patterns. The wood grain pattern is normally regionally specific and it can prove to be challenging to identify wood through just its grain pattern.