by Eric Meier In the process of identifying wood, things can get a bit overwhelming when faced with the hundreds and hundreds of possible species. Yet in the context of everyday woods that most people in the United States or Canada are likely to encounter, the list of possible woods is usually much shorter. This article is meant to act as sort of a “Cliffs Notes” to help address the most common (and hopefully, obvious) questions of wood identification.
Red Oak (sealed)

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

1. Oak

Comments: This wood is everywhere! Chances are, there’s something made of this wood within a stone’s throw of where you’re sitting right now. It’s used for cabinets, furniture, flooring, trim, doors, and just about anything else that can be made of wood! It’s very frequently stained a medium reddish brown, so it may look slightly darker than the raw sample pictured to the left. Lookalikes: Ash (lacks the prominent rays that are found in oak). Also, see the article on Distinguishing Red Oak from White Oak.

Hard Maple (Acer saccharum)

Hard Maple (Acer saccharum)

2. Maple

Comments: This light-colored wood is seen almost as frequently as oak, and is usually not stained a dark color, but is kept a natural whitish-cream or sometimes stained an amber-yellow. It’s commonplace in furniture, flooring, trim, and in places where a pale, light-colored wood is needed. Quartersawn pieces with a freckled appearance are commonly used in countertops and butcher blocks. Lookalikes: Birch (generally has narrower rays than those found in maple). Pine (generally much lighter and softer than maple, and with more conspicuous color in the growth rings). Also, see the article on the Differences Between Hard Maple and Soft Maple.

Black Walnut (sealed)

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

3. Walnut

Comments: The real deal. Walnut is unique in that it is one of the only woods that is naturally rich, deep chocolate brown (though it can sometimes be slightly lighter as well). It’s almost never stained, and is very popular for use in furniture. It’s also not uncommon to see walnut used in veneered pieces as well. Lookalikes: Mahogany (sometimes it’s stained very dark and the color can appear very similar to walnut). Butternut (sometimes called “White Walnut,” it’s related to walnut, but is paler in color and very lightweight).

Black Cherry (sealed)

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

4. Cherry

Comments: The subtle reddish brown appearance of cherry is usually seen on fine furniture and trim. It’s also not uncommon to see cherry used in veneered pieces as well. Along with Black Walnut  it’s one of the premier hardwoods in the United States. It’s sometimes stained just slightly darker to give it a more aged appearance. Lookalikes: Poplar (stained poplar can be almost impossible to tell apart from cherry).

Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

5. Birch

Comments: Most commonly seen as plywood. Birch also tends to pop up in furniture and millwork too. Lookalikes: Maple (generally has wider rays than those found in birch). Cherry (the grain patterns are very similar, and if the birch is stained, it can be difficult to tell apart from cherry).

Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

6. Poplar

Comments: This is an inexpensive utility hardwood that’s used in a numer of applications, such as upholstered furniture frames, veneer, and is also stained to mimic other more costly hardwoods. Lookalikes: Cherry (if poplar has been stained, it’s almost impossible to tell apart from cherry)