by Eric Meier

The most basic division of elm species is between hard and soft elm. The wood of the hard elms (sometimes referred to as rock elm) generally range from 41 to 47 lbs/ft3, while soft elms typically have a density from 35 to 38 lbs/ft3.

Hard Elms:

Soft Elms:

Anatomical Identification

The primary element for distinguishing elm types is found in the earlywood pores. For elms in North America, hard elms are characterized by smaller earlywood pores that are closer in size to the latewood pores. The earlywood is generally in a single, broken row.


Cedar Elm (endgrain 10x)

Cedar Elm (endgrain 10x), a hard elm


Red Elm (endgrain 10x)

Red Elm (endgrain 10x), a soft elm

By contrast, soft elms tend to have larger earlywood pores. The earlywood may be one or two rows wide, as in American Elm (Ulmus americana), or two to four pores wide, as in Red Elm (U. rubra).

However, elm species from Europe and Asia do not always follow the same earlywood patterns as the North American species. Most notably, English Elm (U. procera) and Wych Elm (U. glabra) both have single, intermittent rows of smaller earlywood pores, but are considered soft elms.

Wych Elm (endgrain 10x)

Wych Elm (endgrain 10x), a soft elm with the anatomy of a North American hard elm

With the exception of the multiple earlywood rows found in Red Elm, individual species of both hard and soft elms cannot be further separated down to a species level.

Dutch Elm Disease

This fungal disease is spread by elm bark beetles, and has been responsible for the demise of tens of millions of elm trees in North America and Europe. As a result, disease-resistant cultivars and hybrids have been sought out. Hybrid elm trees may have characteristics from either of the parent trees, confounding identification.

Lookalikes

Elm is sometimes confused with ash (Fraxinus spp.), though the two can be separated based on elm’s wavy latewood bands.

White Ash (endgrain 10x)

White Ash (endgrain 10x), may exhibit mild ulmiform patterning, but it’s not as consistent through the entire latewood section as it is with elm

This zig-zag pattern, also called ulmiform, is even visible on flatsawn surfaces as minute jagged lines.

Red Elm (sealed)

Red Elm, ulmiform patterning is evident even on the face grain of elm as thin zig-zags between growth rings

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is anatomically very similar to elm, though its wide sapwood and grey or yellowish color usually serve to differentiate it from elm.

Hackberry (sealed)

Hackberry frequently has a somewhat “dirty” and mottled appearance

  • Igor’ Olechnowicz

    Just to add to bunch of anecdotes here. Last year I purchased blindly
    n-th-hand (I suspect ‘n’ is more than 2) pieces of veneer. It claimed to
    be oak, but after I received my parcel, it turns definitely not. First I
    thought it was ash, often mistaken with oak, but after having read here
    Eric’s article about elms mentioning ulmiform, it appeared that pieces
    were elm – I used exact those portions of veneer with many of that spectacular
    ziggzagged patterns! Of course, I almost suspected it earlier, given its
    colour (astonishingly alike my local elm wood samples), but thought it
    might be stained. What stopped me first to make the right conclusion was
    its reaction on iron salts – while local elms reacted very faintly,
    those samples received rich dark-olive-green colour without using
    external tannin sources. Thanks Eric!