by Eric Meier
While certain woods can appear basically identical to one another under normal lighting conditions, when exposed to certain wavelengths—such as those found in blacklights, (which are mostly invisible to the naked eye)—the wood will absorb and emit light in a different (visible) wavelength. This phenomenon is known as fluorescence, and certain woods can be distinguished by the presence or absence of their fluorescent qualities.
One of the best examples of fluorescence is found in Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), which is very similar to Mulberry (Morus spp.) in both appearance and weight. But one way to easily distinguish the two is by observing them under a blacklight; Black Locust will emit a strong yellow-green glow, while Mulberry will be non-reactive.
The process of detecting fluorescence in wood samples need not be intimidating or limited to the scientific community—blacklight bulbs are available in many hardware stores for only a few dollars and can be used in standard lamp sockets. (These bulbs should never be confused with germicidal ultraviolet bulbs such as those used in UV sterilizers, which emit UVB or UVC light, which can pose serious health hazards.)
Even though the process of detecting fluorescence is very simple, a few suggestions will help to maximize the effect and make the identification process as reliable as possible:
- Buy the brightest (highest wattage) blacklight available.
- Freshly sand/expose the wood grain before testing: this can be critical in detecting fluorescence in some woods.
- Turn out all other lights for the clearest detection of fluorescence.
- Be careful not to mistake simple reflections or illumination of the wood surface for fluorescence: the wood should literally glow.
- The most common colors of fluorescence are green and yellow, but some woods can fluoresce orange, pink, red, etc.
- While some species will give a strong fluorescent response, many others will only be faintly fluorescent, while the majority of species will exhibit no fluorescence at all.
- Species that are shown to produce a fluorescent response may still vary from piece to piece in the color and intensity of the fluorescence.
Here is a list of woods that exhibit some level of fluorescent properties when exposed to a black light:
|Wood Species||Fluorescence notes:|
|Afzelia||faint to medium yellow-green; dependent on species|
|Albizia||bright, uniform green|
|Amendoim||bright streaks of yellow|
|Araracanga||medium uniform yellow/green|
|Avodire||faint to medium streaks of yellow/green|
|Blackwood, Australian||medium streaks of yellow/green|
|Bloodwood||faint to medium uniform blue; not always apparent in wood, but vivid in ethanol extract|
|Bubinga||faint to medium yellow/green; not always present|
|Buckthorn||medium uniform green|
|Camelthorn||medium uniform green|
|Canarywood||faint to medium yellow streaks|
|Cebil||medium to bright streaks of green; surrounding dark areas in heartwood|
|Chechen||medium to bright streaks of green|
|Coffeetree||bright uniform yellow/green|
|Cumaru||faint to medium green streaks|
|Ebony, Texas||medium uniform yellow/gold; not always present|
|Elm, Wych||faint to medium yellow/green streaks; not always present|
|Espave||faint to medium yellow/green streaks; not always present|
|Gidgee||medium to bright uniform green|
|Goncalo Alves||faint to medium streaks of yellow/green; not always present|
|Greenheart||faint to medium uniform green|
|Guanacaste||medium uniform yellow/gold|
|Guatambu||faint to medium streaks of yellow/green|
|Hububalli||medium to bright streaks of green|
|Ironwood, Black||faint yellow/green streaks; not always present|
|Ironwood, Desert||faint yellow streaks|
|Jatoba||faint to medium yellow/orange|
|Koa||medium to bright streaks of green; not always present|
|Kopie||faint uniform yellow/green; not always present|
|Lancewood||faint to medium green streaks (not present in sapwood)|
|Lebbeck||bright, uniform yellow/green|
|Lemonwood, African||faint to medium yellow/green|
|Locust, Black||bright, uniform green|
|Locust, Honey||bright, uniform green|
|Locust, Water||bright, uniform green|
|Machiche||medium, uniform green|
|Mahogany, Santos||faint to medium green streaks|
|Mangium||medium to bright streaks of yellow/green; not always present|
|Mango||bright green streaks in certain portions of heartwood|
|Merbau||medium, uniform green, with bright yellow/green streaks in areas of mineral deposits|
|Mesquite||faint to medium green streaks, dependent on species|
|Mimosa||medium green streaks|
|Monkeypod||faint to medium yellow/green streaks|
|Monkeythorn||medium to bright streaks of yellow/green|
|Mopane||faint to medium yellow/green; not always present|
|Muninga||faint to medium yellow/orange; not always present|
|Myrtle||bright yellow/green streaks in certain portions of heartwood|
|Olive||faint to medium yellow streaks in certain portions of heartwood|
|Olive, Russian||medium uniform green|
|Opepe||faint to medium yellow/green|
|Orange||faint to medium yellow streaks|
|Padauk, African||faint to medium yellow/orange|
|Panga Panga||faint uniform yellow/green; not always present|
|Partridgewood (Andira spp.)||faint yellow streaks; not always present|
|Peroba Rosa||medium uniform yellow/green|
|Pink Ivory||medium streaked pink/red in certain portions of heartwood|
|Piquia Amarello||bright, uniform yellow|
|Pistachio||bright, uniform green|
|Purpleheart||faint to medium yellow/orange streaks; varies by species|
|Quebracho||faint green streaks|
|Quina||faint to medium uniform yellow/green|
|Raspberry Jam||faint to medium uniform yellow/green in heartwood, with bright streak at sapwood/heartwood transition|
|Redbud, Eastern||medium green streaks|
|Redheart||medium uniform orange|
|Rengas||faint to medium uniform yellow/orange|
|Sassafras, Blackheart||medium orange/red streaks in colored heartwood areas|
|Satinwood, East Indian||faint to medium yellow streaks|
|Satinwood, West Indian||faint to medium yellow streaks|
|Sugi||faint uniform pink/red|
|Sumac, Staghorn||medium to bright streaks of green|
|Tali||bright uniform yellow/gold|
|Timborana||faint to medium green green|
|Tornillo||medium uniform yellow/green|
|T’zalam||faint to medium uniform green|
|Witels||faint to medium uniform yellow|
|Yellowheart||faint to medium uniform yellow|
Water extract fluorescence
Also, another trick to do with a blacklight is what is called water extract fluorescence and ethanol (alcohol) extract fluorescence. Some woods, while they don’t physically fluoresce under a blacklight, will have very bright reactions when wood shavings and/or sawdust is mixed in a small vial or other clear container and held up to a blacklight.
An excellent example of this is Wenge: the wood doesn’t fluoresce, but something as simple as wiping the surface with denatured alcohol will serve to draw out and concentrate the heartwood extractives, and reveal a bright green fluorescence. The proper way to test for this is to take some small shavings (or sawdust) and place them in a small glass vial with either water (for a water-extract test), or denatured alcohol (for an ethanol-extract test).
Alcohol typically results in faster, more vivid, extract fluorescence than using simply water, but water extract tests can be useful when some woods are known to not produce a water-extract fluorescence color, such as Brazilian Rosewood.