So just what is the truth behind wood identification?The truth is, it’s a crapshoot. Probably the most common means of identifying wood among woodworkers is to simply eyeball the facegrain of the wood sample, and allow some sort of unspoken instinct or imperceptible intuition to just pop into our heads with the right answer. Using this quasi-magic “second-nature” method to accurately identify wood down to a genus and species level is not only unscientific, unhelpful, and unteachable, it’s a crapshoot. I know, that’s not what you wanted to hear. You wanted me to tell you that with all this data, with all these pictures, facts, and identification techniques, surely there is a foolproof method of identifying a piece of wood correctly down to the species level, each and every time.
Great ExpectationsThis limitation usually isn’t in the methods or means of identification, but in the wood itself. In botany, a tree species is not classified and described by its wood, but rather, by its leaves, bark, flowers, seeds, fruit, etc. Oftentimes, there are just not enough uniquely identifying characteristics present in the wood of each species to clearly and authoritatively differentiate it from another—not even when viewed under a microscope. Furthermore, trees occur throughout a variety of natural environments, so the wood exhibits a surprising amount of variability. This is part of what makes woodworking so enjoyable: no two boards are quite the same; but this same variation can also frustrate many identification procedures, and confuse us by the apparent lack of consistency. The problem is mostly with our expectations: we want to know exactly what kind of wood that we have. We expect just by examining it, that there is some indescribable way of deciphering down to the species level what type of wood is set before us. Sure, we might be able to narrow a sample down to maple, and tell that it is from the Acer genus, but that’s not enough: we want to come up with something like Acer pseudoplatanus. In the majority of cases, that level of precision is just not possible.
Think You’re A Know-It-All?Remember, in many species of wood, there just aren’t enough completely unique characteristics present to clearly distinguish it from another related species. But further compounding the problem is that some of the most useful information is contained in a clear and magnified view of the endgrain. Simply viewing the facegrain of a wood sample with the naked eye puts an even greater limitation on our ability to identify it accurately. One of the worst things that we can do is arrogantly convince ourselves that we can indeed tell one species apart from another when, given the available data, we simply cannot. Remember, it’s a crapshoot, and if we just go by intuition and take an unsubstantiated guess, we’ll quite likely guess wrong. Let me illustrate my point with a simple exercise in wood identification: A wood-collecting friend approaches you with five different wood samples, and asks you to identify them. You ask them where they came from, and they just shrug their shoulders and hand you the samples. You have nothing to go on except the facegrain of the wood itself. This is what you see:
(Click on the image for a closer view.)Just to make it interesting, I’ll play this game too. Here are my honest efforts for the five samples above, from left to right: My Guesses:
So, what are your guesses? Well, if you had deduced any of the woods that I initially guessed, then you’d get a score of zero! Here are the actual identities of the woods above, from left to right: Correct Answers:
- Black Walnut – Color and grain look right, and it’s a common hardwood, so it’s a solid guess; weight is a bit high: is this board still drying?
- Honduran Mahogany – Grain might be a little plain, but the pattern looks right, and the weight feels close.
- White Ash – The color and coarse grain looks like ash, though the weight seems a bit too light: maybe the sample is from a very dry location?
- Zebrawood – What other wood has this kind of zebra striping? Most likely quartersawn since the stripes are so uniform.
- Black Cherry – Color and grain are similar, and the weight feels right-on, eliminating heavier fruitwoods like Apple.
Do you see how my ability to accurately identify wood based upon intuition was tainted by my own experiences of what I thought were “regular” woods? I named woods that I was used to working with, but for different people, in different parts of the world, this set of intuitive guesses might be totally different. A person in China or Australia might have five totally different guesses than mine, and all could be completely wrong guesses, with each person equally self-assured and unable to sufficiently articulate their position.
- Black Mesquite – A fair amount heavier than walnut, also diffuse porous with vasicentric to aliform parenchyma.
- Andiroba – Well, it’s brown… does that help? There are a bunch of Mahogany lookalikes: it’s not always easy to tell them apart.
- Sassafras – Very similar in appearance to ash, but slightly lighter in weight, and with a spicy odor.
- Beli – Zebrawood isn’t the only wood that is striped. Beli has heavily vasicentric parenchyma, while Zebrawood’s parenchyma tends to be diffuse-in-aggregates.
- Sourwood – Not only was it not Cherry, it wasn’t even in the fruitwood/rose (Rosaceae) family!