Although scent is mostly a subjective characteristic, it is nonetheless helpful in identifying wood. And while odor should not be relied upon as the sole means of identification, in many cases, it can serve to confirm or deny a possible identification.

Because scents are so difficult to describe in written terms, descriptions are necessarily vague—an exception would be if the odor is reminiscent of another well-known scent. (A clear example of this would be rosewood in the Dalbergia genus, from which the wood gets its namesake.)

Many wood species don’t have a characteristic odor, or the odor greatly subsides once dry. (In most cases, any odor of wood in its green state will not be noted, and only the scent of dried wood will be considered.)

Over time, the potency of scented woods will subside, and there may be little to no detectable odor in fully seasoned wood. In order to bring out any scent, it may be necessary to sand, plane, or otherwise machine the sample. Moistening the wood sample may also serve to bring out its scent.

Notably Odorous Woods:

Eastern Red Cedar: Sometimes called Aromatic Red Cedar. A strong lingering scent. Used in birdhouses, closet liners, chests, shoe trees, and a variety of household goods. Reputed to repel moths.

Spanish Cedar: A distinct lingering scent. Used in cigar humidors.

Incense Cedar: Most people are unknowingly familiar with the scent of incense cedar because it is one of the primary woods in making wooden pencils.

Camphor: A strong lingering scent that has decongestant and medical properties. To the western world, the scent of this wood is synonymous with medicated chest rubs—which contain camphor extract.

Brazilian Rosewood: This is the prototypical rosewood. Most rosewoods have a rose-like scent while being worked, though it fades shortly thereafter.

Cocobolo: Technically a true member of the rosewood genus (Dalergia), Cocobolo also has a pleasing spicy scent that has been used in perfume.

Lignum Vitae: This tree, along with its Argentinian variant, are harvested in the production of oil of guaiac, an ingredient in perfumes.

Sandalwood: Reported to retain its scent for decades, essential oils from the wood are also extracted and used in perfumes.

Get the hard copy

wood-book-standupIf you’re interested in getting all that makes The Wood Database unique distilled into a single, real-world resource, there’s the book that’s based on the website—the Amazon.com best-seller, WOOD! Identifying and Using Hundreds of Woods Worldwide. It contains many of the most popular articles found on this website, as well as hundreds of wood profiles—laid out with the same clarity and convenience of the website—packaged in a shop-friendly hardcover book.

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BBB

Just curious…I smoke cigars and they arrive in boxes made of Spanish cedar. I hate to waste them. If I break them apart and put them in with winter sweaters, would they it be as effective as red cedar in keeping moths away?

Kerri

I have a piece of furniture that is made from Ash. It was unfinished when I purchased it so after a few months or so, I sealed it with a coat of oil based poly. About two weeks later it has a strange odor, somewhere between iodine and musty. Unfortunately this is my bed frame, it so pretty! But it smells so bad, that when I walk past the room I can smell it. I sleep with the windows open to help with the smell. Has anybody heard of this reaction to poly on a type of wood? I can’t… Read more »

Zachary

Kerri, we are have the same problem with a new handmade dresser, my father used oil based primer on and oak frame and poplar drawer boxes, have you figured out how to get rid of the smell?

Chris Hoffmaster

Unfortunately it’s the oil based product that is causing the problem, a water based clearcoat like polyacrylic might help seal the fumes in…

Chris Hoffmaster

Unfortunately it’s the oil based product that is causing the problem, a water based clearcoat like polyacrylic might help seal the fumes in…

Sandi MCDANIEL

I have a jar of small pieces of drift wood from the Gulf of Mexico that I removed from an open container to a sealed jar. I took the lid off for the time since I placed the pieces in the jar months before and the smell coming from the jar is amazing. Sweet with a bit of spice smell. Any idea what sort of wood this smell could be coming from?

Kevin

Sounds like Palo Santo.

Dennis Lestanguet

I found a piece of drift wood on a beach in Oregon a year ago. It smells like a strong lysol or cleaner still today. It looked like redwood but it is way to hard. Anyway I made a bowl with it. I have access to a college DNA lab just wondering if you could help me identify what it could possibly be? I has beautiful tight grain and like I said hard as nails.Thank you in advance. Dennis

Paul

May be Madrone

Dennis LESTANGUET

Thanks Paul, I’ve cut lots of madrone, for firewood etc, and it is notoriously known to split. This piece looked like redwood and I am from redwood country but hard as nails with a real tight grain. The bowl I turned is amazing…but still stinks. Lol Dennis Definitely camphor. Just never know what will show up on a beach.

Dennis LESTANGUET

Mystery solved….camphor wood possibly from South East Asia. Long trip floating in the ocean. Still stinks

Mary

We have been burning wood in the wood stove for heating our home. The smoke when you open the door has the scent just like the Catholic Church burns at funerals. We just call it church wood. I wish I could find the name of this tree so I can plant more of them!

Fabian

Cedar of Lebanon

Cindy

I have been using Cordia alliodora (Ecuador Laurel) for an outside decking project, The odor is extremely strong, smells like farm manure, and I believe has caused congestion in my lungs the last few weeks. I cannot find any information about this anywhere. I understand it will go away with time as the wood drys, but have never had this reaction to wood before. Anyone have more information on this?

Ian

Sorry Cindy, I don’t have any more information. However, it sounds like a very serious problem. I’ve never had experience with this time type of problem, but I do wish I could help. Sorry :(