Common US Hardwoods

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)

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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Stephen Wollentin

Here is the other board, with same dimensions as the other: 10? wide, 1? thickness (after planing), and 8? long, and also found in the basement, used as shelves. This one is distinctly yellow, as you can hopefully see from the photos. Both of them seem to be hardwoods, from my best estimation.

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Stephen Wollentin

Thank you Eric, I can’t tell you how excited I am to have a better idea of what I’m working with! I was really stumped by the golden color, but this narrows it down.

Stephen Wollentin

Hi Eric, I’ve enjoyed your articles and have learned a great deal from them! I was wondering if you could help me identify two boards; the first one is shown below. Both boards were found in my basement, rough cut, when I bought the house, and used as rudimentary workshop shelves. The house was built in the 60’s and we bought it 8 years ago. The boards are both 10″ wide, 1″ thickness (after planing), and 8′ long. The photos shown are after I planed them up. Thank you in advance for your help!

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Tom C

Found this wood in my basement. It was being used on a set of pylons to hold other material. The boards on the left came from a single piece that was 16 feet long, 11 inches wide and 1.5 inches thick. I cut it into four pieces. The boards on the right came from a piece that was 8 feet x 4 1/4 x 1 1/8. Here is a picture of the wood that shows the end grain. It was not stained. The wood had to have been there over 50 years (it was very likely put there by my… Read more »

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Tom C

Ok. Thank you.

Gene

Hello!
Could you please help me identify this wood? Thanks in advance!

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Sheena gibson

Pls help me identify this wood.

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James

Can anyone tell me what kind of wood is used on this ceiling? Thanks so much for your help

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bianca

Hi, can anybody help identify this wood? Thank you

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Sam

I bought a new house and not sure about the flooring. Is there any way you guys can help me understand the flooring type so that I can maintain it accordingly.
Thanks.

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Sean Gorman

this is a french work stool top from France; they made this model from the 30’s through the 50’s. I know it’s a plywood from that era, 13/16″ thick. A small section is missing ,and I want to replace it but not sure what hardwood is the “A” face. wood is has very straight and “raised” grain pattern

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