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)
  • brant

    Hickory should be added to the list perhaps?

  • suzie q

    I have 1948 kitchen cabinets, painted. I have sanded a section of one and am considering doing the entire kitchen in natural wood, but I would like to know what kind of wood it is before I commit to such a big job.

    • ejmeier

      Post some pictures and we can try to ID the wood…

      • Deanna Lane

        Can you tell me what kind of wood this is, someone please? I don’t have a close up shot of this. This is all I have. Seller can not tell me the wood species only that top is solid wood and it is an antique. Thank you.

  • kdp

    Does anyone know what kind of tree this is from?

    • Marcus2012

      Looks like pine

  • ejmeier

    Mike,
    I’m not understanding these two pictures — they appear to be from two completely different pieces.
    The top one (headboard) appears to be, at the very least, an attempt at walnut. It may be walnut burl veneer, or some other type of veneer stained to match the color of walnut.
    The lower picture may be a series of edge-glued softwood boards, possibly pine.

  • ejmeier

    Definitely a softwood. Have you read the article on softwood anatomy? http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/softwood-anatomy/

    If you think you have it narrowed down to hemlock or fir (both lack resin canals and have no noticeable scent), then that should be close enough. Even the “professionals” have a hard time distinguishing between these two woods. And for appearance matching, you’ll be fine either way.

  • ejmeier

    Heartwood of most softwoods can be reddish, though a lot of plantation species sold for construction today may not even have much heartwood present.

    Old growth would make it a little tougher to match up because the growth rings will be closer together, and with less knots. But overall wood should be acceptably similar in appearance.

    If you’re fairly sure that it came from North America, then softwood ID shouldn’t be too tough—though old growth woods can sometimes defy modern descriptions. The main questions in your case are: do you see resin canals, and is there a noticeable scent? That will narrow things down really quickly.

  • chromelassie

    Can anyone identify this wood? It is a ladderback chair made in NC in mid 1800’s. Thank you

    • ejmeier

      The grain certainly looks like oak, minus the rays. If you can’t see any visible ray fleck anywhere on the piece, that would suggest ash. (The wood also appears to be stained.)

  • DeCa Johnson

    Does anyone know what type of wood this furniture is? I am thinking about purchasing and refinishing, but don’t know if it is worth the buy.

    • ejmeier

      I’d guess either maple or birch, though there’s a chance it could be a softwood.

  • Angela Miller

    I NEED HELP!! I LOVE THIS CHEST BUT SHE WANTS $75.00. I WANT TO MAKE SURE ITS GOOD SOLID WOOD. *ALSO, WEBLIVE IN GALVESTON TX. HUMIDITY IS EXTREME. THANK YOY-ANGELA

    • Angela Miller

      I’m hoping its cedar?? Please let me know your opinion. I have to buy it today. God bless!

    • ejmeier

      It doesn’t look like cedar, but there’s a possibility it could be. When cedar is used, the inside is typically left unfinished, otherwise the finish inhibits and seals in the odor of the wood. It looks like pine that’s been stained and sealed inside and out. Hard to tell the quality and condition of the piece, but if its used $75 seems a bit high to me, but that’s just my opinion.

      • Angela Miller

        Thank you so much,ejmeier!! U made my day , knowing I made the right choose even though I wanted it n it looks nice. I told her I would pass. She couldn’t give me any info on the piece anyhow. Thanks again and God bless u!

  • ol guy

    Maybe someone (everyone?? :) ) can help me id this wood. No real identifiable smell, ‘stringy’, and heavy – it may still be wet. It’s supposed to be a “hardwood” but that’s also in question. My guesses are elm, hickory, or maybe a poplar / cottonwood -but I haven’t seen face grain like that in poplar.
    Thanks.

    • ejmeier

      From the endgrain, it looks like it could possibly be Honey Locust. Maybe try to get an endgrain shot in better focus and the details will be easier to make out.

      • ol guy

        Crappy pictures from my old phone. Here’s the bark and end grain taken with my wifes fancy new phone. I didn’t think about Locust. Thanks for the help.

        • ejmeier

          The endgrain is not quite sanded finely enough to make out all the details, but (guessing through the fuzziness) if that’s latewood pore clusters I see, it’s almost certainly Coffeetree, as it’s one of the very few with clustered pores. Otherwise there’s still a chance it could be Honey Locust, or even Ash. Do you have a more zoomed out shot of the bark?

  • Alysha K

    Hi guys. We are trying to identify our wood floors. We suspect a common grade American Cherry because they dent very easily, and look like the right color/grain. However, upon removing some existing cabinets in our kitchen, the floors under the cabinets were almost exactly the same color as the rest of the floor (we guessed they would be lighter since American cherry is photo-sensitive – Can be seen in last photo attached). I’ve attached a few photos below (pardon the dog, it happens that all the “floor” photos on my phone also have my dog in them…). We would like to try to match these wood floors in an adjacent room.

    • ejmeier

      I agree they look like Black Cherry floorboards. Actually, it seems odd that the flooring under the cabinets of ANY wood would still remain the same color, so I’m not sure what to say. The color looks pretty close to natural, so I don’t think a stain was used. Chances are it will take a while for any new cherry to settle in and match the older stuff regardless.

      • Alysha K

        Sounds good – thanks for the insight! Yes, it is bizarre that the flooring under all cabinets we’ve removed is the same color.

  • Cheri Klotzsche

    Hi. I bought this table and chair at a yard sale a few weeks ago. They both look like Duncan Phyfe (or “in the style of”). The top of the table was already sanded. I want to refinish that and possibly the chair. Any idea what type of wood this is?

    • ejmeier

      Can you get a closer shot, especially of the table top (in a bare, sanded spot). I can’t tell from that distance.

  • Huang Zhenyuan

    i want to make wooden chicken coop,but i don’t know what kind of wood is most economical and anti-blue.

  • Szigeti Eduard

    Hello, I’ve just bought this table. Could anyone help me identify this wood? The table is pretty heavy

  • George Everet Thompson

    I work with branches and twigs in making artwork. Since I get these from tree trimmers and others I have no idea what the original tree looked like. Is there any guide that identifies wood by the outer bark and periderm?

  • SrikanthNaidu

    Hi, I bought a low back windsor / barrel back on craigslist that is marked made in yugoslavia and 77-7. I would like id the wood and find out if it is ok to refinish them. Thank you for your help!

  • ejmeier

    Can you get a closer shot? I can’t quite make out much detail from that distance.

  • ejmeier

    That looks like an old growth softwood, possibly Douglas Fir or Larch.

  • jason

    Found this under layers of vinyl flooring . . . probably put in when the house was built in the 1920s in Southern California area. Any ideas? I’m trying to decide if it is worth refinishing. Thanks for any help!

  • sillygirl

    What about chestnut? Lot of old doors made of it. Aside from bug marks, I’d love to see the distinguishing characteristics.

  • Ryan Maguire
  • Nick Spirov

    Am I the only one looking for No.6 in this list?

    • ejmeier

      Lol, good catch. Apparently it’s been missing number 6 for nearly four years, and nobody’s noticed. It should be fixed now.

  • Toni Darden

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ffef289b66eb221d56d9167577839a https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/88c1e661e9fe79911e67eda90fcc63f297f0f0cd1a2f0cc67691c5fd9f8675bd.jpg 76d825b0e905178a75904cbabdd5b6a8e3.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b8df5849d877291dcb925d6c230dc224500a361fef2cae1608230ed5dc6e19d7.png Would anyone possibly be able to help identify the type of wood these floors located in south Louisiana are made of? Possibly pine or cypress?

  • Christopher Beardsley
    • ejmeier

      Possibly douglas fir or some type of larch? Would need to get a finely sanded view of the endgrain in order to check for resin canals to get a better idea.

  • Sharon B.

    Like so many before me, I have come to the mecca of all things wood for help identifying the wood used in this antique settee. I sanded several (hopefully) unobtrusive spots underneath. In particular, I sanded the bottom of the legs, each of which has a hole drilled for a caster (I presume).

    I had trouble removing all the stain on the leg bottoms, so I hope that’s not an impediment to identification. I did get down to bare wood on a facing plank, and found a couple places where the stain was missing–one is where there is a crack in the wood; the other spot is just where some stain (or veneer) is gone.

    My best guess is white oak, but would love some experienced woodsers to take a look and offer their opinions!

    Thanks so much, and if I need to sand some more with a lower grit sandpaper, I can do that. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/835fd8a909ad7b6e259a11397955f26141619032f304cc0bcc9f58d99cbaadff.jpg

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