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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Joy
Joy

Hi there!
Any chance you can help me identify this wood from my SoCal 1914 Craftsman windows?

Lisa
Lisa

Can someone please help me identify this wood? It’s a bookshelf from a local tree here in the mountains of W NC.

Thanks,

Sheila
Sheila

Could that be a type of Koa? Not sure. but it looks familiar.

Cheryl
Cheryl

Help….what wood is this. 1972 solid wood tables.

James Pickering
James Pickering

Hi.
Could anyone tell me what this timber could be? My father suggested silky oak. It has a very rough texture after being plained.

Anya
Anya

Can anyone help me identify the type of wood this custom built bookshelf is made out of?

name
name

@ali, it certainly looks like poplar to me.

imo, poplar should only be stained if it’s generally unseen.

poplar is *excellent* for interior painted woodwork but stained poplar…Never.

Ali
Ali

Cut this out of a wet log that was laying around a day ago, not sure what it is though.

David
David

Poplar

David Hauser
David Hauser

Hi Eric,

I found a block of wood that has been discolored by the sun over years. Cutting it open, it was very light colored inside; also very light-weight. Could it be Balsa?

Thanks

Wesley
Wesley

Is it Holly? There are lot of bright color wood, and it might not from NA local

Alicia
Alicia

This is a second picture

Alicia
Alicia

Please help me identify these wood floors. They are original to my house 70yrs old and I will need to replace a portion for a nessary repair ?

Michael
Michael

I think I have that wood I’m recycling from my old barn it’s a very beautiful wood I’m still trying to find out what type it is.