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.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
Fill in the Blank, or Multiple Choice?
When Wood Identification WorksOf course, there are certainly times when wood identification is very useful and reliable. While there are typically not enough unique characteristics to identify a particular species (i.e., Acer pseudoplatanus), oftentimes—especially with many temperate-zone hardwoods found in the United States—there will be enough information present to reasonably identify a sample down to the genus level (i.e., Acer spp.). We may not be able to take a wood sample and pronounce, “this is Quercus laurifolia—Laurel Oak.” But we should be able to identify that it is in fact an oak, in the Quercus genus. And from there, we may even be able to identify it down to a sub-genus level, and say it is in the red oak group. But another advantage in wood identification lies in the fact that even though it seems we have no clues to go on, we can usually make some safe assumptions or inferences about a wood sample’s provenance. For instance, if we see some wooden kitchen cabinets out in a rustic country cabin, it would be reasonable to assume that most cabinet-makers in the area would’ve used a domestic hardwood species. There are only perhaps a few dozen native hardwoods commonly used for cabinetry in the United States, which narrows our options down significantly. In this instance, if we have much experience in domestic hardwoods at all, we should be able to eyeball and/or spot the differences between maple, beech, oak, walnut, etc. relatively easily. (Further examination might then confirm or deny our initial designation.) But if we were in a fancy, upscale city restaurant where all the woodwork looked foreign and unfamiliar, or we were in a distant locale such as South Africa or Thailand, then the story would be much different, and a much different set of assumptions—perhaps a set unknown to us—would have to be used. (For more information on these types of deductive identification methods, please see the page entitled Wood Identification Guide.)
Be HonestWe might as well be honest with ourselves: sometimes wood identification is an uncertain thing. So long as we maintain proper expectations of the identification procedure, and recognize that we might not have all the answers, wood identification can be a useful and enjoyable pursuit. Sometimes the most accurate answer that we can expect to uncover through diligent and thorough examination is simply a question mark.
Get the hard copy
If 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.