Wood Identification Guide

by Eric Meier

When attempting to identify a wood sample, it’s important to keep in mind the limitations and obstacles that are present in our task. Before starting, please have a look at The Truth Behind Wood Identification to approach the task in a proper mindset; I consider the linked article to be required reading for all those visiting my site with the intent of identifying wood.

1. Confirm it is actually solid wood.

Before proceeding too much farther into the remaining steps, it’s first necessary to confirm that the material in question is actually a solid piece of wood, and not a man-made composite or piece of plastic made to imitate wood.

A solid piece of Cocobolo: note how the grain naturally wraps around the sides and endgrain of the wood.

Can you see the end-grain? 

Manufactured wood such as MDF, OSB, and particleboard all have a distinct look that is—in nearly all cases—easily distinguishable from the endgrain of real wood. Look for growth rings—formed by the yearly growth of a tree—which will be a dead-giveaway that the wood sample in question is a solid, genuine chunk of wood taken from a tree.

Viewing the end of this “board” reveals its true identity: particleboard.

Is it veneered? 

If you see a large panel that has a repeating grain pattern, it may be a veneer. In such cases, a very thin layer of real wood is peeled from a tree and attached to a substrate; sometimes the veneer can be one continuous repeating piece because it is rotary-sliced to shave off the veneer layer as the tree trunk is spun by machines. Assuming it is a real wood veneer with a distinct grain and texture—and not merely a piece of printed plastic—you may still be able to identify the outer veneer wood in question, but you should still realize that is it only a veneer and not a solid piece of wood.

Large repeating patterns suggest a veneer.

Is it painted or printed to look like wood? 

Many times, especially on medium to large-sized flat panels for furniture, a piece of particleboard or MDF is either laminated with a piece of wood-colored plastic, or simply painted to look like wood grain. Many of today’s interior hardwood flooring planks are good examples of these pseudo-wood products: they are essentially a man-made material made of sawdust, glues, resins, and durable plastics.

2. Look at the color.

Some questions to immediately ask yourself:

Is the color of the wood natural, or is it stained?

If there is even a chance that the color isn’t natural, the odds are increased that the entire effort of identifying the wood will be in vain.

The reddish brown stain used on this piece of Jatoba (Hymenaea courbaril) has been planed away on top, exposing the paler color of the raw wood underneath.

Is it weathered or have a patina?

Many woods, when left outside in the elements, tend to turn a bland gray color. Also, even interior wood also takes on a patina as it ages: some woods get darker, or redder, and some even get lighter or lose their color; but for the most part, wood tends to darken with age.

Fresh sanding near the end of this Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) board has exposed the characteristic yellow coloration of the wood, which has a strong tendency to shift down to a golden brown over time.

Is it possible to sand or plane the board to see the natural raw color of the wood?

The most predictable baseline to use when identifying wood is in a freshly sanded state. This eliminates the chances of a stain or natural aging skewing the color diagnosis of the wood.

3. Observe the wood grain.

If the wood is unfinished, then look at the texture of the grain. Ask yourself these questions:

Does the wood have an open, porous texture?

Most softwoods will be almost perfectly smooth with no grain indentations, while many common hardwoods have an open pore structure, such as oak or mahogany; though there are some hardwoods that are also smooth to the touch, such as maple.

Can you tell if the wood is quartersawn or plainsawn?

By observing the grain patterns, many times you can tell how the board was cut from the tree. Some wood species have dramatically different grain patterns from plainsawn to quartersawn surfaces. For instance, on their quartersawn surfaces, lacewood has large lace patterns, oak has flecks, and maple has the characteristic “butcher block” appearance.

Is there any figure or unusual characteristics, such as sapwood, curly or wild grain, burl/knots, etc.?

Some species of wood have figure that is much more common than in other species: for example, curly figure is fairly common in soft maple, and the curls are usually well-pronounced and close together. Yet when birch or cherry has a curly grain, it is more often much less pronounced, and the curls are spaced farther apart.

Curly Maple (sealed)
The strong, tight curl seen in this wood sample is very characteristic of Maple (Acer spp.).

4. Consider the weight and hardness of the wood.

If it’s possible, pick the piece of wood up and get a sense of its weight, and compare it to other known wood species. Try gouging the edge with your fingernail to get a sense of its hardness. If you have a scale, you can take measurements of the length, width, and thickness of the wood, and combine them to find the density of the wood. This can be helpful to compare to other density readings found in the database. When examining the wood in question, compare it to other known wood species, and ask yourself these questions:

Is the wood dry?

Wood from freshly felled trees, or wood that has been stored in an extremely humid environment will have very high moisture contents. In some freshly sawn pieces, moisture could account for over half of the wood’s total weight! Likewise, wood that has been stored in extremely dry conditions of less than 25% relative humidity will most likely feel lighter than average.

How does the wood’s weight compare to other species?

Taking into account the size of the board, how does its weight compare to other benchmark woods? Is it heavier than oak? Is it lighter than pine? Look at the weight numbers for a few wood species that are close to yours, and get a ballpark estimate of its weight.

A piece of Lignum Vitae is weighed on a small digital scale.

How hard is the wood? 

Obviously softwoods will tend to be softer than hardwoods, but try to get a sense of how it compares to other known woods. Density and hardness are closely related, so if the wood is heavy, it will most likely be hard too. If the wood is a part of a finished item that you can’t adequately weigh, you might be able to test the hardness by gouging it in an inconspicuous area. Also, if it is used in a piece of furniture, such as a tabletop, a general idea of its hardness can be assessed by the number and depth of the gouges/dings in the piece given its age and use. A tabletop made of pine will have much deeper dents than a tabletop made of Oak. Additionally, you can always try the “fingernail test” as a rough hardness indicator:  find a crisp edge of the wood, and with your fingernail try to push in as hard as you can and see if you’re able to make a dent in the wood.

5. Consider its history.

Many times we forget common sense and logic when attempting to identify wood. If you’ve got a piece of Amish furniture from Pennsylvania, chances are more likely that the wood  will be made of something like black walnut or cherry, and not African wenge or jatoba. You might call it “wood profiling,” but sometimes it can pay to be a little prejudiced when it comes to wood identification. Some common-sense questions to ask yourself when trying to identify a piece of wood:

Where did it come from?

Knowing as much as you can about the source of the wood—even the smallest details—can be helpful. If the wood came from a wood pile or a lumber mill where all the pieces were from trees processed locally, then the potential species are immediately limited. If the wood came from a builder of antique furniture, or a boat-builder, or a trim carpenter: each of these occupations will tend to use certain species of woods much more often than others, making a logical guess much simpler.

Despite its discoloration and wear, it’s very likely that this rolling pin is made of hard maple.

How old is it?

As with the wood’s source, its age will also help in identification purposes. Not only will it help to determine if the wood should have developed a natural patina, but it will also suggest certain species which were more prevalent at different times in history. For instance, many acoustic guitars made before the 1990s have featured Brazilian rosewood backs/sides, yet due to CITES restrictions placed upon that species, East Indian rosewood became a much more common species on newer guitars. (And this is a continuing shift as newer replacements are sought for rosewoods altogether.)

How large is the piece of wood?

Some species of trees are typically very small—some are even considered shrubs—while others get quite large. For instance, if you see a large panel or section of wood that’s entirely black, chances are it’s either painted, dyed, or stained: Gaboon ebony and related species are typically very small and very expensive.

What is the wood’s intended use?

Simply knowing what the wood was intended for—when considered in conjunction with where it came from and how old it is—can give you many clues to help identify it. In some applications, certain wood species are used much more frequently than others, so that you can make an educated guess as to the species of the wood based upon the application where it was used. For instance, in the United States: many older houses with solid hardwood floors have commonly used either red oak or hard maple; many antique furniture pieces have featured quartersawn white oak; many violins have spruce tops; many closet items used aromatic red cedar, and so forth. While it’s not a 100% guarantee, “profiling” the wood in question will help reduce the number of possible suspects, and aid in deducing the correct species.

6. Find the X-Factor.

Sometimes, after all the normal characteristics of a sample have been considered, the identity of the wood in question is still not apparent. In these instances—particularly in situations where a sample has been narrowed down to only a few possible remaining choices—it’s sometimes helpful to bring in specialized tests and other narrower means of identification.

The following techniques and recommendations don’t necessarily have a wide application in initially sorting out wood species and eliminating large swaths of wood species, but will most likely be of use only as a final step in special identification circumstances.

Odor

Believe it or not, freshly machined wood can have a very identifiable scent. When your eyes and hands can’t quite get a definitive answer, sometimes your nose can. Assuming there is no stain, finish, or preservative on or in the wood, quickly sand, saw, or otherwise machine a section of the wood in question, and take a whiff of the aroma.

Although new scents can be very difficult to express in words, many times the scent of an unknown wood may be similar to other known scents. For instance, rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.) are so named for their characteristic odor that is reminiscent of roses. Although difficult to directly communicate, with enough firsthand experience scents can become a memorable and powerful means of wood identification.

Fluorescence

While certain woods can appear basically identical to one another under normal lighting conditions, when exposed to certain wavelengths—such as those found in blacklights—the wood will absorb and emit light in a different (visible) wavelength. This phenomenon is known as fluorescence, and certain woods can be distinguished by the presence or absence of their fluorescent qualities. See the article Fluorescence: A Secret Weapon in Wood Identification for more information.

Black Locust: fluorescence (under blacklight)
Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) glows a bright yellow-green when placed under a blacklight.

Chemical Testing

There are only a small number of chemical tests regularly used on wood, most of which are very specialized and were developed to help distinguish easily confused species with one another. They work by detecting differences in the composition of heartwood extractives. A chemical substance (called a reagent) is usually dissolved in water and applied to the wood surface: the surface is then observed for any type of chemical reaction (and accompanying color change) that may occur. Two of the most useful are the tests that are meant to separate Red and White Oak, and Red and Hard Maple.

Heartwood Extractives Leachability

Sometimes a wood species will have heartwood extractives that will be readily leachable in water and capable of conspicuously tinting a solution of water a specific color. For instance, the heartwood extractives contained in osage orange (Maclura pomifera) contain a yellowish-brown dye that is soluble in water. (This can sometimes be observed anecdotally when the wood is glued with a water-based adhesive: the glue’s squeeze-out is an unusually vibrant yellow.)

In a simple water extract color test, wood shavings are mixed with water in a vial, test tube, or other suitably small container, and the color of the water is observed after a few minutes. If the heartwood extractives are leachable by water, then a corresponding color change should quickly occur.

In addition to osage orange (Maclura pomifera)merbau (Intsia spp.), and rengas (Gluta spp. and Melanorrhoea spp.) are also noted for their readily leachable heartwood extractives. Because this property is quite uncommon, it can serve to quickly differentiate these woods from other lookalikes.

7. Look at the endgrain.

Perhaps no other technique for accurate identification of wood is as helpful and conclusive as the magnified examination of the endgrain. Frequently, it brings the identification process from a mostly intuitive, unscientific process into a predictable, repeatable, and reliable procedure.

Looking at the endgrain with a magnifier shouldn’t be a mystifying or esoteric art. In many cases, it’s nearly as simple as examining small newsprint under a magnifying glass. There are three components necessary to reap the full benefits contained in the endgrain:

I. A prepared surface.

When working with wood in most capacities, it becomes quickly apparent that endgrain surfaces are not nearly as cooperative or as easily worked as face grain surfaces. However, in this case, it is absolutely critical that a clear and refined endgrain surface is obtained.

For a quick glance of a softwood sample, a very sharp knife or razor blade can be used to take a fresh slice from the endgrain. However, in many denser species, especially in tropical hardwoods, one of the best ways to obtain a clear endgrain view is through diligent sanding. It’s usually best to begin with a relatively smooth saw cut (as from a fine-toothed miter saw blade) and proceed through the grits, starting at around 100, and working up to at least 220 or 320 grit, preferably higher for the cleanest view.

II. The right magnifier.

It need not be expensive, but whatever tool is used to view the endgrain should have adequate magnifying power. In most instances, 10x magnification is ideal, however, anything within the range of 8 to 15x magnification should be suitable for endgrain viewing. (Standard magnifying glasses are typically in the range of 2 to 4x magnification.)

These stronger magnifiers, sometimes called loupes, usually have a smaller viewing area than standard magnifying glasses. Fancier models—with built in lights, or larger viewing surfaces—are available at a premium; but the most basic models are usually only a few dollars.

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III. A trained eye.

The third element that constitutes a proper endgrain examination is simply knowing what to look for. In analyzing the patterns, colors, shapes, and spacing of the various anatomical features, there is a veritable storehouse of information within the endgrain—all waiting to be unlocked. Yet, if these elements have not been pointed out and learned, the array of features will simply seem like an unintelligible jumble. The discipline of recognizing anatomical endgrain features is not easily summed up in a few sentences or even a few paragraphs, but it is nonetheless critical to the identification process. To this end, an in-depth look should be given to the various categories, divisions, and elements that constitute endgrain wood identification on the macroscopic level. (In this regard, macroscopic denotes what can be seen with a low-powered, 10x hand lens—without the aid of a microscope—rather than simply what can be seen with the naked eye.) Because the anatomy between softwoods and hardwoods is so divergent, each will be considered and examined separately:

Still stumped?

If you have a mysterious piece of wood that you’d like identified, you’ve got a few options for next steps:

USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory

You can mail your physical wood samples to the Center for Wood Anatomy Research

Pros:

  • Free
  • Professional wood identification

Cons:

  • Only available to US citizens
  • Slow turnaround times (up to a month or more)
  • Limited to three IDs per year

See their Wood ID Factsheet for more info.

Alden Identification Service

You can mail your physical wood samples (even small sections taken from antiques) to Alden Identification Service.

Pros:

  • Professional wood identification
  • Faster turnaround times (ranging from a few days to a week or two)

Cons:

  • Paid service

See their ordering page for more info. (Note that Harry Alden has written several books while at USDA, including both Hardwoods and Softwoods of North America.)

Ask for help online

If the wood ID is merely a curiosity, or non-critical, you can post pictures of the wood in question.

Pros:

  • Free
  • No need to send physical samples

Cons:

  • Greatly limited by the quality of the pictures provided
  • Extra work usually required to get adequate clarity in photos

See article of Common US Hardwoods to help find the most commonly used woods.

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.

. . . If you’ve been helped by the Wood Database

Consider saying “thanks” and helping to support the project. This is very much still a one-man operation, and comments and other contact is still answered personally. There is of course no obligation, but if you’d like to give back and ensure that the project continues to grow, consider supporting me on Patreon. ~Eric

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Laura

Wondering if someone could identify this wood.

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huseyin

Hi again,
and this one as well?

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huseyin

Hi Eric,
I’m planning to make a few small sculpture with these woods. Could you tell me what is these?
Thanks.

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Levi Grove

Anyone? I received this lumber from my grandfather who has sense passed away andI believe he intended to use for trim on a old wooden boat that he was fixing up but I’m not positive. I used some of it to build my grandmother a raised planter for vegetables. I have been around woodworking my entire life and have worked with dozens of different species of wood throughout the years but nothing even close to as hard as this particular wood. Especially when it came to sanding it! I spent hours upon hours sanding it with every sander I own.… Read more »

Mike

I have a pile of lumber that was taken out of a building built in Dallas Texas back in the 1920’s-1940’s. I am thinking it is old growth pine but was hoping for more clarification. Also seen in the pictures are a home depot SYP 2×4 and a 6×6 from the same old buildings that I am not sure of the species either. The 6×6 had a distinct odor when cutting and planing while the piece of the 2×16 joist (cut much smaller to joint and plane) had no smell. both dent easily with a fingernail. I was thinking old… Read more »

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Mike

Thanks! In your opinion do you think it’s the “long leaf pine”? And I’ll get a closer shot of the 6×6 and submit that for your review too

Mike

Here are a few more pictures of the other wood from the first set of pictures… This wood is very light weight and definitely has a strong cedar like smell when cutting…. I would swear its cedar but is not red

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John

a few close ups, hope this helps

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Maria

I am trying to identify the wood and the finish for this handrail from victorian era. Thank you!

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John

Oak?

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Mr Ward

I made this bowl for a friends birthday present and wanted to tell her the species, I bought a job lot of bowl blanks some years back with a variety of species in. The heartwood had a greenish tinge to it before I turned it. It’s quite light wood and scratches easily, as you can see in the close up. I thought I’d sanded it alright but as you can see it could do with some more work. Could it be Bald Cypress? or Yellow buckeye? Or maybe something else entirely? I live in the UK, but I don’t know… Read more »

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Mr Ward

Thank you very much Eric, very helpful. I’m going to spend some time learning more about looking at end grain. I’ve ordered a 10x loupe. All the best, Mr Ward

Jenny

Hello, I recently purchased a second hand table online that I am stripping the paint off. Any ideas of what type of wood this is? Thank you!

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Doug

Great info – Thank you for this! I’m still stumped on this piece, hoping these pics come through clearly and you might know…I believe it’s Bubinga, but just my best guess based on online photos and density. I’d appreciate your opinion. It came with our house 17 years ago, alongside a great piece of Purpleheart. Never knew what to do with it, then recently decided to make a relief sign for a friend. It’s dense, carveable with gouges, albeit somewhat difficult and can chip (not the best choice for my first attempt at signmaking!). Calculated cubic ft weight of this… Read more »

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Doug

Thank you, Eric – very much appreciate your time!

Kyle Tremlett

Picked up on the Isle of Wight just came down.

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kyle

Hi Eric, any ideas what this wood is please.

Mandy

Hi Eric. Do you know what wood this is? All from the same desk. Many thanks for taking a look.

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VALERY

Hi Eric!
Do you know what type of wood?

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Milos

Do you know what type of wood this table is made of?

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Milos

Maybe from this picture. This is the table top side.

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Jt Whissel

Love the site and fellow woodworker here. Noticed you replying to all these comments and decided to jump on the band wagon for this $30 bench I bought at a auction. I have always wondered on what it’s made from. Thanks for your time!

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Glen Gobel

Hi, any chance you recognize this type of wood.

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Gemma hodgkinson

Any idea what this wood is

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Brandon

Trying to identify this stained trim without tearing it off the wall. Home is from 1920. Any ideas?

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Brandon

Ive been told maybe maple, cherry, mahogany… Ive tried to I.D. myself but cant seem to find a good match.

Brandon

Here is another pic of it

Dean L

Hi, any ideas on what wood this is?
Thanks
Dean.

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Brandon

Id look up pictures of cypress to see if that matches.

Hayden

Not too sure what type this is? Any ideas?

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Jennifer

Any ideas on what this door is? It was painted black and I stripped it and sanded it, still working on the crevices.

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Tom

Hello,

I believe this is a pine – do you know what type of pine it is? In the middle of restoring 1925 flooring located in Indiana.

Thank you very much!

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VALERY

Hola!
Me ayudarías a identificar esta madera, me parece madera dura, voy a elaborar unos anillos y me gustaría saber que tipo de madera es.
Es bastante rojiza!
Me indicas si se ven las fotografías!

Last edited 1 month ago by VALERY
VALERY

Listo!

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Stephen

Hey there, any ideas on this? Sawed in florida

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Keith

I am trying to make some repairs to an old secretary desk and am having trouble identifying this wood. I think it might be cherry or walnut. Thanks

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Cheryl

Can you help me identify this wood. I want to make a lid for this box and not sure what kind of wood to buy . Thanks so much for your help.

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Julie Jensen

Loved your article, I attempted to apply each step to determine why kind of wood this 4 poster bed is made from, but I am stumped. Perhaps you can help? I took pictures of the headboard, the post, and the last picture is of the side of the platform frame….

Mahalo from Hawaii

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Rena

Hi, Can you tell what type of wood? I bought these while in Sicily.

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Ceri John

Please could you identify this wood for me.
Thank you

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robert

what type of wood is this

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Barry

Does anyone know what wood this is maybe? Its very heavy

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Heather Jackson

Hi Eric, I’m so happy to have found your page. I sell vintage and antiques via Etsy. I find wooden treasures quite often, but never know who to properly identify what wood it is made of. I really do not like to list items for sale into my shop with all the facts. Could you please tell me what wood this could be? It looks of good quality. The grain is very close to one another and fine (sorry don’t know what wood lingo to use here). It’s completely solid, hand-carved, and looks to be lightly stained. Thank you so… Read more »

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Thomas

Wood floor in my new house. I’m guessing pine since I was able to gouge it with my finger (with a good bit of pressure), and it’s a bit chewed up in the doorways. On the other hand, it has no knots and the pattern looks more like red oak. Any thoughts? It was put in a long long time ago (100 or so years ago).

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Peggy Bell

Are you able to determine the type of wood used on this armoire or wardrobe? I have no idea of the age; the entire piece is amazingly light. I am trying to sell the piece but have no idea of the wood type for description. . Note: the piece is darker in color, though one photo appears lighter from the lighting situation. The last photo, with grain running vertically, is an unfinished interior piece. Thank you in advance for your assistance.

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Jared Camens

Hi could you possibly identify the this piece of wood? Thanks!

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Tilly

Hi could you possibly identify the wood used for these chess pieces? Many thanks!!

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Tilly

Great thank you so much

Adam

Could you possibly tell me what wood this guitar is made of? The neck looks and feels like a mahogany guitar I own, but the back and sides are foreign to me. Thanks!

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Adam

Thank you for answering. Here’s a pic of the unfinished interior. Sorry I couldn’t get a better shot (not much light to work with in there).

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Adam

Thank you! It was unfamiliar to me, and walnut is certainly not one I’m accustomed to seeing. Appreciate the help.

Derrin

Antique corner cabinet. Name that wood! Thanks

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Derrin

Two more pics

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Derrin

Thanks for trying :-)

Heather Jackson

Derrin, GREAT FIND!! If you plan on refurbishing, I would love to see the results.

Urv

Is there any way to tell what kind of wood these chairs are?

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SUSAN

Trying to decide whether to strip these chairs ….or not….and no idea what they might be made of. They look a bit Danish. The wood revealed by the worn away paint looks so nice-but noone I ask ventures a guess as to what it might be. Would be so grateful for an opinion!

susan

Here they are-sorry, thought I had done that….

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Joanne

Wondering what type of wood a very heavy French country dining room table is made from.

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Gregor

Can anyone help with this? Moved into a new home and trying to ID the floor wood. Its all the same continuous floor but the colour changes a lot depending on light and traffic.

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Jeanni

Heart pine or red oak? It has red oak stain on it.

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henry

I certainly loved reading the information on this site, I still like to have a hard copy of the book.tks for posting this valuable information.

Lee Osborne

Could you please identify this wood. People are saying it’s ash, but I think it’s more a variety of Walnut.

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Jack DeLeon

Wondering if anyone can help me out with this one? This was hand made by Grandpa in the early 60’s. It heavy like oak , I just never seen oak grain like this before.

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Daryl G

Hi Eric, I think I lost the thread somehow. I was trying to identify this wood I am hoping to use in instrument building. I need similar features to the Mahogany and Queensland Maple. Strong stable timber. The timber has been stored outside but under cover for 20+ years. Origin is unknown but it came from a heavy machine packing so it may not be all that uncommon. There is no noticeable scent when working the timber. The sample I photographed is somewhat bleached but most of the timber is a pale red when sawn. I have some really nice… Read more »

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Daryl G

Thanks Eric, Yes you are correct I’m from Australia. Following your lead I’ve done some research and Meranti seems to be the best match overall. This is good news as it seems it is perfect for the application I’m working on. Thank you once again.

ivor

Hello, i am struggling to identify this veneer from a chess set from Ukraine. Can you help me perhaps ?

Deanna

Hi there! I am hoping to replace our tiled kitchen floor with hardwoods that match the ones in our living room. The house is a Portland, OR cape cod built in the early 50s. My guess is a lower grade red oak due to the variation or maybe a mix? I’m stumped. Thank you.

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ivor

Just had my own question on here so stumbled on yours. I am almost certain it is French oak, i had a floor and library shelving made from reclaimed French oak and it was identical , mine came from an old French barn. Lovely honey colour. The mix was typical of it. As i doubt yours came from France i guess it will be the native oak of France in species. I am struggling to find more of the same for my present house.