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.
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darkktur o

Can anyone tell me what this wood is ? It’s a very thick veneer, front and back.

Dominic Strezynski

Hi, I just purchased this table on eBay and the lady selling it could not remember what type of wood it was. I took pictures of stained and polished side and the underside that was left raw.

I would appreciate any help.

Kind Regards

Clive A.

Ok. as I’ve failed to submit photos last time I’ll try again. Its collor is a pinkish red and a tint lighter than padouk. I’ve included a piece of walnut for comparison. Thank you in advance.

Clive A.

Thank you ejmeier. It should be mouth watering.
It’s a pity though, my sample is too soft for micro work. I was planning to carve a cufflink with it.

Clive A.

Hi. Can you identify this wood. Its collor is a pinkish red and a tint lighter than padouk. I’ve included a piece of walnut for comparison. Thank you in advance

Andrew Mansour

A customer wanted wood and stain to match this photo. Any thoughts?

Katie Glittera

My aunt bought a curio cabinet about 20 years ago and lost her paperwork. She asked me to help her id the wood. It sounds like a solid like wood when I tap and knock on the panels, but not a heavy “thunk” like when you knock on particleboard. Any ideas?

Katie Glittera

Thank you

Andi

Hello was wondering if anybody could please identify these wood pieces. They are very hard and heavy. No smell and are completely dry.

Andi

Thanks for responding, here are some sanded pics of the end grain (wet and dry) and top of piece. This particular piece has a two tone color to it. Thinking about the weight, I compared it to a piece of maple of similar dimension and the maple was a lot heavier. Upon sanding, it was easier than I thought it would be. Thanks again for any more insight.

JAIMEY

DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT TYPE OF WOOD THIS IS?

Carly-Jay Metcalfe

This is an old wooden box, but I just can’t pick the wood. It’s been grossly over glossed and I’d love tho sand it back to it’s original colour. Any ideas on what it could be? I’d be very appreciative if anyone could help! My Dad seems to think it’s pine, but I’m not sure.

Carly-Jay Metcalfe

Yes, I am :) It was made in Australia, but I’m not sure if get white oak out here? I can’t stand the hi-gloss finish and the lighter wood you can see on the inside is in it’s natural state. What would you recommend to refinish it? Cheers!

Melissa Mader

Having trouble identifying these 2 pieces- Any ideas?
The First Pic is a headboard built in the 70s and the second is a table built in the 60’s

TRim Tab Girl boat

HiI have this large deer carved . The wood is suppose to be fro Africa Can anyone id it .

Betty

Can someone identify what type of wood this is?

https://imgur.com/a/pNLin

Ty

Identify this wood

Mr_Jinx

looks like pine

Andrea

Can anyone tell what kind of wood might this be? I cut out this little piece from a painted board (the piece you see in the pics isn’t painted nor anything else). I had the original board from a friend of mine who told me that was IROKO. However he wasn’t sure about it. It seems hard and solid, but it gets scratches quite easily (and that’s why I’m still not sure it is iroko). It’s light as well. If it’s iroko (or some other very hard wood) I’m gonna use it to make the fretboard of a ukulele, as… Read more »

Mr_Jinx

would love some help identifying this wood. Its the top of a Jackson Desks desk from somewhere around the 50’s or 60’s. It is solid wood, sanded to bare wood and is solid. It has only mineral spirits on the bare wood to see the grain.

Mr_Jinx

I’m in NH and the desk was built in Jasper, IN. I can’t say for sure about a smell. Its a fair hard wood. A hard birch maybe but it has a nice natural reddish color. The top wasn’t in bad condition when I got it.

Mr_Jinx

I think you’re right. I’ve never really seen such a curly cherry. I have
one more closeup of the grain. Thanks for your help!
comment image

NylaAlisia

It’s oak, quarter sawn

NylaAlisia

Pine? =)

send Applications

What type of wood is this slab. I was told this is Maple is it true? i am getting second thoughts as i see wide heart wood in middle. These slabs are 22″ wide to get guess.

send Applications

Thanks ejmeir. I was getting second thoughts as the darker heartwood.

Christopher Cornelius

This is 4 pieces glued together then turned but im still not sure what it is…? It is a Bitc* to work with and this is unfinished. Please help!

Aaron Krystna Vogt

Can anyone tell me what kind of wood this is? It is the flooring in a home I just purchased. Thanks

Colin Wolf

anyone know what type of wood this is? its made in italy and at least 30 years old

Bradley Mccollum

Hi, I just stripped and sanded down this trim. There’s much more of it, but I thought this was a good close-up. Does this look like Oak to you? That was my guess, but I am certainly not a professional.

Deanna Lane

Can anyone tell me what kind of wood this is from this picture. I was told this is an antique set and solid wood but doesn’t know the kind of wood. Thank you.

jj

hello i have a piece of wood id like someone to indentify…thanks in advance

Eric L

We just stripped the paint off this old table – I don’t really have access to the end grain since it’s all one piece… I’m just looking for best bet, but am I looking at maple perhaps? The table appears to have had some wear and tear, so we’re trying to decide what type of stain we can go with to hide some of it. I am almost positive the main top and bottom of the table is solid and real wood, it’s thick, heavy, and the grain seems to go all the way through. What I can’t figure out… Read more »

Denis Ganin

This is pallet wood. Anyone what kind it is? Thanks

Denis Ganin

Thanks ejmeeir :)

Sunshyne Cline

I bought this in South Africa over 20 years ago. I do not know what kind of wood it is. I an not sure if it is to scoop water, or if it is used to hold bananas.

Amber Spillers-Anderson

Does anyone have a clue what this diamond shaped piece is? I’ve searched all over the internet, contacted about 6 different veneer suppliers, and can’t seem to figure it out!! Please help!

Amber Spillers-Anderson

Oh well, thanks for trying! I may have just replace the whole table since I can’t find a match anywhere.

James Lavin

Just wondering if anyone can identify the timber used in this bench? Probably a simple answer! thanks

William Bohuslaw

I was able to resize 2 other pics regarding my last post in hopes of identifying the species of wood these timbers are.

William Bohuslaw

I don’t have means of doing so however I can crosscut one of the ends if you think that will help? I’m not a wood worker so I don’t have the tools most people would have i.e. surface planer, etc…

William Bohuslaw

I have these beams that are extremely dense and weigh a ton! Can anyone take a guess to help me identify what species of wood they are? They are rough sawn timbers sealed in a wax color and the wood is black in color. My neighbor’s deceased husband was a woodworker and he worked with various types of species. She had about a dozen of these 4′ high timbers she was going to get rid of and I decided to take them. Each one weighs approximately 50 lbs or better. I have more pics but google is being difficult and… Read more »

_GA3FAR_

Hello, I found this nice piece of wood lying on my roof and was wondering if anyone could help me identify it? I figure it might be ash or oak. (Sorry but couldn’t resist playing around and finishing it. Although I trust the grain is fairly clear.)

Jeremi

Hello there. Here’s an old mirror that used to be part of a dressing table. I’m trying to identify the wood, and would be grateful for any information.

Shawn Dennis

Been reading some of the comments so was hoping someone may be able to help me identify this wood. The 2 poctures here are the wood unsanded.

Art

Can anyone tell me what kind of wood this is? I believe it’s a type of mahogany. It’s from an old Chippendale table.

Fleur

wanting to stain an old chair, but i’m not sure what kind of wood it is…any ideas? sanded a bit of the old surface off to show the grain

Thor

We’re trying to sell off some inherited furniture of unknown provenance and would greatly appreciate help identifying the type of wood used to build this table. Cheers!

Jai Hammond

Hi, I was hoping you may be able to tell me what kind of pine this is..?? It was from pallets to hold large spools of shipped wire coils….??

Nice tight grain like a cedar, but varied colouring… Quite fluffy, also… and very light weight…

Is it a spruce pine..?? Thank you in advance… :)

Jai Hammond

Does this help any..??

Bryan

Hello All,

We recently purchased a acreage. In the barn I found roughly twelve board cut by I’m guessing to be a turn of the century saw mill(really rough circular cuts). I know its a hard wood, good weight to it. If i had to guess, I would say its red oak. Can anyone confirm?

Sanding London

Can you help me identify this wood?

linda

i see no one know what kind of wood this might be ,, so i assume its pine

JKS 121

Good Day, Can anyone kindly identify what kind of wood (American Chestnut?) these old beams might be based on the pictures below. Thank you for your assistance in solving this mystery for me!

JKS 121

So I took your suggestion and sanded the endgrain in hopes that you would be able to help identify what specific kind of wood I have here! Thanks for your assistance!!

Andrew Francis

Great blog/database! Thanks. I wonder if you can help identify a guitar wood. The guitar is in pieces, but I have broken bits that I’d like to replace. Inside I am not so concerned, but I’d like to replace both sides with as similar a wood as possible. My guess is mahogany, but I’d like to be sure before searching out the replacement wood. The guitar is from the 1920’s and was made in California which might help limit the possibilities. I’ve attached pictures of a broken edge, rough quarter-sawn interior side, smooth, unfinished exterior, and a broken end. Discoloration… Read more »

Holi

Hi can anyone tell me what type of wood this is? also markings if anyone has seen it.

thanks

Tony

Sorry just wondering if anyone knows what type of wood this table might be? Looks pretty and might want to buy it, is it worth it to buy?

Roberto Napolitano

Can anyone tell me what wood this is?

Aleksandra

Hello folks, any idea what kind of wood can be that?

Aleksandra

Hello folks, any idea what kind of wood can be that?

Aleksandra

Hello folks, any idea what kind of wood can be that?

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