Although scent is mostly a subjective characteristic, it is nonetheless helpful in identifying wood. And while odor should not be relied upon as the sole means of identification, in many cases, it can serve to confirm or deny a possible identification.
Because scents are so difficult to describe in written terms, descriptions are necessarily vague—an exception would be if the odor is reminiscent of another well-known scent. (A clear example of this would be rosewood in the Dalbergia genus, from which the wood gets its namesake.)
Many wood species don’t have a characteristic odor, or the odor greatly subsides once dry. (In most cases, any odor of wood in its green state will not be noted, and only the scent of dried wood will be considered.)
Over time, the potency of scented woods will subside, and there may be little to no detectable odor in fully seasoned wood. In order to bring out any scent, it may be necessary to sand, plane, or otherwise machine the sample. Moistening the wood sample may also serve to bring out its scent.
Notably Odorous Woods:
Eastern Red Cedar: Sometimes called Aromatic Red Cedar. A strong lingering scent. Used in birdhouses, closet liners, chests, shoe trees, and a variety of household goods. Reputed to repel moths.
Spanish Cedar: A distinct lingering scent. Used in cigar humidors.
Incense Cedar: Most people are unknowingly familiar with the scent of incense cedar because it is one of the primary woods in making wooden pencils.
Camphor: A strong lingering scent that has decongestant and medical properties. To the western world, the scent of this wood is synonymous with medicated chest rubs—which contain camphor extract.
Brazilian Rosewood: This is the prototypical rosewood. Most rosewoods have a rose-like scent while being worked, though it fades shortly thereafter.
Cocobolo: Technically a true member of the rosewood genus (Dalbergia), Cocobolo also has a pleasing spicy scent that has been used in perfume.
Lignum Vitae: This tree, along with its Argentinian variant, are harvested in the production of oil of guaiac, an ingredient in perfumes.
Sandalwood: Reported to retain its scent for decades, essential oils from the wood are also extracted and used in perfumes.
We are renovating a 150 year old schoolhouse. The 2 X 4 rough hewn wood studs smell like coffee. Will the odor go away? We are insulating and drywalling.
We have a real 2×10 from 100 years ago. We planed the wood. It is a dark grain looking similar to a pine grain. The shaving have a petrol smell .. any clue of the wood?
You seem to have neglected the wood known as Agarwood, aloeswood, eaglewood…
A friend was visiting Tasmania and at a farmer’s market there she found these fat wood beads on a string that have a smell like smoke, even though they have never been in a fire. She said the wood resin has this smokey smell and that it’s a tree special to Tasmania. I kept them for years and they were wonderful meditation beads, but they recently were lost. Have been trying to find out what type of wood that was – it had a sort of bitter, acrid smokey smell that was pleasant when you were accustomed to it. The… Read more »
My guess would be huon pine
When I went on a trip to Martinique, I stayed in a cabin that had a strong, yeasty, cheesy odor that was very unpleasant. The manager told me that the smell was from the tropical wood used to build the cabin. Any idea what kind of wood this was?
We cut into a tree and it smelled like tobaco sauce. We were wondering what type of tree it would be?
I have a billiard pool table size globe that sits upright. It was given to my mother and the gifter told her it will never lose its scent. Has an earthy powder smell. A nice carved piece. Apparently there’s an opening at the bottom that is plugged. Any idea what this may be?
I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of wood this is for a long time. It smells earthy and spicy (spicy like frankincense). We have some shelves made out of it and I also noticed the inside of our cabinets in an old 1930s cabin in NJ also has this same smell. Note: not everyone can smell the scent of this wood. I’ve been running tests and some people can smell it and others can’t.
Can you get a closeup picture of the endgrain by chance?
I wet the endgrain in the last picture. I didn’t know if that would help. Thanks!
Sorry, although the pictures are well lit and in focus, the surface of the wood itself is still too rough to make out any details. Please try to finely sand the surface, removing the saw marks, and I should be able to make out more details in the wood. Also, no need to wet the endgrain.
In nature I’ve been trying to identify this smell most of my life and only in the last two years I’ve found an actual piece of wood that holds this smell and I’m trying to figure out what type of wood it is. The smell is old, earthy and spicy to me (spicy in the way frankincense can be spicy). I found the scent on some older shelves but I also notice it inside the cabinets in this very old cabin from the 30s in NJ. Important to mention- not everyone can smell this scent, but some people can. I’ve… Read more »
I’m just wondering if you ever found out what the name of the wood was? As a child I used to have a small sewing box made from a wood with a “spicy/frankincense” scent – it has always eluded me and I have only smelt it once while walking through a hotel on a tropical island.
is it a lightweight wood? I don’t wonder if it is sassafras. The grain and color look like sassafras that I have cut in the past, and ut contains safrole that is earthy and spicy, a very pleasant smell to me. Ask around your area see if anyone has some sassafras pieces to compare it with. The tree is quite common and a fast grower.
what does a sessile oak log smell, look and feel like please?
I just got a big log from someone removing a large tree from their backyard in Utah. I am very new at this world and I cannot identify this tree. The previous owner said it was Chinese elm, an identification software said it was black locust, and I don’t think either is correct. The dark core is very wet and smells like cow manure.
If you can clean up the endgrain and get a clearer shot, it should be fairly straightforward to ID. But I can’t make out enough detail in the grain to get a positive ID.
Ok. Thank you.
Im thinking it might be a black walnut. But I just found out it’s too small to take to a mill, so I’ll have to mill it myself and get a clear look at the grain.
Hopefully these pictures are a little clearer.
I can see the little wavy lines in the latewood, which is named after the genus of elm itself, ulmiform. It does look like elm, though I can’t say for sure which species, but if someone said Chinese elm, that’d be a pretty reasonable assumption.
Thank you Eric
Based on your comment about cow manure and the fact I just milled a fallen siberian elm tree, this is definitely a type of elm. Cow manure is the best way to describe it. The wood is very dark when freshly cut as I see in photo.
Yes, I remember the stench of elm wood from my chilhood when my dad pruned our favorite climbing tree. Pee-yew!
It looks like black walnut
Can anyone help?
I have a piece of wood that when cut shows bright orange, the colour seems stable after around 10 months with limited exposure. I had assumed osange but it has a strong fecal odour when cut which is not persistent.
The wood surfaces are too weathered/rough to make out enough useful details. Can you finely sanded the face and end grain surfaces and post new pictures?
The 1st image is an off cut against the full size board (same wood)the splintered piece I sanded down and finished with 150grit for the last pic.
I hope someone can help me. I have a late 16th, early 17th Century Religious Wood Sculpture, possibly Spanish, or Mexican. As it was traditional at that time, it was carved from one single piece of wood (pith at the center, concentric wrought rings, and rays coming from -age cracks as well-). The wood color is very dark and ‘winey’, almost like very dark mahogany. The texture looks ‘oily’ or ‘greasy’, but not to the touch. In spite of its approximate 16′ in size (4′ at the base), it’s extremely heavy, almost 7 lbs. The piece is heavily carved, so… Read more »
One option would be shellac. The same type of finish thats probably more well known for one type of shellac application technique called french polishing. Shellac seals the wood surface and pores and can completly block stains and odors (its even used on drywall, plaster and subfloors to block most odors even smoke or urine/other pet odors) You could likely take it to a expert in furniture restoration. You could do some searches for reputable ones near you or that specialize in that era & or in smaller carvings. And ask to see previous work theyve done/read reviews and call… Read more »
Thank you very much for the advice John Smit. Fortunately there are some good antique refinishers in NYC I could use. I wanted to see if there was something less aggressive I could do at home before taking the next step. The wood is very dry at the bottom, and the cracks show a lot more than the rest of the piece. My fear is if the wood gets ‘sealed’ with anything chemical, it might accelerate the drying of the wood, and possibly get more damaged. As you said, I should take it to a professional who knows. Much appreciated.… Read more »
I’ve just had a load of kiln dried alder logs delivered and there’s a chemically smell from them. I haven’t burnt any yet. Is this normal?
What wood smells when you crumble it’s bark. The wood looks white but the bark has a similar colour to cinnamon ?
what wood smells like stinky cheese ? my husband got wood yesterday and it smells like sharp stinky cheese its really kinda sickening ,we live in western canada near the rockies.
I wonder if it was spruce. My husband is working on a project, and his whole shop smelled terrible. He told me that is the way spruce boards smell, and did not seem affected, but to me it smelled just horrible.
Just curious…I smoke cigars and they arrive in boxes made of Spanish cedar. I hate to waste them. If I break them apart and put them in with winter sweaters, would they it be as effective as red cedar in keeping moths away?
It’s a myth that cedar (or any other non-synthetic chemical, perfume, oil, or herb can keep moths away. If a garment is put in a red cedar box made from wood felled/cut less than a year ago, and that red cedar box has the super expensive air-tight fit with no holes, then yes, the cedar box will very probably ward off moths for a year or two **as long as the box is never opened, releasing the volatile aromatic wood oils that evaporate and dissipate quickly. There was a single experiment done in the 1920s where large quantities of essential… Read more »
Watched the video you mentioned, took issue with the follow statement regarding 1952 study at the 22:27 mark, “although the authors speculated that control of clothes moth larva would be possible in the closed environment of a cedar chest, subsequent studies have refuted that suggestion.” I could find no such refutation, but would be open to hearing of such. I was able to find the original study mentioned: https://doi.org/10.1093/jee/45.1.40 and it appears to be pretty thorough, at least on a technical level. Extrapolating it to real world situations is I think where people run into problems. While I’m doubtful of… Read more »
I have a piece of furniture that is made from Ash. It was unfinished when I purchased it so after a few months or so, I sealed it with a coat of oil based poly. About two weeks later it has a strange odor, somewhere between iodine and musty. Unfortunately this is my bed frame, it so pretty! But it smells so bad, that when I walk past the room I can smell it. I sleep with the windows open to help with the smell. Has anybody heard of this reaction to poly on a type of wood? I can’t… Read more »
Kerri, we are have the same problem with a new handmade dresser, my father used oil based primer on and oak frame and poplar drawer boxes, have you figured out how to get rid of the smell?
Unfortunately it’s the oil based product that is causing the problem, a water based clearcoat like polyacrylic might help seal the fumes in…
Unfortunately it’s the oil based product that is causing the problem, a water based clearcoat like polyacrylic might help seal the fumes in…
I have a jar of small pieces of drift wood from the Gulf of Mexico that I removed from an open container to a sealed jar. I took the lid off for the time since I placed the pieces in the jar months before and the smell coming from the jar is amazing. Sweet with a bit of spice smell. Any idea what sort of wood this smell could be coming from?
Sounds like Palo Santo.
I found a piece of drift wood on a beach in Oregon a year ago. It smells like a strong lysol or cleaner still today. It looked like redwood but it is way to hard. Anyway I made a bowl with it. I have access to a college DNA lab just wondering if you could help me identify what it could possibly be? I has beautiful tight grain and like I said hard as nails.Thank you in advance. Dennis
May be Madrone
Thanks Paul, I’ve cut lots of madrone, for firewood etc, and it is notoriously known to split. This piece looked like redwood and I am from redwood country but hard as nails with a real tight grain. The bowl I turned is amazing…but still stinks. Lol Dennis Definitely camphor. Just never know what will show up on a beach.
Mystery solved….camphor wood possibly from South East Asia. Long trip floating in the ocean. Still stinks
We have been burning wood in the wood stove for heating our home. The smoke when you open the door has the scent just like the Catholic Church burns at funerals. We just call it church wood. I wish I could find the name of this tree so I can plant more of them!
Cedar of Lebanon
Ask who sold you the wood or a local arborist.
I have been using Cordia alliodora (Ecuador Laurel) for an outside decking project, The odor is extremely strong, smells like farm manure, and I believe has caused congestion in my lungs the last few weeks. I cannot find any information about this anywhere. I understand it will go away with time as the wood drys, but have never had this reaction to wood before. Anyone have more information on this?
Sorry Cindy, I don’t have any more information. However, it sounds like a very serious problem. I’ve never had experience with this time type of problem, but I do wish I could help. Sorry :(