How to Identify Hardwoods and Softwoods
How to Identify Wood
It is helpful when furniture shopping, remodeling or crafting to be able to identify and match hardwoods and softwoods. Hardwoods come from flowering trees and softwoods are derived from conifers. Stains, weathering and other changes to the surface of the wood can disguise the type of tree the sample came from. This is why several methods can be used to identify wood.
Identifying Common Woods
Determine if your wood is a solid piece of wood.Look at an end piece. If it doesn’t exhibit rings or grain, it is likely a piece of plywood and it won’t be able to be identified.
Decide if it has been weathered or stained.Most woods take on a blue or grayish color as they weather in wind, sun and rain. Stained woods may be made to look like another type of wood, and you can tell if the color is very uneven or there is a varnish on it, that it may be stained.
- If either of these colorations describes your wood, you may need to move on to the third method, since visual identification is extremely hard. A laboratory can look at the wood under a microscope and determine what it is.
Sand the sample down so that bare wood is exposed.This is essential to identifying it based on color and grain.
Determine if your wood sample is oak.This is an extremely common furniture wood. It is usually a light brown, but can look slightly red or blonde. Slightly dark lines, or "grain," run through the wood.
Decide if it’s cherry.If the wood is reddish in appearance but has a darker, browner grain, it is likely cherry. Keep in mind that stained poplar can be virtually impossible to distinguish from cherry.
Determine if it is walnut.This is the most common of the darker woods. It tends to have larger rays in the grain and take on a rich, chocolate brown.
Decide if a light-colored wood is maple.This is the most common of the blond colored woods and is often used in trim, flooring and in countertops. It has a wide grain.
- Keep in mind that a blond colored wood can also be pine. However, pine is characterized by a more distinctive grain. It is also much lighter and softer than maple.
- A yellow type of light-colored wood is poplar. It is a common, inexpensive hardwood that can be stained to look like cherry, walnut or other colors.
Identifying Unusual Wood
Determine that your wood is not one of the common hard or soft woods listed above.
Take a sample and sand it so that bare wood is exposed.Set the wood near your computer.
Go to the Wood Database online.Pictures of almost every common and exotic hardwood are available on this website. Scroll through the pictures and click on a piece of wood that looks familiar to access more information about the wood.
- Type “wood database” into a search engine. Choose a URL that includes wood-database.com.
Choose to browse the list by common name, scientific name or appearance.In most cases, you will want to choose appearance.
Compare several different kinds of woods by color and grain.When you find the right wood, click on the photo to read more about common uses and comments.
Look at the additional pictures of the wood under the common name, including pictures of the end grain.
Consider purchasing the book “Wood:Identification & Use” by Terry Porter if you have little access to the Internet.It provides similar pictures and information on more than 200 woods.
Identifying Wood by Laboratory
Cut a sample of the wood.You can cut up to five samples of different woods each year that can be processed for free. Ensure each specimen is at least one by three by six inches (2.5 by 7.5 by 15 cm) in size.
Label your samples.Place them in individual envelopes. Use letters one through five to label the samples, and then write a list of the samples for your records.
Write a letter to the Center for Wood Anatomy Research.This organization provides five identifications per year to US citizens. It will not provide identification for legal disputes.
Package your wood samples and envelopes in a padded box or envelope.Send it to “Center for Wood Anatomy Research, USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, One Gifford Pinchot Dr., Madison, WI 53726-2398.”
Wait six to eight weeks to receive word about your samples.If you need wood identified more quickly, you may be able to contact a local carpenter or wood-worker for a consultation.
Video: Wood Identification
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