Whether you’re a professional woodworker, a DIY backyard ninja or new to the craft, knowing how to identify wood types is a basic rule of the game.
Of course, there are some wood gurus who boast they can tell a type of wood by simply looking at it, thanks to their keen eye sharpened by years of experience, but how accurate could they be?
Is there a better way of identifying the plethora of wood types out there? If so, is eyeballing one of them?
Before we get into the details of common wood types and their characteristics, and how to identify wood , let’s talk briefly about the characteristics you need to consider when you want to accurately identify a wood board.
How to Identify Wood Types
One of the sure ways of identifying wood types is by confirming if it is a genuine solid wood and not plastic or a mimic wood. This you can confirm by looking at the end-grain. Some planks can be painted or stained to resemble a specific wood type, therefore it is important to also check the color, weight and texture of the piece of wood.
As indicated, there are several characteristics that must be taken into consideration when you’re trying to be spot-on with identifying your board.
Whichever the wood species in your hands, keep in mind that even when all the characteristics point to a wood type of your speculation, it’s highly possible you could be wrong–as you’ll see later in this post.
For now though, here are some considerations to help you differentiate the types of wood you’re dealing with.
1. Confirm it is Real, Solid Wood
It all starts here, being sure that the plank that’s about to make you sweat is actually a solid, real piece of wood, not pieces of plastic or artificial composite that mimic wood.
I’ve been a woodworker long enough to know that some engineered woods can pretty much look like solid wood and often dupe even the most skilled of crafters.
It’s important to ensure you’re working with solid wood and not plywood, veneer or MDF (medium-density fiberboard). The most surefire way to know your board is genuine wood is through its end grain.
There’s more to end grains than meets the eye, so let’s put that one on the shelf for a moment. Remember, some planks can also be painted to resemble solid wood; in that case, the weight and texture of the piece of wood can be a dead giveaway.
Another way to know it’s real wood is to run your fingers around the wood surface and try to feel the slight difference in its elevation.
2. Check the Color
Wood stains and varnish do wonders in sprucing up crafts, or completely transforming the initial wood aesthetics.
Unfortunately, most of us rarely take a moment to figure out how tough it can be to determine the wood type of a stained plank. Remember, both wood stains and varnish work into the wood grain to shield it.
Even though you can identify a stained wood by a mere scratch test, it’s almost only possible to easily identify a wood species by confirming with the stainer of the natural lumber.
This can be frustrating, which is why you need to ask yourself the following questions:
Is the wood’s color natural or stained?
When there’s every indication that the color is unnatural, odds are your efforts to identify the wood type will get you nowhere.
Is the wood weathered or having a patina?
When exposed to outdoor elements, most woods take on a dull grey color. On the flipside, the interior wood tends to turn to a patina as it grows older—some wood species get redder, lighter, and darker or fade, though in most cases, wood darkens with age.
Can the wood be sanded to reveal its natural raw color?
One of the best ways of identifying wood types is when it is freshly sanded. This reduces the possibility of staining or ageing, distorting the original color of your wood.
3. Check the Wood End-grain
Manufactured woods like MDF and particle board have unique looks that help to distinguish them from the end grain of genuine wood.
If you’re wondering what grains in wood species look like, it’s pretty simple; hint—you don’t need any wood grain identification skills.
Can you spot growth rings in your plank? Well, those are the end-grains right there. They are created as the tree grows and are a valid pointer that your plank is solid, genuine and from a tree.
Wood species feature the same grain patterns, particularly those harvested from the same area. While you may get a different flair of the wood, at least you’ll know the type of wood you’re working with.
The grain texture will also help you determine the type of wood you’re dealing with. In most cases, wood grain patterns depend on species.
Generally, hardwoods are rough and heavily grained and so you can expect your softwood to be light-grained with no clear pores.
Types of grains
Commonly found in lumber with wood fibres that run parallel to the log’s long axis.
As the name depicts, it represents a plank with irregular grains of twirls and twists running through it.
Interlocked grain in the wood is represented by spiral grains around the lumber’s axis and then in the reverse direction.
Diagonal grain is represented in wood with grains that are not parallel to the surface of the wood block. Also, this grain can happen when straight-grained wood cannot attach to the vertical axis of a piece of wood.
As the name suggests, wavy grain is common in planks with wavy grains ,and the fibres vary across the log.
Spiral grain represents wood with grains that appear twisted, and fibres that have spiral lines twisted to the left or right side.
4. Check if the Wood is Veneered
If you see a large board with repetitive grain patterns, chances are it is veneer. If that’s the case, a thin layer of wood will be peeled from a tree and sawn onto a substrate.
Often, the veneer appears as a continuously repeated block, given that a rotary cutter is used to chop off the veneer layers as machines spin the log.
Even if it’s truly veneer wood with unique grains and texture —and not a plank of printed plastic, keep in mind that it’s only veneer wood and not solid wood.
5. Verify the Hardness and Weight
MDF or particleboard pieces are increasingly being stained, sawn or laminated together with a wood-colored plastic or simply stained to resemble a real wood grain.
These pseudo-wood products are then used as interior hardwood flooring materials, albeit being artificial materials made of glues, resins, sawdust and durable plastics.
Before you determine the weight or hardness of your piece of wood, ask yourself; is the plank dry? How hard is the wood? And how does its weight compare with other wood species?
Ideally, freshly-felled logs and wood stored in a place with about 25% humidity tend to be different. Freshly sawn wooden pieces contain moisture that weigh more than half their total weight.
On the other hand, a wooden block stored under extremely dry conditions will feel lighter.
Generally, softwoods are softer than hardwoods. However, there’s a thin line between hardness and density, so if the wood feels heavy, it’s likely a hardwood.
Try the ‘fingernail test’—gouge the item’s edge with a fingernail and feel its hardness. Try to push your fingers in as much as possible to make a dent. Alternatively, you could use a scale to measure the block’s width, length and thickness.
Combine the readings to get the density of the wood. Compare the outcome to the weight of other benchmark wood species to find a ballpark estimate of its actual weight. Is it heavier than Pine? Is it lighter than oak?
7. Run Tests if Possible
Consider the following tests when all the others have failed to help you identify your wood type:
- Smell–Most wood species have a distinct odor when freshly sawn.
- Fluorescence–While most wood species look identical under normal lighting, yet under specific wavelengths, the wood absorbs and emits light in totally varied wavelengths. As such, you can determine the type of wood based on the presence or absence of fluorescence features.
- Leachability– Of heartwood extractives in water can be used to identify wood types. For instance, Maclura pomifera (osage orange) has a yellowish-brown dye soluble in water. This can be seen anecdotally once pieces of wood are glued together using a water-based adhesive. The glue squeezed out dons a distinct bright yellow color.
- Chemical tests–Most of these are designed specifically to distinguish closely related wood species. The tests detect differences in the components of extracts from wood species. In this case, chemical substances known as reagents are dissolved in water and the solution is applied to the wood surface and allowed to sit for some time pending any chemical reaction, often confirmed by alteration in color. The two most common tests are those used to differentiate Red and Hard Maple from Red and White Oak.
8. Consider Place of Origin
Arming yourself with relevant information about the place of origin of your plank can be useful. For instance, if you own some Amish furniture sourced from Pennsylvania, it’s more likely that the wood used is from cherry, jatoba, black walnut or African wenge.
This process can be considered as ‘wood profiling’, and can really pay off when it comes to wood identification.
9. Use Wood Identification Apps
Wood identification applications are certainly an incredible way to identifying wood types. Technology has advanced in recent decades, making life easier for woodworkers.
Some specific apps are designed to store and provide data about any wood species. These apps have features and details that enable users to easily identify wood types.
Common Wood Types in North America?
With a variety of wood species to choose from, finding the right wood type for your needs is a no-walk in the park. Read on to learn how to identify wood types, the features and best application for each one.
Hardwood is a type of wood that features distinct wood species that vary in usage and characteristics. Naturally, hardwoods are produced by deciduous trees, and as their name implies, they are tougher than softwoods. They also:
- Have excellent quality
- Have great strength and aesthetics
- Make awesome furniture, boats, flooring, construction works, and musical instruments
The most common hardwood types in North America include:
This type of wood species is one of the oldest on the planet. Oakwood trees are generally hard, strong, heavy, and grow to colossal heights.
Thanks to its extremely dense wood grain, which renders it heavy and durable, oakwood can withstand a lot, including abrasion, great impact, harsh weather, insect infestation and destruction by wild animals.
When it comes to its sapwood and heartwood, oakwood dons a light color. Thanks to its obvious durability, the wood is highly sought after for making top-notch furnishings to last a lifetime.
2. Black Walnut Wood
Black Walnut wood is a common wood type known to be malleable and well-rounded; it creates nearly anything. The material is dense and heavy, making it a fantastic choice for applications that require natural, load-bearing, shock-resistant and durable wood.
As a straight-grained wood type, Black Walnut wood is fairly expensive and readily available in dark or light brown color.
3. Black Cherry Wood
It’s a top-shelf piece of wood that features straight grain patterns with different colors for its heartwood and sapwood. While the heartwood comes in a vibrant red-brown color, the sapwood can be reddish or light brown in color.
Black Cherry is highly preferred, and in most cases, it’s in limited supply, making it quite pricey. So, what makes it highly sought after?
The tree’s tiny critters which are often used to make fine furnishings and musical instruments. The visible growth rings make Black Cherry wood to stand out.
4. Maple Wood
Maple wood is one-of-a-kind and undoubtedly a favorite wood type across the United States of America. This wood type is extremely beautiful, making it a real attraction for most woodwork professionals and DIYers.
Maple wood is naturally heavy and boasts dense wood grains. Regarding its aesthetics, the wood contains straight wood grain and red or brown heartwood. Its sapwood has a white color making it a go-to choice for high-end finishes and furnishings.
Differentiating soft maple vs hard maple wood is crucial for woodworking, considering variations in hardness, grain, and applications.
5. Ash Wood
Is ash a softwood or hardwood? Possessing a naturally smooth texture, ash wood lends itself to impeccable finishing trim. Although relatively lighter in weight, it surpasses oakwood in density. In contrast to its light color, this wood is an excellent choice for mid-tier wood finishes.
6. Beech Wood
You’ll identify this soft and fine-grained wood by its silver to blonde to reddish brown color. Beechwood is a hardwood preferred wood species common in high-end finishes throughout the United States.
If the wood you have has a slightly coarse texture with some tiny pores across the wood grain, it’s likely Beechwood. When it comes to weight, this wood type weighs approximately 46 pounds/ square inch.
7. Poplar Wood
Poplar wood is a wood type common around the globe thanks to its availability and user-friendliness. How do you identify this wood type? The hardwood features a smooth grain texture and straight patterns throughout its grained surface.
It also has average density and is quite easy to work with. Is it durable? No. However, its fine texture allows it to easily absorb varnish, wood stains, and other forms of wood treatment.
8. Red Alder Wood
While it rarely attracts lots of buyers, it isn’t an objectively awkward wood species. But, Red Alder wood is knotty and quite difficult to work with compared to the other hardwood species.
The wood features fine, straight-grain patterns mostly used to make furniture. The red Alder piece of wood is light pink, which passes for a nice finish. The wood board is tough and heavy, making it suitable for making small tables and couches.
9. Birch Wood
If you have built a home, chances are this is the wood type that was used in your project, particularly within the interior areas. This is because Birch wood is tough and heavy, which makes it perfect for insulation and load-bearing purposes.
This hardwood is also ideal for making toys and furniture, thanks to its flexibility and durability. You can easily identify this wood species by its porous surface and red to dark brown color.
Basswood is the best working-class wood! It’s fairly cheap and durable. That explains why it’s a go-to wood type in most places where it’s readily available.
In addition, the hardwood’s fine grains make it a perfect finishing trim. Basswood is also popular for making wooden blind slats, and since it’s affordable, most light-duty furnishings are made with this type of wood.
Cottonwood is a great choice when you’re looking for a wood species that won’t hurt your wallet. Though hardwood, Cottonwood is soft and malleable—you’re sure to get a lot done with it.
Even then, it’s not a sought-after wood type, perhaps because it grows more like shrubs or weeds than trees and hence can’t be used as firewood.
12. Hackberry Wood
This wood looks more like Elmwood. The hardwood is reasonably priced and easy to stain and work with. While its sapwood features a yellow, its heartwood dons an off-grey tinge.
Since it’s a cheap wood type, Hackberry wood passes for an easy and more affordable option to the more exclusive types of wood like walnut and redwood.
13. Sassafras Wood
Just from the name, this wood species sounds odd, and indeed, it is. Sassafras wood can give you heartache just trying to identify it because of its similarities with other hard woods such as ash and oak wood.
The hardwood features an irregular grain pattern with a light brown tinge. In addition, sassafras grows thin and only produces small lumbers when harvested compared to other common trees like oak wood.
So while it’s not highly sought after, it’s rare and fetches a hefty price in some parts of the United States.
14. Sweetgum Wood
What a pretty name for wood! Sweetgum wood is perfect for paneling. It’s commonly used in cabinetry and outer casings for electronic devices.
The hardwood is not very heavy and can help turn up high-end furnishings and create veneer slats to finish engineered woods like MDF and plywood. As an ultrafine-grained wood, freshly-cut Sweetgum wood can produce boards with almost invisible growth rings.
Being a highly sought-after hardwood, it’s pricey not because of its unique features—or lack of them, but its spectacular way of finishing wood surfaces.
15. Elm Wood
Elmwood looks more like basswood. The wood species is affordable, and being a hardwood makes it ideal for lightweight load-bearing and construction purposes.
Elmwood is durable and abundant, but because it has dense grains, it’s tricky to paint or treat with wood treatments like varnish and wood stains. Its sapwood and heartwood feature an off-grey color.
Elmwood grains are coarse-textured and interlocked, making the wood tougher and more resilient to splitting. With its Janka Hardness Rating of 830, Elmwood is categorized as a ‘soft hardwood’ since it is tough and durable but softer than most hardwoods.
16. Sycamore Wood
This type of wood is closely related to the Sweetgum in both features and application. This hardwood is not dense, and in fact, it’s the lightest type of hard wood, and hence not great for load-bearing use.
However, like Sweetgum, Sycamore wood is often used for finishing applications, including interior home trimming, veneer creation and an exterior wood casing for electronics.
Sycamore’s sapwood is brownish with a dark red heartwood which gives the hardwood superior aesthetics to those of Sweetgum wood.
17. Willow Wood
Willow wood is the easiest wood type to identify in this list of hardwoods. The wood species is popularly known for its medicinal benefits for treating localized pain like headaches and toothache.
Its sapwood has a green-brown shade, while its heartwood has a dark brownish-red color. It can also make wicker woodwork like furniture and prosthetic limbs. Since it’s a light wood, Willow can be paired with other wood species for small load-bearing purposes.
Softwoods are the evergreen trees that are less dense and lighter than hardwoods. They are also easy to work with and perfect for decking, flooring, landscaping, interior moulding, construction framing and structural applications.
The most common softwood Types in North America include:
As a softwood, cedar is delicate and demands great maintenance. Despite being a softwood, Cedar is expensive, strong and ideal for exterior projects like durable cedar fencing, siding, decking and shingles.
The wood can also make indoor items like wood furniture and ceilings. Naturally, cedar wood is lightweight, affordable and easy to work with.
Please read this article comparing the qualities of cedar vs pressure treated wood as they compete against each other.
Spruce is a naturally light softwood used to spruce up fences, furniture, window frames and construction projects. It’s a favorite for woodworkers looking to make incredible ceiling boards.
Spruce is easy to work with, especially without knots. It’s also reasonably priced though the planks without knots are pricier than those with knots.
Redwood as a softwood is easily identified by its reddish brown or pinkish-brown color that makes it a preferred choice for most people. Redwood is commonly used to make wood furniture, trims, decks, outdoor structures and structural beams.
This softwood is durable and water-resistant, making it a sought-after wood species. The only downside of redwood is that it’s expensive and requires regular maintenance, hence not the best for those who can’t keep up with it.
As a softwood, Pine comes in several varieties. First on the list is the Eastern White Pine, popular across the United States. Its Janka Hardness Scale Rating is the lowest among all pines.
Other pine species, such as the Red Pine and True Pine, boast a scale rating higher than most hardwoods. Pine wood is perfect for trim, decking, moulding, flooring and construction.
Despite falling under this category of softwoods, Pinewood is durable and reasonably priced. It’s easy to work with, keeping in mind that your final Pine product will require proper care and maintenance.
5. Douglas Fir
Whether you call it Douglas fir or simply Fir, this wood species is a tough and durable softwood tree that grows very tall to heights ranging from 200 to 300 feet at maturity.
Douglas fir wood has visible straight grains (which are poor at absorbing stains) and a reddish-tan color. Thanks to its high density and grain pattern, nails driven into this wood remain intact.
Fir is affordable and thus makes an excellent choice for building lumber, decking, and other woodworking projects for DIYers. Douglas Fir is rot and insect resistant though not to that level of Cedar.
This type of wood is commonly used to fill walls, floors and ceilings of most homes across North America. Fir comes in extended lengths and construction saw blades make neat cuts on the log.
You can read this article comparing the qualities of Douglas fir wood vs cedar to make an informed wood selection decision.
Wood Type Identification Chart
I know of so many wood identification charts out there, but this is synonymous, none will ever be all-inclusive. Why? Most wood-type identification charts provide information on the most utilized wood species or those that woodworkers or DIYers need help identifying.
As such, it’s important to note that different types of trees are distinct to a given region and might be undocumented. So absurd, right?
That’s why it’s essential to seek the help of an expert if you find it challenging to identify wood species, as this forms the baseline for your woodcraft.
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick rundown of the various types of wood species and their characteristics in a chart;
-Grey sapwood and brownish heartwood
Perfect for providing quality finishes
-Tan/brown heartwood and light-cream sapwood
Ideal for state-of-the-art finishes
-Reddish-brown heartwood and sapwood
Used in wood furniture construction
-Great for finishing trims
-Red or brownish heartwood with a creamy sapwood
-Very smooth grain texture
Best for making slatted blinds
|Black Cherry Wood
-Smooth, straight grain pattern
-Brownish sapwood and dark red heartwood
-Outstanding growth rings
Used for making musical instruments
|Black Walnut Wood
-dark brown heartwood
Best for load-bearing use
-Medium to brownish color
-Smooth wood grains
Great for veneer finishes
Makes specific fuel types
-Greyish sapwood and heartwood
-Greyish or off-yellow color
Easy to stain wood
-Straight grain pattern
-Red-brown heartwood and brownish sapwood
Suited for load-bearing use
Best for expensive furnishings
-Brownish heartwood and sapwood
-Straight grain patterns
-Brownish heartwood and greyish sapwood
-Straight grain pattern
Best for finishing railings, cabinetry and small furniture
|Red Alder Wood
| -Often knotty
-Straight grain patterns
-Pinkish heartwood and sapwood
Ideal for making distinct furniture
-Comes in small wood lumber
-Brownish sapwood and heartwood
-Basically used for cabinetry
-Invisible growth rings
-Ideal for making veneer
-Red sapwood and heartwood
-Gives amazing finishes
-Hard-to-spot growth rings
-Dark reddish heartwood and brownish sapwood
Ideal for making veneer
Ideal for small load-bearing usage
|-Tree and its extracts have medicinal benefits
-Straight grain pattern
Perfect for making prosthetics and or wicker furniture
-Easy to work with
-Requires great maintenance
Ideal choice for fencing, decking and shingles
-Easy to work with softwood
used for making fences, furniture, and construction projects.
|-Reddish brown/pinkish brown color
-Requires regular maintenance
Used for trims, decks, furniture, structural beams and outdoor structures.
-Hardness Scale Rating among the pine family
-easy to find and in large quantities
-It’s forgiving and easy to work with
-Can be purchased ready-milled
-regular maintenance required
-Perfect for flooring, trims, decking, molding and construction.
-It’s grain provides a more natural look when flat-sawn
-Its softer spring growth takes up stains differently from the harder rings
|-Tough and durable softwood
-Grows very tall-200-300ftHas straight wood grain pattern
-Resistant to rot and insects
-Perfect for decking, flooring and construction.
See also: Balsa wood vs basswood
How do I Identify Different Wood Grain Patterns?
Identifying the various wood grain patterns will require research and familiarizing yourself with the different wood grain patterns present in most types of woods. In most cases, this is done according to regions and can prove difficult identifying wood types through its wood grain pattern.
Are There Apps for Identifying Wood?
Thanks to advanced technology, software developers have already designed an application that uses photo recognition to identify wood. Unfortunately, the fact that the user has to add some information like texture, area of origin, estimated age and wood species commonly found in the region of origin means the app is still a work in progress with a substantial error margin.
What Are the Four Types of Lumber?
While numerous wood species are out there, it’s generally accepted that there are only four types of wood to choose from. These include hardwood, softwood, MDF boards and Veneers. Veneers and MDF boards are artificial wood distinctively manufactured with unique resistance, applications and internal composition.
What Is the Best Wood for Outdoor Use?
Cedar for outdoor use is often considered the best. Its natural oils provide exceptional resistance to rot, insects, and decay. Teak, redwood, and pressure-treated pine are also popular for their durability and weather resistance. Proper maintenance, such as sealing and periodic staining, can further enhance wood’s longevity in outdoor settings.
Now that you know how to identify wood types and their characteristics, it’s time to start your crafting journey and put what you have learnt into practice.
Be sure to consult an expert or someone with more knowledge and or experience if you ever feel out of depth, especially when identifying the wood type that stands in your way to an awesome piece of craft.
Recommended read: How to identify teak wood