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Wood Identification Guide
1. Confirm it is actually solid wood.
2. Look at the grain color.
3. Look at the grain pattern.
4. Consider the weight and hardness of the wood.
5. Consider the Source.
6. Smell It!
By Common Name

By Scientific Name
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.

Can you see the end-grain? Manufactured wood such as MDF, OSB, and particleboard all have a distinct look that is—in most 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.

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.

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 grain 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.

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.

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. Look at the grain pattern. If the wood is unfinished, then look at the texture of the grain, as well as the endgrain. Ask yourself these questions:

Does the wood have an open or close pore structure? Most softwoods will be almost perfectly smooth with no visible pores, while many common hardwoods have an open pore structure, such as Oak or Mahogany; though there are some hardwoods that have close pores, such as Maple. When looking at the endgrain, can you tell if the wood is quartersawn or plainsawn? By observing the endgrain, you can tell how the board was cut from the tree, and also deduce what grain pattern ought to appear on the surface of the board. 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.

What is the overall grain pattern of the wood? Red Oak and White Ash are fairly close in terms of weight, coarseness, and to an extent, color. Yet oak has conspicuous rays present, while the rays of ash are very subtle and not easily distinguishable. Noticing small details like this can help determine the species of the wood in question. 4. Consider the weight and hardness of the wood.

If it’s possible, pick the piece of wood up and get a sense of it’s 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.

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.

5. Consider the Source.

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.

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, yet due to CITES restrictions placed upon that species, East Indian Rosewood has become much more common on newer guitars.

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: 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. Smell It!

Believe it or not, freshly machined wood has a very identifiable, (and depending on the genus, usually reliable) 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. Ask yourself these questions:

Is this smell at all familiar to any of the other wood species that you suspect this to be? If you can’t identify the wood down to a species level, you may be able to get within the genus by smelling it. The distinct smells of many domestic lumbers—such as Walnut, Oak, or Ash—are almost unmistakable. If you have a reference point from which to work from, the smell may narrow things down quite quickly. Is the smell reminiscent of anything else found in nature? Not only wood products, but anything else such as spices, flowers, perfumes, etc. can be indicators. For instance, species in the Dalbergia genus are commonly referred to as rosewoods, because they have a very characteristic floral scent. Aromatic Cedar is another wood that has a variety of uses, and is commonly used in household/closet items.

By Common Name

By Scientific Name
Here are further guidelines.