The Ultimate Guide to Identifying Wood Types in Furniture

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture

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Table of Contents

Hello everyone! If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I hope you’ll understand when you see how long and informative this post is!

I’ve been planning on writing this post, pretty much, since I started this blog. It has been one of the things I’ve always needed help with. I’ve spent hours researching this topic for each particular piece.

Knowing the answer to this question matters a great deal in restoration work. It will affect your strategy for sanding, pre-treating, and staining; basically, everything depends on knowing:

What type of wood is this??

You don’t want to start a refinish job in which you plan to expose the natural wood, without knowing the wood type.

Of course, there are SO MANY types of wood, it’s incredible. Even the experts sometimes can’t quite narrow down the exact species of wood you may be dealing with.

There are also multiple “subgenus” and “species” of each “genus” of wood. (i.e. Sub Genus: White Birch, Red Oak; Species: Acer pseudoplatanus)

You probably don’t need to know all of these crazy names for simple refinish work

To identify the exact species of the wood, you would need to know exactly where the wood came from in most cases. This is normally not possible, if (like me) you’re looking at a random piece of furniture you just snagged off the side of the road.

So for now, we will just be working on identifying the Genus (Birch, Oak, etc.) and not the exact Species of Wood. Also, we will stick to common wood types used in furniture making through the decades.

My list was filled with about 25 wood types at first. Then I decided I’d narrowed it down to the “most common” before my (and your) head exploded. I may add to the list periodically if I happen to find a furniture piece made of something not on it. (EDIT: Instead, I made an eBook with 39 wood types included for you to compare your furniture piece to. Check it out at the bottom of this post)

Identifying Wood Types In Furniture – The Most Common Wood Types

Hardwoods:

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Mahogany
  • Cherry
  • Walnut
  • Poplar
  • Rubberwood

Softwoods:

  • Pine
  • Spruce
  • Redwood
  • Hemlock
  • Cedar

I will give you a short “Layman’s Terms” description of each type, and a distinguishing feature of each to help you identify it. (Of course, some wood types don’t quite have a distinguishing feature, but I’ll help you with that when we get to it.)

Before we begin, there are a few terms you should know that I couldn’t quite fit into the “Layman’s” category.

Beginner Terms to Know

Heartwood & Sapwood

Every tree has each of these 2 parts. They are the inner and outer areas of the tree.

The Heartwood is the dead, inner section of the tree. Its coloring is usually darker than sapwood.

The Heartwood is also the older section of the tree, which dies as new sections grow around it. It doesn’t decay as long as the new growing sapwood surrounds it. It becomes stronger over time as the dead fibers get bound together.

Because of that strength, the Heartwood is the section of the tree best for woodwork. It is also less susceptible to fungus and contains less moisture, therefore it doesn’t shrink when dried.

The Sapwood is the outermost portion and is usually lighter, “new” wood.

The Sapwood acts as a pipeline for water to travel up the tree to the leaves.

Identifying Wood Types Heartwood Sapwood and Growth Rings

Growth Rings

All trees have annual growth rings. These are the cells formed each year that the tree grows. It is a cycle. The tree begins its new cycle of growth in the Spring and quickly forms a bunch of cells with thin, light-colored walls (earlywood). Thus the lighter section of the growth ring.

Then toward the end of Summer, growth slows down, and the cells are formed more slowly, smaller, and with thicker walls (latewood).

Thus making the dark sections of the growth ring.  All this to prepare for Winter, in which the cells lay completely dormant. The following Spring, the cycle begins again.

Growth rings won’t always show up on furniture wood as complete circle rings you’d see inside a tree trunk.

Depending on how that trunk is split into slabs, you will see many different patterns on the piece of wood.

The image below gives examples of the end-grain of wood pieces cut Quarter Sawn, Rift Sawn, or Flat Sawn.

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Wood Cuts

But the face of the board is more than likely what you’ll be rating the wood grain and patterns against.

Live Sawn is cut straight through the log without changing the orientation of the log at all. The entire log is used this way, straight through and through, and the most grain pattern shows as well.

Wood Identification Cheat Sheet 2020

You can see how the grain patterns change based on the cut, so be sure to match up the growth rings when trying to identify your piece.

You may think it doesn’t have much grain, but it may only be because of the way the log was cut.

Wood Grain

Wood Grain is the direction, texture, or pattern made from multiple fibers of the wood.

The word “grain” happens to be used in a whole bunch of different ways in woodworking, I’ve learned. It is a very versatile word!

You’ll hear descriptions of the grain “direction” or “pattern” i.e. straight-grained, wavy-grained, interlocked grain, diagonal-grained, spiral-grained.

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Maple Wood Grain
This Maple Dresser has a Gorgeous Wavy Grain Pattern.

You’ll also hear descriptions of the grain “texture” i.e. fine-grained, coarse-grained, medium-grained.

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Oak Drawer Front Coarse Grain
This oak wood drawer front has a coarse grain that you can feel with your fingertips.

This basically means how large or small, the pores of the wood are. Large pores spaced very far from each other make for a coarse texture or grain. Small, tight pores make for a fine texture or grain.

Burls

A Burl is a part of the tree that grew, almost deformed, due to an injury or stress of some kind. It is used in furniture making quite frequently because when cut, burls usually have amazing grain patterns – unlike any other.

Burls are tough to identify with their wavy irregular wood grain.

If your piece has wavy or wild grain patterns, you may be dealing with burl wood and not just a certain wood type. Burlwood is rare, and quite expensive as well. So most of the time, if you see burlwood in furniture, it’s actually a thin wood veneer on top of a different kind of solid wood.

Wood Identification Burlwood
This gorgeous burlwood table was one of my favorite email mysteries to solve!

End Grain

To understand end grain, enjoy the sneak peek below of a couple of pages from my newest eBook/Workbook, “Grain. Investigating Your Furniture’s Wood Identity.”

Order Now!

 

Grain Investigating Your Furniture Wood Identity
The Only Resource For Identifying Your Furniture’s Wood Type You’ll Ever Need!

The end grain view is one of the most important views when trying to identify your wood furniture piece. Non-porous woods are softwoods. Ring, semi-ring, and diffuse-porous woods are all hardwoods.

If you can’t sand your piece, look inside of drawers cabinets, trim boards, or even the bottom of legs for an untreated end grain view. It will really help you out with identification.

Now that we’ve covered those terms we should be all set to dive into identifying wood types in furniture

Continue on to Page 2 of Identifying Wood Types in Furniture: Common Softwoods Used in Furniture

Or skip to page 3: Common Hardwoods Used in Furniture

Pages: 1 2 3

18 replies on “The Ultimate Guide to Identifying Wood Types in Furniture

  • Zachary Tomlinson

    I never knew that different wood species can transform the appearance of a furniture piece. My aunt asked me for tips on how to do her home appeal upgrade and I want to help her out. Perhaps investing in new furniture can help her achieve this in the future.

    Reply
  • Jan Putnam

    I enjoyed your article. But I am still struggling to identify the wood used in a bedroom dresser made by John Widdicomb company in Grand Rapids, MI in the early 60’s. I would like to send you photos in hopes you can identify.

    Reply
  • Agata

    Good article. I have a mission to identify wood my stairs are made of. House was build in circa 1980, terraced so it couldn’t be expensive. It is very reddish especially when oiled, but got lighter parts too. It doesn’t have any knots and it is very uniform.

    Reply
  • Anne Ditch

    i am trying to identify a wood that is part of a frame I am working on. The wood, has tiny flecks in it all over. The flecks look more like part of the wood species than worm/insect holes. These are not holes.

    Reply
  • Stephany

    Hi there, i read your blog from time to time and
    i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot
    of spam responses? If so how do you reduce it,
    any plugin or anything you can suggest? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any help is very
    much appreciated.

    Reply
  • Janet

    Hi,
    I have received some wood to craft
    I believe it’s door & window frame.
    I have cut and sanded and the grain has a most beautiful sheen as if it has gold/copper in it…
    I would be most interested if you could identify it .
    Thank you 🌳

    Reply
  • Alice Carroll

    I really like how walnut has a straight fine grain that can give it a very distinct look. I might opt for that kind of material for the custom wood railings of my deck. That would surely give a very earthy vibe to the exterior of my house when working with such colors.

    Reply
  • KIMBERLY B

    Thanks for article. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling to figure out the wood we have on our stair railings. We decided that refinishing our stairs would be a great DIY project. We pulled up all the carpet, pulled out hundreds of nails and staples and spackled the nail holes on the white risers. Then we started to sand the oak stairs (60 yr old home) and railing. That’s when we started having problems. The curved sections of the spindles and newel post wasn’t easily sanded, even with many tries at it. Therefore, we did a little research and decided on a chemical stripper – only on the curved sections. The first stripper didn’t seem to have much impact so we tried a second stripper. That’s when we really ran into trouble. We followed the directions but this stripper actually permanently stained the wood where we applied it. We cleaned it, we even tried using bleach on one spindle to see if it would correct the darkened section. We’ve waited over 3 wks to see if it would lighten with time. No luck. We’ve now decided our best option is to just paint the spindles white. However, we don’t want our newel post white so we have to replace it. Here is where I’m hoping someone can help. We’re fairly sure that the railings, newel post and spindles are a different type of wood than the oak floor. We’re not planning to replace the railings – just the newel post – so we need to figure out what type of wood this is. Even with the great article above, we’re still not sure. I have photos of the railing. Is there a way for me to post the pics and get input on the type of wood that was used for the railing so we can match the wood for our newel post?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • KRay

      My goodness, that sounds like a serious pain in the butt! So sorry my article wasn’t enough to help! I don’t think you can comment with an image on my page unfortunately. If you have it uploaded somewhere with a URL you can send me, I’d love to take a look. Or feel free to email me at kray@kraycustomrefinish.com. Look forward to hearing from you!

      Reply
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