The Ultimate Guide to Identifying Wood Types in Furniture

Common Softwoods Used in Furniture

Pine

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Pine

Pinewood is very common in less expensive furniture. There are several different types of Pine, but as I said, I’m going to try to stick with one Genus, and most Pine species have very similar characteristics.

Pine is usually easy to identify. Pine’s heartwood tends to be a light brown color, sometimes with reddish undertones.

While the sapwood is a white to pale yellow color.

You will find some that have dark brown knots and streaks. This is usually Knotty Pine. Normal pine wood has very little wood grain, but all Pines have a drastic difference between their heartwood and sapwood.

How to Identify Pine Wood in Furniture

You can usually identify Pine by the distinct difference in color between the growth rings, knots, and wood.

The dark and light parts of the growth rings in Pine have great contrast.

Of the light-colored woods like Pine, Spruce, and Birch, this contrast only happens in Pine.

Spruce and Birch have very few color variations between the growth rings, knots, heartwood, and sapwood. Their colors are more uniform giving it a dull subtle look.

Pine wood’s rings and knots always stand out making it more suitable for rustic farmhouse furniture.

Pine is used quite often in furniture but is considered “lesser quality” than other woods. I disagree with this, as do other woodworkers I know.

Yes, it is very soft, light wood, and some types are easily scratched and dented. But the contrast I spoke about earlier, is unmatched by other woods. The wood grain is beautiful, and honestly; not all Pine is soft.

I will agree that it’s tough to stain. It has very small pores, making it more difficult for the wood to absorb the stain.

When sanding Pine before staining, try to finish with lower grit sandpaper. 120 grit usually works best. This helps open the pores before applying the stain.

You may want to use a pre-stain conditioner or another method of preparing wood for stain such as black tea; to prevent uneven absorption.

I personally tested every pre-stain treatment method I could find in the 2 experiments below

Which Pre-Stain Treatment Works Best For Tough to Stain Woods?

Preparing Wood For Stain: The 1 Method You Should Be Using But Probably Aren’t

It’s definitely a tricky one, but with the right method, you can achieve a gorgeous stain on Pinewood.

For more help with staining, check out How to Stain Wood. Your Questions Answered.

Spruce

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Spruce

As I mentioned above, Spruce is another light-colored wood. Usually a white to yellow color, sometimes with pink undertones. Unlike Pine, it’s very stiff for its weight. 

Spruce is used a lot in construction because it is commonly found in large pieces with very similar, straight grain throughout. It also doesn’t weigh a lot for how strong it is, making it perfect for roof trusses and joists. 

It has a very smooth texture and small pores. 

How to Identify Spruce in Furniture

Spruce will look similar to pine with very little contrast between the heartwood and sapwood.

Spruce is whiter and paler than Pine. It’s also slightly heavier, stiffer, and won’t dent quite as easily. 

You should treat Spruce the same as Pine when sanding or staining it.

Redwood

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Redwood

Redwood comes from the tallest tree species on earth. Being so, it’s not the most common or cheap wood type for furniture.  Redwood’s heartwood is light pink-brown to deep red-brown. Its sapwood is pale white or yellow.

You may find curly Redwood burls or spots with wavy grain; but normally it will have a very fine, straight grain.  

It’s pretty soft and lightweight, but decently strong for its weight. It also resists rot and decay, so it’s sometimes found in outdoor furniture. 

How to Identify Redwood in Furniture

Of softwoods, Redwood is usually the easiest to distinguish from Pine, Spruce, or Fir.  Color alone will most likely be enough when deciding between boards at the lumber yard. But if you’re not positive it’s softwood, it gets a little trickier.  

Redwood used for furniture is usually a high “clear” grade, with little to no imperfections or knots. You will find a fine, even grain, and deep red coloring. It will also be incredibly smooth compared to other wood types with similar coloring. If it’s an older piece that was left untreated and exposed to the weather, it may have turned a silver grayish color.

Try sanding Redwood down to fresh wood to distinguish its true color. 

Hemlock

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Hemlock

Hemlock is a softwood that is actually very hard and strong. It has a nice straight grain with an almost uniform coloring difference between the heartwood and sapwood. You usually won’t be able to distinguish between the two.

It is resin-free meaning it accepts stains, paints, and clear finishes very well. Resin-free also means it doesn’t have anything to protect it from the elements, so it won’t be found in outdoor furniture. 

How to Identify Hemlock in Furniture

As a lighter colored wood type, if you have sanded your piece down to bare wood, you can easily distinguish Hemlock from other light woods like pine or spruce, again on how uniform the wood looks.

 Pinewood’s contrast between its heartwood and sapwood is very large.

Hemlock has a very uniform coloring. It is also usually much harder than Pine.

It has a very coarse texture with large pores. Whereas most light-colored woods are on the smoother side.  

Cedar

Identifying Wood Types in Furniture Cedar

Cedar is one of the easiest woods to identify due to its smell. The smell is a natural bug repellent, so people like to use it for inside closets or chests to keep linens and other items safe from insects and moisture.

It is also weather-resistant and works well for outdoor furniture. I offer Cedar as a wood option for my most recent product; Custom Made Planter Boxes because it’s the perfect wood for use in a  garden! Plus, the coloring is just ah…a thing of beauty. 🙂

Custom Wooden Planter Boxes Large Cedar

Cedar is very light, and brittle, and should not be bleached or stained. Colors of cedar range from a light yellow-brown or reddish-brown heartwood to a pale yellow almost white sapwood.  The color will darken and gray if left outside without treatment, or in direct sunlight for too long.

How To Identify Cedar in Furniture

The smell is usually a telltale sign you’re dealing with Cedar. I like to say it has a woody, evergreen/cat urine smell without the ammonia. (maybe way off on that description for some.)

Smell it once, and you’ll usually know Cedar from then on, anytime you smell it.

That smell plus the smooth surface of the wood with a reddish-brown/yellow coloring should help you narrow it down to Cedar.

If it’s an older piece that was left untreated and exposed to the weather, it may have turned a silver grayish color.

On the next page: Common Hardwoods Used in Furniture

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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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