Common Hardwoods Used in Furniture
Oak is the most widely used hardwood. The 2 most common subgenera are Red Oak and White Oak. Both have very large pored, coarse textures.
Oak is ring-porous wood, meaning its end grain will have numerous large pores and small pores in separate groups together.
Oak is extremely hard and strong wood. It was used a lot in cabinets and flooring, although it does tend to yellow over time.
White Oak is more scratch, stain, and dust resistant than Red Oak. Red Oak will stain if it comes into contact with water.
How to Identify Oak in Furniture
You can usually determine a wood piece as oak by running your hand across the piece. If it’s completely smooth, chances are it’s not Oak.
Oak is a very rough, porous wood. If you have sanded your wood piece down to the fresh wood grain, you should feel that texture if the wood is oak.
It will also have an interesting grain pattern. Red Oak with its swirling wavy grain, and White Oak depending on its cut, yellow rays or flecks, or even a tiger stripe grain.
More often than not, you will see small dark horizontal lines throughout the piece also known as rays. White oak’s rays are usually at least an inch long, while red oak’s rays are shorter, usually around 1/2″ long.
Quarter Sawn Oak
Quarter Sawn Oak deserves its own section as it is a very controversial subject. Many people think that this oak also known as “tiger oak” is an altogether different species of oak. But in fact, it is actually White Oak that has been Quarter Sawn. (which I discussed at the beginning of this article).
When Oak is cut Quarter Sawn it creates a certain pattern, unlike any other wood type.
They basically cut across the growth rings at 90 degrees, producing interesting specks or rays that resemble cat eyes. It is a very sought-after wood for furniture making and is definitely very valuable if you own a piece in tiger oak.
Maple is my all-time favorite wood. I’ve worked on multiple pieces made completely of maple, and it’s definitely tricky to work with. Its creamy light brown coloring has a reddish cast to it. It does accept stain, so you will sometimes find dark maples, but you can usually spot the wavy, curly grain with amazing swirling patterns.
Some people don’t like the way Maple looks when stained, as it’s crazy, swirling, grain sometimes makes it look like you gave it a bad stain job. But if you look closely, it’s quite beautiful.
How To Identify Maple in Furniture
Occasionally, you will find a piece of birch furniture stained to resemble Maple. Be sure to sand down your piece to bare wood to see its natural coloring. Birch is much lighter, and does not have the reddish cast Maple will always have.
Most Maple pieces will have a tight, straight grain to them. This is another type that I can usually determine by running my hand down a piece.
Maple has a very distinct feel to it, in my opinion. Its pores are tiny, and it’s incredibly smooth to the touch.
This is because Maple is a diffuse-porous wood. All of its pores are smaller and grouped tightly together creating a smoother surface.
It will also be on the softer side for hardwood. It is more durable than Pine but softer than Oak. Although on the softer side, it’s still a very tough wood to sand.
Mahogany is a tropical hardwood, that is very popular in more exotic furniture. It has a distinctive swirly grain that sometimes resembles ripples or ribbons. It has a very smooth texture with uniform pores that are very resistant to moisture, making Mahogany great outdoor furniture wood. The grain can also be found interlocked making for incredibly strong wood.
How to Identify Mahogany in Furniture
Mahogany’s main color is mostly reddish-brown, with some lighter colors also common. Although its accent colors can range from pink, white, peach, grey, and brown – making for exotic, unique-looking patterns.
When looking closely at your wood piece, look for a pinkish background color with dark lines throughout whatever color they may be.
Mahogany is also a diffuse-porous wood, with pores close together. But Mahogany’s pores are much larger than other diffuse-porous woods like Maple. So the texture will be on the rougher side.
Weight-wise, it is a lighter wood. It has the strength of Oak but weighs nowhere near as much.
Cherry is one of the most prized hardwoods for furniture makers in America. It has a very smooth grain and coloring that begins as a light pinkish color and then darkens over time to a dark reddish hue. It’s a photosensitive wood, meaning it darkens over time with exposure to light. The true color of cherry can range greatly from tree to tree, even sometimes from board to board on the same tree.
How To Identify Cherry in Furniture
One characteristic of cherry wood that is different from most others, is the “gum pockets” or “pitch pockets” that show up as black flecks in the wood. These are naturally occurring mineral deposits that form in the empty pockets, where sap used to be found. They are random but add character to cherry wood pieces.
Many pieces made to look like cherry wood, are uniform in color, with no black specks and no grain.
True cherry wood will have a simple, close grain, but a noticeable one as well. You’ll never find a “uniform” piece of cherry, so beware of fakes.
Walnut is a strong, yet lightweight wood. It has a gorgeous chocolate brown coloring, with a usual straight grain. It’s also known for its burl wood pieces, with distinctive figured grain and dark streaks. Wood closer to the roots has more of a wavy grain than the straight-grained trunk.
How to Identify Walnut in Furniture
It’s tough to judge walnut on its grain pattern as it really can be all over the place. Normally it has a straight fine grain, but furniture makers love to seek out the super figured, patterned burls and knotted walnut pieces.
You can most likely identify it best by the chocolate brown coloring. All-natural walnut can range from a dark tan to chocolate brown, sometimes with streaks of green or purple in spots.
Similar to pine, Walnut’s growth rings and knots have a pretty distinct contrast from its heartwood and sapwood.
The contrast isn’t quite as strong as in Pine, but it’s definitely something that stands out when trying to identify Walnut.
For the longest time, I thought Poplar belonged in the softwood category, but it is in fact a hardwood. It is the softest of hardwoods, as well as one of the most inexpensive. It seems to be kept in the category with Pine; used on less expensive furniture, or under veneer pieces.
It may not be as rugged as other hardwoods, but I’m a big fan of Poplar! I’ve restored multiple veneer pieces by removing the veneer and staining the gorgeous Poplar underneath.
I discovered the top, and drawer fronts of this gorgeous sideboard were Poplar after stripping its veneer. You will want to be careful if you plan to attempt removing the veneer from Poplar. It is extremely soft and easy to dent and scratch.
Make sure you loosen the veneer as well as you can before you attempt pulling it from the wood beneath. If you fail to do this you will end up pulling up chunks of poplar with the veneer and glue. Trust me, I’ve done it.
But, I figured out the best way to remove wood veneer to help with that problem. If you’re interested in never regretting your choice to work on a veneer piece again, give it a read. (Plus there are a few more examples of Poplar for you to compare your piece to.)
How To Identify Poplar in Furniture
Poplar has a light cream to yellowish-brown heartwood, but green, grey, and even purple streaks are quite common when looking at a piece. That’s usually the safest bet when identifying poplar, but it’s not definite that you’ll see those colors in your particular piece.
Another easy way to determine if your piece is poplar is by feeling the wooly grain.
It actually has a wooly type grain that you will notice either by running your hand over the piece or, some people say they can even notice the somewhat hazy look of the wood from the wool.
This can also affect your outcome while staining your piece, so be sure to use finer sandpaper to finish and remove the wooliness.
I decided to add Rubberwood to this list recently due to the number of Rubberwood furniture pieces I’ve seen lately. It’s definitely more commonly found in furniture made after the 1980s.
Rubberwood is usually found in Asian imported furniture carried by big-box retailers and home furnishing stores like IKEA. Yes, it’s cheaper, but I personally think it’s a nice wood for refinishing.
Rubberwood furniture sold by home furnishing retailers is most often either painted or stained to resemble other wood types. The unfinished, natural wood color is usually a light tan to pale peach color. It almost resembles a soft
maple, but with much larger pores and coarser grain.
How To Identify Rubberwood in Furniture
There is usually one very distinguishing feature of Rubberwood furniture. Tabletops, benches, or other larger surfaces are usually not made of a single, solid piece of wood.
For numerous reasons, Rubberwood surfaces tend to be multiple smaller pieces of Rubberwood finger-jointed or butt-jointed together. (See Below Image)
Basically, each piece has notches carved out and then they are glued together like a puzzle. The exact reason for this is unknown, but it’s most likely due to the size of the Rubberwood trees, as well as the stability of the end product.
This isn’t very common with other wood types, at least in furniture construction. So if your piece looks something like the above swing coffee table from Amazon — no matter the color– it’s most likely Rubberwood.
As for finishing Rubberwood, one tip I can give you is to make sure you double-check and resand the joints of these larger surfaces before staining. As these joints are glued together at the factory, extra glue may still be on the wood in those spots that you won’t see until it’s too late.
If there is leftover glue residue on the wood, those areas will not absorb wood stain, and you’ll end up with a bunch of uneven areas on your piece.
Want a more visual explanation of each of the 12 wood types I mentioned? Download a free cheat sheet with images and a brief summary of each type so you can make your comparisons.
And there we have it! PHEW! If after reading you STILL have no clue what type of wood your piece is, definitely check out my new eBook, “Grain.”
I go more in-depth into each of these wood types plus 27 other wood types commonly found in furniture! 27!
PLUS finishing tips and specific help on each and every one of the 39 total wood types included.
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Until Next Time,