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Wood Identification – How to Tell the Different Types of Wood

man chooses and buys plywood in a construction supermarket

Most people are not too familiar with different wood types and it can be difficult to identify them.

It’s crucial to identify wood to determine the costs and workability of your projects. Each type of wood is different, and every one of them has the properties that make it valuable. By knowing the wood type you are using for renovations or projects, you would understand its lifespan, and you will know the best use of that wood type.

Below, you can find 6 steps on how to tell the different types of wood.

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The 6 Steps to Identify Wood

1. Confirm that the wood is real

This is an essential step of wood identification. You need to determine if you’re looking at natural wood or just a piece of plastic that imitates wood.  There are a couple of different ways you can detect wood authenticity. The first way to confirm that the wood is real is to look at the annual growth rings. The end of the piece of wood should match the grain direction. Natural lumber is undoubtedly taken from a tree if you see the annual growth rings. People also tend to replicate natural wood colors on plastic to make it seem as if the wood is real. Always check if the color is genuine or painted like wood grain.

Also, check the wood to confirm if it’s actual lumber or veneer. If you see a repeating grain pattern on a large panel, that could be veneer. That veneer can be natural or made of plastic, so try to identify the material. Even if the surface is authentic, that is still not a solid wood piece.

different kinds of maple wood
Image Credit: optimarc, Shutterstock

2. Observe the color

The next step in wood identification is to observe the color of the wood. Different types of wood vary in color, so some species are light beige or white, but others can be deep brown with reddish or pinkish hues. You need to check if the color is stained or natural. Some woods lighten in sunlight, while others darken with age. You could tell different woods based on their color, but you will need to follow other steps to determine which exact wood type you are dealing with.


3. Look at the grain

The third step in wood identification is to look at the wood grain. The grain texture can determine which kind of wood it is. Woodgrain depends on the species, although hardwoods are usually heavily grained and rough, while softwoods are light-grained with no visible pores.

Some grain types are:

Straight grain

Straight grain represents wood whose wood fibers in the lumber run parallel to the long axis of the log.

Irregular grain

Irregular grain represents wood whose grain runs irregularly and has unique twists and twirls.

Interlocked grain

Interlocked grain represents wood whose grain spirals around the log axis and reverses its direction.

Diagonal grain

Diagonal grain represents wood whose grain is not parallel to the surfaces of the piece. Diagonal grain occurs when a straight-grained wood is not sawn along the vertical axis of the log.

Wavy grain

Wavy grain represents wood whose grain is wavy, and the fibers change through the log.

Spiral grain

Spiral grain represents wood whose grain grew twisted, and the fibers have a spiral course with either a right or left-hand twist.

mahogany wood
Image Credit: optimarc, Shutterstock

4. Verify the weight and hardness of the wood

The best way to determine the type of wood you encounter is to pick it up to get a sense of its weight. You can also press it with your fingernail to determine its hardness or weigh it with a scale to determine its density. Hardness and density are related, so if the wood is heavy, it will usually be hard. Try to compare those things to other known wood types to see which wood is the most similar.


5. Do tests if possible

There are times when even after you’ve done all the previous steps, you cannot determine the identity of the wood. If you have the ability, it’s good to do some other tests to identify the wood. One of the tests would be smelling the wood. There are a lot of species that have a unique odor when freshly machined. Another test you could do is fluorescence. Many kinds of wood appear identical under standard lighting. But, when you expose them to specific wavelengths, the wood will absorb and emit the light in visibly different wavelengths. That way, you can determine the wood type by the absence or presence of their fluorescent qualities. You could also try out chemical testing, although many people don’t have the required tools.

balsa wood
Image Credit: Zephyr_p, Shutterstock

6. Try out wood identification apps

Another fantastic way to identify the kind of wood you encounter would be using wood identification apps. Technology has improved over the years, making our lives easier. There are specialized apps containing information about all the wood species used throughout the world. They have all the needed details and characteristics that will allow you to determine the wood type easily and quickly.

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Wood categories

Wood is divided into softwoods and hardwoods. Both types contain great wood species that differ in usage and properties. Hardwoods come from deciduous trees, whereas softwoods come from evergreen trees. As the name says, hardwoods are harder than softwoods, but some softwoods are incredibly durable too.

Hardwoods are typically used for making furniture, boat building, construction, flooring, and musical instruments. They have excellent quality and are praised for their strength and looks. The most commonly used hardwoods are Oak, Walnut, Cherry, and Maple, although there are other great hardwood species.

Softwoods are used for flooring, decking, structural applications, construction framing, interior molding, and landscaping. They are lightweight and less dense than hardwoods, so they are usually easier to work with and process. Cedar, Spruce, Redwood, and Pine are the most commonly used softwoods.

Below you can see a list of some of the most popular hardwoods and softwoods, along with their characteristics.

Hardwoods

Oak

oak wood grains
Image Credit: 4941, Pixabay
Grain: Straight-grained
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 1290

Oak is a very popular hardwood species worldwide. People in the USA use it for its durability and natural, charming appearance. There are various kinds of Oak, and some of the most popular are White Oak, Red Oak, and Black Oak. You can use it for flooring, furniture, cabinetry, and other DIY projects. Oak comes in beautiful colors that vary from species to species. It can be light brown/brown with red hues.


Walnut

walnut wood texture
Image Credit: DWilliam, Pixabay
Grain: Straight-grained/ can be irregular
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 1010

Another exceptional hardwood that’s very popular is Walnut. It’s popular due to its stunning color tones ranging from light brown to deep chocolate brown. Walnut wood is durable, easy to work with, and decay-resistant. The downside of working with Walnut is that the wood has a slight odor while being processed. People use it for flooring, cabinetry, furniture, interior paneling, and veneers. Overall, it’s a good choice for anyone who wants durability and aesthetic appeal combined into one product.


Cherry

Grain: Straight-grained
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 950

When we talk about some of the best hardwoods, we need to mention Cherry. It’s another kind of hardwood people love for its looks and unique qualities. The main Cherry that’s used in the US is Black Cherry (American Cherry). It has a distinctive brown-reddish color that amazes everyone. It’s known for its excellent workability and durability and its primary use is for flooring, furniture, and cabinetry. It’s decay-resistant but not water-resistant, so we don’t recommend using Cherry furniture outside.


Maple

maple hardwood flooring
Image Credit: jactod, Pixabay
Grain: Commonly straight-grained/can be wavy or curly
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 1450

Maple is a hardwood of impressive durability and attractive colors that homeowners love to see. There are tons of different Maple species, but people in the USA mostly go for Black Maple (Sugar Maple). That’s the strongest of all Maple species. It’s good to work with, although soft Maple types are easier due to lower density. It is mostly used for making furniture, flooring, paper, sports gear, and musical instruments. Maple wood is a fantastic option for people wanting to be more eco-friendly.

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Softwoods

Cedar

Grain: Straight-grained
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 350

Cedar is a softwood, and you can easily see the difference in the Janka Hardness Scale Rating for a softwood like Cedar with a hardwood like Maple. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Cedar is not a strong wood, though. It’s a perfect choice for outdoor projects such as decking, siding, fences, or shingles. You can also use it indoors for ceilings or furniture. It’s lightweight, easy to work with, and affordable. Still, Cedar can be sensitive and requires a lot of maintenance.


Spruce

Grain: Straight-grained
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 400

If you’re looking for a light, natural softwood Spruce should be your choice. You can use Spruce for construction, fences, and window frames, or you could make furniture with it. It’s also an excellent option for ceilings and if there are no knots present, Spruce is not difficult to work with. It is not too expensive, but the pieces without knots are more pricey than the pieces with knots.


Redwood

redwood lumber
Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures, Pixabay
Grain: Straight-grained/wavy/irregular
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 420

Redwood is a pinkish-brown/reddish-brown softwood used for decking, furniture, trims, structural beams, and outdoor structures. Its color and workability are the things that attract people to use Redwood, plus it’s durable and water-resistant. Although Redwood is great, it does have some disadvantages. It’s relatively expensive since people use it so frequently that prices have increased. Also, Redwood requires regular maintenance, so it’s not for people who are not willing to take care of it.


Pine

pine wood trunks
Image Credit: vasecar, Pixabay
Grain: Straight-grained
Janka Hardness Scale Rating: 380

Pine is a softwood that has many different varieties. Eastern White Pine, which is commonly used in the US, has the lowest Janka Hardness Scale Rating among all Pines. Other Pine species like True Pine or Red Pine have a scale rating higher than some hardwoods. People use Pine for decking, construction, moldings, trim, and flooring. Regardless of being a softwood, this species is durable and most importantly affordable. It’s easy to work with, but the final product will require maintenance and care.

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How can you tell the difference between softwood and hardwood?

The main difference between hardwoods and softwoods is in their hardness and density. Hardwoods are more dense and rigid than softwoods. They grow slower and are usually more expensive than softwoods. Hardwoods are generally water, rot and decay, and fire-resistant.

On the other hand, softwoods are lightweight and easier to work with than hardwoods. Both wood types are used worldwide for various purposes and projects. Softwoods are usually more eco-friendly due to their fast growth, but they have a shorter lifespan than hardwoods.

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Conclusion

We hope that this article will help you identify any wood types you encounter. Try to go through as many steps as possible to determine the kind of wood in front of you. If you’re still not sure, even after you have completed everything, don’t panic! Simply use one of the available wood identification apps to help you identify the wood type faster.


Featured Image Credit: Sergey Ryzhov, Shutterstock

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