Here at Dwell, we love natural materials—and wood is no exception. It’s versatile, expressive, and can be used for everything from structural supports and floor coverings to dining room tables and delicate doorknobs. Whether it's sourced from sustainable forests or reclaimed from existing buildings, it can be painted, stained, or left all natural. Because of these various treatment options, it can be particularly difficult—if not nearly impossible!—to identify certain types or species of wood.
What's more, no two pieces are exactly alike (which, of course, adds to the material's individuality and uniqueness!), because wood is fibrous and grows in response to its immediate climate and location. This only compounds the challenges involved with identifying wood types. However, there are a few key criteria to look for in wood identification. Here, we tackle a few ways to recognize some of the most common species of wood in North America by sight.
First of all, make sure that you’re looking at a solid piece of wood, as opposed to a veneer applied to plywood or MDF, or even a stamped piece of fiberboard—this is key to wood identification! You can do this by looking at the edges of a piece and seeing if the end grain matches up with the direction of the grain along the face of the wood. If it looks like the same pattern repeats itself on all sides of the board, then you’re not looking at solid wood.
Secondly, take into account whether the piece of wood you're looking at is stained or weathered, since these processes alter the visual appearance of the wood and can make it tricky to see its true color, grain direction, and composition. Because they're porous, most woods take stain very well. Plus, many woods, like cedar and pine, tend to turn a grayish color when left outside. Usually, a little bit of sanding goes a long way in revitalizing wood whose surface appearance has been changed—and it's easier to identify the wood and its grain.
Now, you should be ready to look for a few key characteristics of wood: its color, type of grain (either straight, knotty, or interlocking), and whether it's ring-porous (where the growth rings show up as dark bands throughout the wood) or diffuse-porous. Here’s what to look for when identifying pine, oak, maple, walnut, cherry, birch, cedar, poplar, ash, and Douglas fir.
Pine is the most common and abundant type of wood in North America, and there are dozens of different species of pine. It’s relatively easy to identify this type of wood because of the frequent presence of dark knots and its distinct yellow color (although this can sometimes lean more towards pale yellow or light brown, depending on the exact species). It also has a straight grain and is ring-porous, so the growth rings in the grain appear as darker brown lines throughout. Because of these variations in the grain—the visible growth rings and the knots—it lends itself to a more rustic, casual look.
Oak is another common type of wood in North America. Of the more than 600 species of oak that exist in the world, the most readily available are red oak and white oak. Both species are light brown in color, although red oak usually has hints of red, and both have visible growth rings and straight grains.
There are few knots in red and white oak, but a distinctive feature that makes it easy to identify the species is visible in a certain cut of the wood, called quartersawn, where it displays strong flecks of rays (cells that run perpendicular to growth rings). These flecks can create beautiful, unusual patterns that have a reflective quality and give a lot of character to a design or space.
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When you hear maple, you might be thinking of the distinctive maple tree, or even maple syrup, but the wood species of maple is actually sold under two distinct types: soft maple (which comes from a few different species) and hard maple (which comes from the Sugar Maple tree, which produces maple syrup).
When it’s freshly cut, maple has light, creamy color that darkens to a light yellow, or sometimes a light reddish-brown if it’s exposed to direct sunlight, making it an unfavorable selection for some spaces or items. Another characteristic that helps with the identification of maple is its typically unusual and varied grain patterns, as opposed to straight grains. You might have even heard of spalted or figured maple, where the wood has been affected by the initial stages of a fungus but is then dried to prevent further decay. The resulting unique patterns and colors are sought-after by woodworkers and even used to construct instruments.
Black walnut is by far the most common species of walnut in North America, but since it doesn’t yield as much wood as larger species, it tends to be more expensive. Identifying black walnut can be relatively straightforward: The species is known for its rich, dark color and straight grain, and it ranges in color from a dark tan to a deep chocolate brown—sometimes even with streaks of purple or green.
Its sapwood (the outer rings of the tree trunk where the wood is the youngest and still growing) can be a pale yellow, making a stark contrast between the lighter outer rings and the darker inner rings. It’s also semi-ring porous, so the growth rings are slightly darker than the rest of the wood, but the difference isn’t nearly as strong as that found in pine.
The most common type of cherry wood found in North America is black cherry. Cherry can often be identified because of its reddish-brown tone, which starts out as a lighter, pinkish-yellow hue that darkens after being exposed to sunlight. It has a straight grain with some distinction between growth rings and the rest of the wood, and is often used for cabinetry since it's not strongly affected by changes in humidity.
You can probably recognize a birch tree because of its long, horizontal strips of thin, papery bark. But recognizing the wood once it's milled and turned into lumber can be a bit more difficult, because it can resemble the light, creamy colors of maple. Even expert cabinetmakers can struggle to distinguish between the two.
However, it's possible to isolate a few characteristics that are unique to birch in order to identify this type of wood. Species of birch are found in northern temperate climates like North America, Europe, and Asia, and will typically have a less dense and looser grain than maple. Usually, the whitest parts of birch will be darker than the whitest parts of maple, and birch holds a stain much better than maple, which can get splotchy and spotty. Birch is most commonly used as a veneer over plywood rather than as solid wood, but it's sometimes used in furniture and millwork.
Cedar is another wood that commonly grows in North America and is familiar to many people by sight and smell. In fact, there are over a dozen different species of cedar that belong to several different families of trees, some of which closely resemble cypress or juniper trees. In North America, the most common are eastern red cedar (referred to as aromatic red cedar when in wood rather than tree form) and western red cedar.
Common characteristics of aromatic red cedar are its knotty and narrow planks, which reflect the tree's slow, time-consuming growth. Its heartwood—the harder wood near the center of the tree trunk—tends to be a reddish- or purplish-brown in color, while the sapwood (the outer rings of the tree) is usually pale yellow. Western red cedar has heartwood that's reddish- to pinkish-brown, often with areas or stripes of darker brown or red, and a narrow, light yellow–white sapwood.
Both types give off the distinct, well-known cedar scent, and are resistant to rot and decay. This makes them important construction materials—from rough-sawn lumber used in home construction and wood shingles to untreated fence posts that can be staked directly into the ground.
If you’re looking at an upholstered piece of furniture with a wood frame or a wood crate or pallet, chances are you’re looking at poplar. Poplar grows throughout the northern hemisphere and is relatively inexpensive because of its prevalence. In fact, because of its low cost, poplar is often stained to mimic pricier hardwoods, making it particularly difficult to identify this type of wood in certain situations.
If you're trying to identify poplar, it has a heartwood with a creamy, light yellow-brown color, sometimes with streaks of gray, green, or even a gray-purple hue. Its grain has a straight, uniform pattern, and the wood tends to get darker with sun exposure.
With an appearance that's similar to oak, ash can be a difficult species to identify. It's known for its durability and use in countless handheld pieces of equipment, ranging from tool handles and baseball bats to hockey sticks, oars, and paddles. The most common types of ash trees can be separated into two basic categories: white ash and black ash.
White ash grows from the East Coast through the Midwest of the United States and has a lighter heartwood color and wider-spaced growth rings than black ash, which has a slightly darker hardwood. Black ash is typically found from the East Coast up into Eastern Canada, and has a light- to medium-brown heartwood. Its sapwood can have wide spacing between growth rings, which tends to be beige or light brown, and can blend in with the heartwood.
Finally, Douglas fir is a very common softwood—a term that's not reflective of its density or durability, but rather of its status as a conifer. Surprisingly, Douglas fir isn’t a true fir (it was named after a Scottish botanist in the 1790s who described it as one), but has its own genus. It's known for being extremely stiff and strong for its weight, and therefore it's a valuable type of commercial lumber.
Douglas fir mostly grows in western North America, and is often used as structural or construction lumber or a veneer over plywood. In terms of appearance, Douglas fir usually has a light-brown color with a touch of red or yellow in-between darker growth rings, although the appearance can range widely depending on age and location of growth. Although its grain is generally straight or slightly wavy and there are usually knots in the wood, it can exhibit a wide range of grain patterns when cut into a veneer.
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