How to Recognize Different Wood Species and a Guide to 6 of the Most Common Types
Here at Dwell, we love natural materials—and wood is no exception. It’s versatile and expressive and can be used for everything from structural supports and floor coverings to dining room tables and delicate doorknobs. It can be sourced from sustainable forests or reclaimed from existing buildings or items, and 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.
One of our favorite aspects of wood is that no two pieces are exactly alike, because wood is fibrous and grows in response to its immediate climate and location. However, this can often mean that it can be challenging to identify a piece of wood by its species if you don’t know what to look for. Read on as 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. 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, try and make certain that you’re looking at a piece of wood that hasn’t been stained or weathered, since these processes alter the visual appearance of the wood and can make it tricky to see its true colors, 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 gray-ish color when left outside. Usually, a bit of sanding goes a long way in revitalizing wood whose surface appearance has been changed.
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). Here’s what to look for when identifying pine, oak, maple, and walnut.
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 spot because of its 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.
Another common type of wood in North America is oak. Among 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 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 piece or space.
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. So, it’s not always an appropriate selection for all spaces or items. Maple is also known for having 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 initial stages of a fungus but then has been 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 because it doesn’t yield as much wood as larger species, it tends to be more expensive. Black walnut 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.
Finally, we’ll look at some of the key characteristics of cherry, most commonly found in North America as Black Cherry. Cherry can often be identified because of its reddish tone, which starts out as a lighter, pinkish-yellow hue that darkens to a reddish brown 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.