Wood Guide Part II: How to Recognize 5 (More) Common Wood Species

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By Kate Reggev / Published by Dwell
If you’ve dreamed of being able to recognize birch versus cedar or ash versus Douglas fir like a pro, look no further than this guide.

In our Guide to Recognizing Different Wood Species, Part I, we reviewed the basics to the cellular structure of wood and the best ways to begin examining wood by sight—ending with information on visual cues to help distinguish between six different wood species. We believe that everyone, even the wood novice, can isolate specific elements like color and grain pattern to help them identify wood species. Here in Part II, we’ll cover five more types of wood that are common in North America, including birch, cedar, ash, Douglas fir, and poplar.  

1) Birch 

You can probably recognize a birch tree because of its light-colored bark with characteristically long, horizontal streams 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. 

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However, it's possible to isolate a few characteristics that are unique to birch. 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 solid wood, but it's sometimes used in furniture and millwork. 

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2) Cedar 

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. 

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Common characteristics of aromatic red cedar are its knotty and narrow planks because of its slow, time-consuming growth—despite its wide distribution across the eastern part of the United States. Its heartwood, or the harder wood near the center of the tree trunk, tends to be a reddish or purple-brown color, while the sapwood (the outer rings of the tree) are usually pale yellow. Western red cedar has a heartwood that's reddish to pink-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 fence posts in direct ground contact with no pre-treating of the wood. 

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3) Poplar 

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 in certain situations. 

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Visually, poplar 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. 

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4) Ash 

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. 

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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 on the East Coast and 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. 

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5) Douglas fir 

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, which usually remains evergreen. 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 is a valuable type of commercial lumber. 

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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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