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Guide to Identify a Wood

There are certain characteristics that you need to consider when you’re trying to identify a piece of wood board. However, you should keep in mind that even if all of the characteristics you’ve identified align with the wood species you’ve hypothesized, there’s a chance that you could still be completely wrong about what type of wood you’re dealing with. This being said, here are a few things you should keep an eye out for when trying to determine the species of wood you’re working with.

Make sure it's Solid Wood

Before proceeding too much farther into the remaining steps, it’s first necessary to confirm that the material in question is actually a solid piece of wood, and not a man-made composite or piece of plastic made to imitate wood. It might seem a bit silly to mention this, but there are engineered woods out there that can be pretty convincing to even the most experienced crafter. Ensuring that you’re working with real wood by checking for things like repeated wood grain and ensuring that the wood has a genuine end grain are sure-fire ways to determine that you’re working with solid wood and not MDF (medium density fiberboard), plywood, or veneer material.

Examine the Color of the Wood

If there is even a chance that the color isn’t natural, the odds are increased that the entire effort of identifying the wood will be in vain. Many woods, when left outside in the elements, tend to turn a bland gray color. Also, even interior wood also takes on a patina as it ages: some woods get darker, or redder, and some even get lighter or lose their color; but for the most part, wood tends to darken with age. We all love how wood stain and varnish enhance, and in some cases, completely change the overall aesthetic of wood, but we never really stop to consider how challenging it can be to identify a wood species after it’s been stained. Keep In mind that both wood stain and varnish don’t just bind to the surface of the wood board but penetrate deep into the wood’s fibers in an effort to protect it.

Inspect the Wood Grain

By observing the grain patterns, many times you can tell how the board was cut from the tree. Some wood species have dramatically different grain patterns from plainsawn to quarter-sawn surfaces. Wood species typically have similar grain patterns, especially wood that has been harvested from a particular area. It might not provide you with the exact genius of the wood, but it will tell you what type of wood you’re dealing with.

Look for the Uniqueness of the Wood

Sometimes, after all the normal characteristics of a sample have been considered, the identity of the wood in question is still not apparent. In these instances—particularly in situations where a sample has been narrowed down to only a few possible remaining choices—it’s sometimes helpful to bring in specialized tests and other narrower means of identification. Much like people who grow up in different parts of the world have unique physical characteristics, there are certain tree species and subspecies that have characteristics unique to their genus. This being said, there are certain characteristics you can look for if you know which area the wood was harvested from that could give you a pretty good idea of the tree species you’re working with.

Check It's Place of Origin

Knowing as much as you can about the source of the wood—even the smallest details—can be helpful. If the wood came from a wood pile or a lumber mill where all the pieces were from trees processed locally, then the potential species are immediately limited. If the wood came from a builder of antique furniture, or a boat-builder, or a trim carpenter: each of these occupations will tend to use certain species of woods much more often than others, making a logical guess much simpler.

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