How to Identify Wood Types in Furniture

To work with wooden furniture, one must master several new skills, including identifying different types of wood in furniture. While it may seem like all wood is the same, each wood species requires other handling. Solid Teak, for example, doesn’t respond well to water-based products because of its natural oils, while staining Birch and Pine can be challenging. Knowing what type of wood or antique furniture you are working on can help you create a better refinishing plan and improve the overall quality of your work.

Table of Contents

Veneer vs Solid Wood

Firstly, you will want to identify if you are working with solid wood or veneer furniture. One is not of lesser value than the other; it is simply to understand how best to proceed with refinishing. A veneer is thin sheets of wood (usually only 0.6 mm) glued onto a substrate. As the veneer is thinner, manufacturers and artisans can work with expensive wood and grain patterns, which would be impossible with solid wood. 

Learning how to determine the difference between solid wood and veneer can take some practice, so check out this handy checklist of the key differences. 

Types of Veneer

Another essential element to consider is the type of veneer you may be working with. While vintage veneers are usually made directly from wood, new furniture could be covered in a synthetic veneer. While these veneers are still wood, they are made by taking different wood types and layering them together to create wood grain patterns. The goal is to use more sustainable wood types to mimic less sustainable woods. Identifying these manufactured veneers can be tricky.

Check out more information on types of wood veneers. 

5 Types of Wood Figure

Wood Figures are unique grain pattern which differ from your standard patterns. Wood figures can also cause confusion when identifying a type of wood by the wood grain alone. These popular patterns can occur in different species of trees, and you will need to consider the 4 other characteristics of wood identification to make an educated assumption. 

Take note; wood figures are often veneer due to their rarity and uniqueness. To create furniture from a solid pieces of wood figure would be costly. 

Hardwood vs Softwood

Understanding how to tell the difference between hardwood and softwood will help you immediately eliminate a wide range of wood types when you are identifying wood types. Firstly, the difference between hardwood and softwood isn’t about how hard or soft the wood is. It is related to the kind of tree that the wood comes from. Hardwoods are from deciduous trees, those leafy trees that shed their leaves annually. Think oak, maple, and walnut. On the other hand, softwoods come from coniferous trees, like pine, cedar, and spruce, which usually remain evergreen throughout the year.

Sapwood and Heartwood

Another element to take into consideration is sapwood and heartwood.  While you may not always be aware of what type of wood was used in the antique pieces you are working on, it is important to understand what these types of woods are.  I once had a Teak Cabinet which contained both sapwood and heartwood on the top, which caused me more than a little confusion. Understanding how these different woods can affect the colour of piece will support your identification process. 

How Lumber Cuts Can Affect Wood Grain

Finally, a key element to consider when identifying wood types is how the wood was cut. There are 4 basic types of woodcuts used, each one affecting the wood grain and end grain differently. 

When the lumber is cut, the growth rings are made visible. A plain or flat cut will cause cathedral-like patterns in the grain, while a quarter cut will reveal a straight grain pattern. Check out all 4 cuts with photo examples of the resulting grain patterns. 

5 Characteristics of Identifying Wood Types

There are 5 key characteristics which I use to help identify wood types when refinishing furniture. These are the wood’s grain, colour, texture, weight and scent. 

Grain

Wood grain pattern can be a valuable way to identify different types of wood. There are two main types of grain patterns to look for – open and closed grain.

Open-grain woods like oak, ash, and mahogany have very noticeable pores when looking at the end grain. The pores create an uneven and porous look. This gives open-grain woods a rough texture that can be seen and felt.

Closed-grain woods like maple, cherry, and birch have a much tighter grain pattern. The pores are tiny and homogeneous. This creates a uniform and smooth look and feel. Closed-grain woods tend to be harder as their dense structure makes them less absorbent. They absorb finishes differently than open grain woods, creating an even sheen.

Looking closely at the end grain to determine if it’s an open or closed-grain pattern is an easy way to narrow down what species of wood you may be working with.

Colour

The natural colour of wood can provide clues about the wood species. Here are some colour characteristics of common woods: 

Maple – Pale white to light reddish brown. Hard maple is usually lighter than soft maple. 

Oak – Ranges from white and grey to yellow and reddish brown. Red oak is usually slightly redder than white oak. 

Cherry – Varies from rich red to reddish brown in colour. The darkness of the red depends on age and exposure to light. 

Walnut – Rich, dark brown, sometimes with darker brown or black streaks. 

Mahogany – Variable reddish or pinkish brown, sometimes with swirling grains. 

Pine – Pale yellow to reddish brown. Southern pine is typically reddish, while western pine is more yellow. 

Cedar – Light reddish or pinkish brown. Western red cedar is reddish, while eastern red cedar is more grey-brown. 

Ash – Pale brown to light olive brown. White ash is lighter, while black ash is darker.  

Birch – Pale yellowish white to light reddish brown. Yellow birch is paler than cherry birch. 

The natural colour of the wood can be a good indicator for identifying species. However, stains or finishes can alter the original colour, so this must be partially relied upon. Looking at the characteristics of the grain and texture is also important when identifying wood types. 

Texture

The texture of wood can give clues about the type of wood and its characteristics. Here are some key things to look for when examining wood texture:

Smooth texture usually indicates fine, tight grain. This is often found in hardwoods like maple and birch. Smooth, polished surfaces are desirable in furniture woods.

Coarse texture comes from more open, pronounced grain, often seen in softwoods like pine. The grain lines and pores are easily visible and felt.

Oily or greasy texture happens when certain woods have a high natural oil content, like Teak and rosewood. The wood can feel almost slick to the touch. This gives durability.

Flaky or fibrous texture indicates that the wood easily splinters along the grain. These woods take more care in working. Cedar and aspen are examples.

Paying attention to the wood’s texture provides helpful clues to identify the type of wood. Is it smooth and tight-grained like maple, coarse and porous like pine, oily like Teak, or flaky like cedar? Combine texture with examination of scent, grain, colour and weight for accurate wood ID.

Weight

The density and weight of wood can be a helpful identifier when determining wood types. Denser woods like oak and maple tend to be heavier, while softer woods like pine are lighter. Hardwoods are generally denser and heavier than softwoods.

When examining a piece of solid wood furniture, lift a corner or edge to get a feel for its heft. Dense tropical hardwoods used in finer furniture weigh more than domestic hardwoods. For example, mahogany is very dense and will feel heavy for its size compared to walnut or cherry.

Weight differences are harder to judge with veneers since the wood layer is thin. But the substrate used for the veneer will give you some sense of density and weight. High-quality plywood substrates tend to be denser and heavier than lower grades using particleboard or MDF.

So, when identifying wood by weight, remember that density correlates strongly with hardness. Heavier woods are typically harder woods. Softwoods tend to be lightweight and low-density. Use weight as one factor along with grain, texture and colour to identify that antique dresser as oak, not pine. 

Scent

Raw wood has a wide variety of natural scents. A finished piece of furniture will most likely no longer have the scent as a determining characteristic.

However, if the piece is solid wood and you have sanded it, the stronger-smelling wood may still be noticeable.

Some examples of scents to smell for: 

Cedar has a sweet, resinous aroma. The wood is likely cedar if you smell a fresh, pine-like scent. 

Pine also has a fresh, resinous pine scent. While similar to cedar, pine tends to be brighter and sharper. 

Cherry has a distinctive almond-like scent when fresh. As cherry wood ages, the smell becomes more muted. 

Walnut has a rich, darker fragrance. It’s slightly musky and bold. 

Mahogany has a distinctive woody spice scent, often sweet or smoky. 

Identify Wood Types - Posts

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Final Thoughts

Correctly identifying wood types in furniture is an essential skill for furniture refinishers to understand the quality and value of any piece and how to refinish it correctly. While there is no hard and fast rule on how to identify woods quickly, there are steps you can take to come to a final conclusion. Knowing if your piece is veneer or solid, hardwood or soft, and using the 5 key characteristics of grain, texture, colour, scent and weight will lead you usually in the right direction. 

And finally, practice makes perfect. Get your hands on as many types of wood as possible to broaden your experiences and make wood identification easier over the years of practice. 

Looking for more Resources?

One of the most helpful tools I have for wood identification is the Veneer Identification Kit from Sauers & Company.  This kit comes with a variety common woods used in furniture making, as well as a variety of exotic wood.  Being able to see and touch the wood helps to improve your abilities to identify wood types.  

Each veneer sheet is clearly labelled with the type of wood and the type of cut that was made. 

Various pieces of veneer as part of the wood identification kit from Sauers
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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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