You have a specimen of wood that you need to identify. Where do you begin? Identifying wood is not easy for a number of reasons. First, there are hundreds of different species of trees in North America. Second, the wood of many species looks very similar, if not identical. Third, there is a lot of variability in wood, especially in regard to color and grain, the two features most people rely on for a positive identification. Finally, few people outside of science know and clearly understand the various cell structures useful in identifying a species.
There are two ways to use this site to identify an unknown specimen of wood. If you already have a knowledge of various wood types and their cell structures or if you have a general idea of what you think the species is, you can go directly to the page for that particular species. These can all be found under the hardwood or softwood tabs above. There, you will find an image of the tangential face accompanied by a description and additional important characteristics that you cannot see such as: density of the wood, odor, or taste. A second image shows the cross section or end grain of a particular species in order to highlight the various wood cells and their arrangements. Each of these characteristics is pointed out on the image and described to hopefully facilitatea positive identification. Helpful hints to discriminate similar species are given for a number of entries.
If however, you have limited to no experience in wood identification or have absolutely no idea what a species may be, then go to the Wood Identification Key. This is an interactive dichotomous key. A dichotomous key is a tool used to correctly identify an unknown specimen by working through a sequence of questions that leads the user to the correct name of the specimen. When using the key, the user is given two choices at each step. Each alternative choice directs the user to another question until the specimen is identified. For instance, you will see that the first question asks whether the sample contains vessel elements or not. In the event of unknown terminology in the key questions, use the glossary to assist in your decision making and readily return to your current step in the dichotomous key. Proceed to the next question by clicking on “Select” at the end of the alternative that describes your specimen. Continue in this manner until you identify the species. Clicking on the species name, will reveal images and a description of the species which will help you to confirm whether you correctly identified your specimen. If the images and their descriptions don’t appear to agree with what you see in your specimen, you likely incorrectly identified your sample and will need to work through the key again selecting alternatives.
There is a considerable amount of terminology used in both the key and species descriptions. In order to learn to identify wood it is necessary to have a working knowledge of wood cell structures and their appearances. Unless you are already familiar with the terminology, you will likely refer to the Glossary frequently. A definition of the term, and in most instances, an image has been supplied to aid understanding.
Please keep in mind that many species have very subtle differences that separate them from another species. In some cases, there may be no differences at all between two or more species. It may be impossible to positively identify a species. This may be true even at the microscopic level. For example, in this website balsam fir and the western true firs are separated out. In reality the differences between these two groups is so subtle that it is difficult to tell them apart unless the geographic origin from which the sample was taken is documented. Add both eastern and western hemlock into the mix, and it gets more difficult. An excellent article is provided here about the difficulty of identifying wood accurately. Even within available literature there is conflicting information. This site is no exception and it is to be expected that some information will vary from other references on the subject of wood identification.
Also keep in mind that variability in wood also exists. Wood cells and their arrangements are typically very similar from one specimen to another. However, the color of sapwood and heartwood as well as the grain can vary from sample to sample. Wood color can vary somewhat from one geographic area to another within a particular species. Some woods also darken as they age after being cut. A prime example of this phenomenon, black cherry darkens to a deeper red with age even after it has received a finish.
- A sharp knife such as a utility knife and a 10x hand lens are necessary for wood identification. In order to see the cell structures in the cross sectional end (end grain), you must first make a very clean cut that does not tear the fibers. Sometimes it is useful to boil the wood prior to cutting to soften the fibers.
- For many species you will notice that odor is very important for identification. In fact, for some species, it is critical to be able to recognize the odor. Fresh cut wood typically has a stronger odor. Shaving off a small amount, and in some cases wetting the wood will help to enhance odors in older wood.
- In some instances, wetting the wood will also help to bring out some of the cell structures in the endgrain.
- Typically you should not base an answer on wood color alone unless you are sure of its geographical origin. For instance, black cherry has a very distinct color. However, red alder develops a similar color after it ages. Unless you know the origin of the sample and/or recognize other wood characteristics such as ray size or pore arrangement, it may be easy to confuse these two species in some instances.
Most images on this site were taken using the following equipment:
Panasonic Lumix G3 Micro 4/3 camera with 14-44mm lens
Vello extension tubes (10mm,16mm)
All images were shot in RAW format and processed using Adobe Lightroom.
Gregory M. Vaverchak of the SUNY Ranger School and Bret Michalski of Central Oregon Community College for supplying some of the wood specimens photographed on this site.
Hoadley, R. Bruce (1990). Identifying Wood: Accurate results with simple tools. Taunton Press. ISBN 0-942391-04-7.
Forest Products Laboratory (Wood Property Technical Sheets)