When you refinish an old piece of wood furniture, it’s important to know the type of wood you’re working with. Identifying wood types in furniture will help you choose the right paint or stain, since different types of wood absorb paint and finish differently. Different wood types require different types of finishes, too. For example, a wood that is very porous, like pine, should be finished with a matte or semi-gloss varnish, while hardwoods, like oak or mahogany, should be finished with an opaque or semi-opaque finish.
Identifying wood in furniture is not simple, to be honest, virtually all hardwood furniture is made of multiple wood types! Most often the body is made of cheap and durable wood, the back uses light and low-cost types, and the user-facing parts (top, drawer fronts, etc.) are made of the finer woods.
But we’ll try to keep things as simple as possible. This guide is aimed at helping you narrow down the wood type, or “genus”, which is most often what you need to decide how to handle the makeover or refinish. But NOT really the particular species, which would be too complicated, and not really useful. There are thousands of them, even the experts can’t narrow down the exact species of wood you may be dealing with.
One important thing to note before we start: except for a couple of very straightforward distinctive patterns (e.g. oakwood flecks. contrasting knots of pine), you cannot recognize a wood type straight away from grain, texture, or color. The identification is mostly the guesswork of elimination.
Now, elimination #1: is your furniture made of actual wood?
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1. Elimination #1: Is the furniture actually made of solid wood at all?
Most recent “wood furniture” (post ’60s / ’70s) is actually not made from wood, or marginally. It’s made from a combination of synthetic materials such as MDF (medium-density fiberboard), particle boards, chipboards, plywood, etc. painted or printed to look like solid wood. They’re cheaper and more flexible in terms of shape, form factor, and finish.
1.1 Can you see the wood end-grain?
The easiest way to decide if a particular piece of furniture is actually solid wood is just to look at its edges or ends. If you see the wood grain it’s definitely solid wood. Particle boards & MDF will show their typical pressed patterns.
Doesn’t this nightstand top look like a piece of solid wood?
Well, no: it’s actually a particle board with a thin layer of oakwood veneer on both faces. Note the edge is a small piece of actual wood.
1.2 Is it veneered?
A veneer is a very thin outer layer of wood that covers a thicker core, making it look like a solid piece of wood.
- Same as the MDF or particle boards, look at the back of the piece & the edges: if it’s veneered, the veneer is typically discontinued at the back, or the angle in the grain will reveal the veneer layer.
- Chipping damage is typical of veneered furniture:
- Look for glue lines that have another color or texture.
- Carvings are synonyms with solid wood.
- Wavy or irregular gain patterns indicate burlwood, which is very ofter veneer (it’s expensive, so very few pieces are made of solid burl)
- Veneered furniture tends to have a very uniform appearance on all sides with large surfaces of neatly finished grain patterns. A piece that looks to be made from a very large plank is a hint of veneering. Repeated identical wood patterns are also a sign. (veneer is actually wood cut into rolls)
1.3 Is it printed to look like wood?
A variant of veneer is laminate, vinyl, or more rarely, paint: they are a layer of plastic printed to look like wood. And almost always applied on top of a particle or MDF board to make it look like solid wood. While veneer is a layer of (most often) high-end wood applied on cheaper, more common wood (e.g. walnut over softwood or oak). Again, look at the back or the edges.
2. Elimination #2: is it softwood or hardwood?
2.1 Check the density
Inspect the wood for scratches and dents to know if it is softwood. Most softwoods are conifers like redwood, pine, fir, spruce, cedar, etc. Softer woods are more prone to scratches and dents, so if you see many, the furniture may be made from softwood. If you’re unsure whether a piece of furniture is made from softwood, try scratching a discreet area with your fingernail. If it is softwood, your nail will leave a mark.
On the other hand, does your piece of furniture feel light when lifting it? The lighter the more chances it is softwood. The more “dense” it feels the higher the probability of hardwood use.
2.2 Guess from the wood grain
The grain patterns of softwoods are generally smoother, while hardwoods tend to be more rough and porous (maple being a notable exception). Together with the scratching, you may be able to tell which type of wood it is by looking at the grain and feeling it with your fingers.
2.3 Identify softwood from the smell
If the piece of furniture was freshly made, most softwoods (pine, fir, redwood, cedar notably) have a very distinct “aromatic woodsy” smell. If the furniture is antique, sanding a piece may release the wood smell (especially cedar).
4. Identifying the most common softwoods
Please note that it will be harder to positively determine what kind of wood your furniture is if it is stained or weathered. However, you can still try to identify it based on the grain pattern and grain figures alone.
How to identify fir in furniture
The Douglas fir is a light brown color with a tight, straight grain. It can have hints of red or yellow between its growth rings. The grain pattern is usually very subtle and typically has knots in the growth rings.
Douglas fir is a popular choice for cheaper applications due to its softwood properties, wide availability, and fast growth. Painted furniture often uses it, as the grain pattern is less prominent.
How to identify pine in furniture
Pine is usually a pale yellowish color with a straight grain. If the wood looks this way and also has a smooth grain texture, it is likely pine. Additionally, look for darker growth rings and a large number of knots.
Pine can typically be distinguished by the unique color contrast between growth rings, knots, and wood. The dark and light sections of growth rings in Pine tend to have a very distinct contrast compared to other woods. In comparison, fir and spruce have very few color variations between rings, knots, and heartwood.
Rustic casual furniture like tables and dressers are often made from pine. It’s also very common in modern mass-produced furniture like IKEA.
How to identify spruce in furniture
Spruce is another straight grain, light-colored wood. It has a white to yellow color, sometimes with pink undertones. The texture of spruce is very smooth, with small pores.
Spruce is primarily used in construction because unlike pine, it is very stiff for its weight. And it is often found in large pieces.
How to identify cedar in furniture
The rich red color, straight grain, and unique woodsy scent of cedar are its key giveaways. You can also feel the grain to check if it is smooth to confirm. Its smell alone makes it one of the easiest wood types to identify in furniture.
Cedar is a popular material for outdoor furniture because it is weather resistant. It is also used to build indoor furniture like wardrobes and chests because its smell repels moths and other insects.
How to identify redwood in furniture
Redwoods are easy to spot by their dark red color and wavy grain. The signature marbled reddish-brown and mahogany colors and curvy, intricate grain patterns make them stand out from other trees. Redwoods are similar in appearance to cedar but have a richer, more elegant red color.
Redwood is a popular choice for outdoor furniture because it is very weather-resistant. If you can’t tell if a piece of red furniture is made of cedar or redwood, try smelling it (scratch it or take a fresh slice from the endgrain at the back if it is too weathered). Redwood doesn’t have the woody, aromatic scent of cedar.
5. Identifying the most common hardwoods
How to identify oak in furniture
Oak can be identified by its light brown color, straight grain, and visible growth rings. To confirm, feel the grain to see if it is porous. The wood should have darker growth rings and very few knots.
One of the most prominent giveaways of oak is the presence of ray flakes (or flecks), especially when quartersawn. A large number of them are even referred to as “flaky”.
Red oak and white oak are two types of wood commonly used in furniture. They share a light brown color, but as the name suggests, red oak can have a reddish tint.
Oak is a versatile wood that can be used to create all sorts of furniture, from cabinets to built-in pieces. It is also a popular choice for interior work like stairs and floors.
How to identify walnut in furniture
The most common type of walnut used in furniture is black walnut, which has a dark tan or chocolate brown color with straight grain. Black walnut sometimes has streaks of purple or green mixed in with its rich brown color. Look for darker growth rings mixed into the straight grain (similar to pine, though the contrast is not as strong) to acknowledge walnut furniture.
The wood from a young walnut tree that is still growing can have pale yellow growth rings that contrast with the dark growth rings.
Walnut is tough to recognize by its grain pattern alone: normally it has a straight, fine grain, but furniture makers love to use super-figured, patterned burls and knotted walnut pieces.
Walnut is an expensive wood, so it’s often used in high-end luxury furniture because of its beautiful grain and rich color. It is also very commonly used as veneer due to its sought-after grain. Ornately carved furniture is often made of walnut wood, such as mantelpieces or headboards. Walnut was also popular in the 20th century and many mid-century furniture are made with walnut veneer placed on plywood.
How to identify maple in furniture
Maple is mostly recognizable by its light creamy or yellow color and unique grain patterns. You can identify maple wood by its unique grain patterns and lack of straight grain. It is a light, creamy color when it is fresh, but darkens to a yellowish color over time.
Maple is thick, strong, and durable, making it ideal for indoor applications where the woodgrain is highly visible. Its unique and beautiful grain patterns make it a desirable material for furniture such as high-end dining sets.
How to identify mahogany in furniture
To identify mahogany, look for its characteristic pinkish or reddish-brown color and smooth texture. In addition, mahogany has a fine long grain with few knots. The color of mahogany furniture can range from almost pink to dark brown, depending on the age of the piece. Keep this in mind when making your decision about whether or not a piece of furniture is made from mahogany.
Mahogany is a popular, usually cheaper, alternative to walnut. Mahogany veneer has been around for centuries and is a popular choice for cabinetry and furniture making.
How to identify ash in furniture
To identify ash wood, look for a very light color with wide spacing between growth rings. Ash wood is typically beige or very light brown, with light brown growth rings that may almost blend into the surrounding grain.
Although ash may resemble oak, it typically has fewer brown hues in its color and never displays red hues.
How to identify beech in furniture
To identify beech, look for its characteristic cream-colored straight and tight grain pattern. You may also see yellow or reddish hints in the cream color. The grain often has gray flecks in it.
Beechwood is a popular choice for furniture that requires curved or rounded edges, like chairs. The wood is pliable and can be bent using steam, making it ideal for shaping.
How to identify poplar in furniture
Poplar is an absorptive wood with fairly uniform physical properties and coloring. The wood is medium in weight and density, with light color and moderately coarse grain, which allows paints and glues to adhere very well. The wood is fairly straight-grained, but the end grain is coarse and irregular. Poplar boards are white/ivory in tone with green or brown streaks running through the heartwood of the board. A key giveaway is its “fluffy texture” when scratched.
Poplar is more commonly used for utilitarian purposes, such as the infamous match sticks. Since it’s a very inexpensive material, it is often used in hidden furniture parts, such as drawer bottoms, bed slats. It is also commonly used for manufacturing plywood or under veneer.
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