When refinishing old wood furniture, it’s crucial to identify the type of wood you’re working with. This knowledge is vital in selecting the perfect paint or stain, as different woods absorb finishes differently. Moreover, each wood type demands a specific finish. For instance, porous woods like pine require a matte or semi-gloss varnish, while hardwoods such as oak or mahogany call for an opaque or semi-opaque finish. Get ready to transform your piece into a masterpiece by understanding and utilizing the unique qualities of each wood type!
Identifying wood 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 boasts a flawlessly finished grain pattern, giving it a strikingly uniform look from all angles. The illusion of a massive plank hints at the art of veneering, while repeated wood patterns reveal its true nature as thinly sliced rolls of actual wood.
1.3 Is it printed to look like wood?
Laminate is a variation of veneer. While veneer is a luxurious layer of real wood applied to cheaper wood, laminate is a printed plastic layer that mimics the look of wood. Laminate is typically used on particle or MDF boards to create the illusion of solid wood. But don’t be fooled! The texture of laminate feels like plastic, not like real wood. With some practice, you’ll easily spot the difference between laminate and genuine wood just by touching it.
2. Elimination #2: is it softwood or hardwood?
2.1 Check the density
Examine the wood for scratches and dents to determine if it’s softwood. Softwoods, such as redwood, pine, fir, spruce, and cedar, are often prone to these imperfections. So if you notice many of them on a piece of furniture, chances are it’s made from softwood. To confirm your suspicions, discreetly scratch a small area with your fingernail. If it leaves a mark, you’ve got yourself some softwood.
Is your piece of furniture light when you lift it? The lighter it feels, the more likely it is made of softwood. If it feels dense, there’s a higher chance that hardwood was used.
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
Freshly made furniture crafted from softwoods like pine, fir, redwood, and cedar exudes a captivating “aromatic woodsy” fragrance. Even antique pieces can unleash the enchanting scent of wood when sanded, particularly if it is cedar.
4. Identifying the most common softwoods
Determining the type of wood in your furniture can be challenging if it’s stained or weathered. However, you can still identify it by examining the grain pattern and figures alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Redwoods stand out with their deep red hue and intricate grain. Their marbled reddish-brown and mahogany colors set them apart from other trees, resembling the elegance of cedar but with a richer, more vibrant shade of red. When it comes to outdoor furniture, redwood is the top choice due to its exceptional resistance to weathering. To determine if a piece is made of cedar or redwood, simply give it a sniff (scratch it or take a fresh slice from the end grain if needed). Unlike cedar, redwood lacks that aromatic woody scent.
5. Identifying the most common hardwoods
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.
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 young walnut tree’s wood boasts contrasting pale yellow and dark growth rings. Its grain pattern alone may not easily identify it as walnut, but furniture makers adore using its super-figured burls and knotted pieces.
Walnut, an expensive wood, graces high-end luxury furniture with its stunning grain and rich color. It is also highly sought-after for veneer due to its distinctive grain. Ornate carved furniture like mantelpieces and headboards often feature walnut wood. In the 20th century, walnut veneer on plywood became popular in mid-century furniture designs.
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.
To spot mahogany, search for its distinct pinkish or reddish-brown hue and silky 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. Consider this when determining if a piece is truly made of 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.
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.
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.
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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