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Identifying Wood in Furniture Construction

It is common today for many people who own furniture not to know what kind of wood their furniture is made of. Often it is very difficult to determine what kind of wood the furniture is made of if it is not clearly labeled with the furniture. Almost any type of wood could be used to build furniture. Some woods have always been favored for their beauty, durability, and workability and rate a lot higher in that respect to people who build and buy furniture.

History of Wood in Furniture Construction

Before 1900, most furniture was made with woods like walnut, oak, mahogany, rosewood, fruitwoods, and rare wood veneers and inlays were in commonly used. American Colonial furniture was dependent on the local availability of wood. Their furniture was made with maple, oak, walnut, birch, and cherry, as well as pine. The preferred furniture woods were readily available, so less attractive or durable woods were used only for hidden parts inside a piece. For this reason, pre-1900 furniture is almost always worth restoring. As these preferred woods have become scarcer and more expensive, furniture has been made with more abundant woods; the traditional favorites have become rare.

Furniture Wood Basics

Today, most furniture is made with ash, pine, gum, fir, and other inexpensive woods that are mostly used for hidden parts. The rare woods like walnut, oak, mahogany, rosewood are used only for very good furniture, and they're often used in combination with the less expensive woods. By you being able to identify the type of wood or woods used for your furniture can help you determine your furniture's real value is. Identifying your furniture's wood can sometimes be the deciding factor in figuring out if your furniture is worth being refinished or if it should be thrown away. Who knows, maybe there is a chance that your beat-up old dresser was built with what today is considered a rare wood and is really a valued piece of great furniture after its refurbishing! To determine things like this you will have to examine your pieces of furniture for their details, identifying marks, and things of that nature to help you identify the type of wood used to create it that piece of furniture. Knowing the basic characteristics in all woods, such as hardness, grains, and color helps a lot too in identifying the wood your furniture is made of and your furniture's value as well.

Wood Characteristics

There are 3 basic characteristics in all woods and that is the wood's hardness, grain, and color. The simplest way to describe a wood is to label it as a hardwood or softwood. But even by identifying your furniture's wood that way can be deceptive to the untrained eye because not all hardwoods are hard, and not all softwoods are soft! This is because the hard wood and soft wood classification is a botanical one and not just something that you can get from its visual look or feel. In general hardwoods are form flowering trees while softwoods are conifers which are They are cone-bearing seed trees like cedars, cypresses, douglas-firs, firs, junipers, pines, redwoods, etc. Although most hardwoods are harder than most softwoods there are exceptions to that too. Hardwoods are more valuable than softwoods because hardwood in general is more scarce then most softwoods. But even that doesn't tell the whole story because there are woods like gum, for instance, that is a hardwood and competes in price with softwoods.

The practical way to identify wood is by its grain and color. This is because the cell structure of a tree is different for each species and determines its grain. Hardwoods will have tubular cells called vessels that are visible as pores in the wood. For example, if the cells are large then the texture of the wood will be slightly rough or open. If this is the case then filler may be needed to smooth the surface of that wood. If the cells are small then the texture will be smooth. Woods that are described as close-grained don't require filling and are already pretty smooth. Examples of open grained wood are Oak, walnut, ash, mahogany, rosewood, and teak. Examples of closed grained wood are beech, birch, maple, cherry, satinwood, gum.

All trees have annual growth rings that are made up of the cells formed during each year's growing season. Some grains have clearly defined rings while others are more slight and harder to see. There are all kinds of different looking rings too. There are straight grains, stripes, swirls, waves, curls, ripples, eyes, etc. The colors of the wood can range from white and yellow to red, purple, and black. In general every species has its own particular grain and color which helps to identify the wood and its characteristics. Furniture woods are chosen and valued for the character of their grain and color. Some general rules are that Hardwoods usually have a richer and finer-textured grain than softwoods. Woods with very distinctive patterns are usually more valuable than woods with subdued or non-distinct patterns. Weaker-grained woods are often stained to give them character.

How to Assess Your Wood

It may seem difficult at first but you'll find it easier as you gain experience. Experts recognize various woods by smell, touch, color, and grain. When you take the time to assess the wood that your furniture is made of you should think about things like the woods age, its style, its color, and its grain. Another thing to check is the wood's veneer or inlays. Veneer is a thin layer of wood glued to a base of less expensive wood or plywood. In old furniture, veneers and inlays of rare woods were often used to form designs or special effects. In modern furniture, veneers are used primarily where solid wood is unavailable or too expensive. Veneers are fragile, and they can be damaged by refinishing techniques so take a good look at your furniture before you start to work on it.

Another consideration is that many types of modern furniture are made with two or more kinds of wood. This is to keep the cost down on the furniture. In general, rare woods are used where appearance is important like on table-tops and chair legs. This multiple-wood construction isn't always easy to see until the old finish is removed. For example, a table you think is walnut may turn out to have gum legs, stained to match.

Once you are familiar with the color, grain, and construction style of your furniture, you can use that information to determine the specific kind of wood or woods used in your furniture.

Common Furniture Woods

Just like a person has their own unique fingerprints so does furniture wood with their own unique markings. Here are some woods that are easy identify and commonly available.

Ash is a tough hardwood known primarily for its excellent bending abilities. Ash varies in color from creamy white or gray with a light brown cast to a dark reddish brown. The price is moderate.

Basswood is a common hardwood that is often used in combination with rare woods such as walnut and mahogany. Its color varies from creamy white to creamy brown or red with broad rays and sometimes slightly darker streaks. The grain is straight and even. Basswood is close-grained, with very small pores. It is inexpensive.

Beech is another hardwood that bends easily, but it isn't as attractive as ash. Beech is often used with more expensive woods on things like chairs, table legs, drawer bottoms, sides and backs of cabinets. Beech takes a stain well and is often stained to look like mahogany, maple, or cherry. Beech is both hard and heavy and is difficult to work with hand tools. It is inexpensive.

Birch is a common hardwood that is used in all aspects of furniture construction. The wood is light yellowish brown and very similar in color and in grain to maple. The grain is quite pleasing and is pretty expensive.

Butternut is hardwood, often called white walnut. The grain is pronounced and leafy. Butternut stains well and is often stained to look like dark walnut. The wood is light and is easy to work with. It's usually pretty expensive.

Cedar is softwood that is used primarily in chests and closets. It has a distinctive scent and is effective in repelling insects. The wood is a light red, with light streaks and knots and the grain is beautiful. Cedar is moderately expensive.

Cherry is used in fine furniture and cabinets. Its color varies from light brown to dark reddish brown and it has a very attractive and distinctive grain. Cherry is difficult to work with hand tools and is expensive.

Elm is hardwood that has excellent bending qualities. It's used in all types of furniture. Elm is light brown to dark brown and often has red streaks. Elm has become a rare wood that can be hard to find and expensive.

Gum is a hardwood that is often used in veneers or in combination with rare woods. Gum's color is brown with red or darker streaks. Its price is moderately low.

Hickory is hardwood and is noted for its strength, hardness, and toughness. It is used in rockers, Windsor chairs, lawn furniture, and some veneers. The wood is brown to reddish brown. Its price is moderate.

Lauan is a mahogany look-alike and is used in less expensive grades of furniture. The wood varies in color from tan to brown to dark red and is pretty expensive.

Mahogany is a traditional favorite for fine furniture and one of the most treasured furniture woods in the world! Mahogany varies in color from medium brown to deep red-brown and dark red. Its grain is very distinctive and attractive. It is very expensive.

Maple is a strong, dense, attractive hardwood, used in furniture and for butcher blocks. Its color is light brown and the grain is usually straight. Maple is difficult to work with hand tools and is usually expensive.

Oak is valued for its strength and its attractive grain. It is used for solid furniture. White oak is a rich grayish brown color and red oak has a pronounced reddish cast. Both types of oak are distinctively grained with prominent rays or streaks. It is moderately expensive and red oak is usually less expensive than white.

Pecan is quite strong and used a lot in dining and office furniture. The wood varies from pale brown to reddish brown. The wood is difficult to work with hand tools and the price is moderate.

Pine is softwood used extensively in old Colonial furniture. The wood varies from cream to yellow-brown, has clearly marked growth rings and is closed grained. It is inexpensive.

Redwood is distinctive softwood is used primarily for outdoor furniture. It is resistant to decay and insects. The wood is a deep reddish brown and has well-marked growth rings. It is moderately hard, and is easy to work with hand tools.

Rosewood is like mahogany and is one of the finest and most valued furniture woods. Rosewood varies in color from dark brown to dark purple. It has strongly marked black streaks in it. Rosewood is difficult to work with hand tools and is very expensive.

Sycamore is used extensively in inexpensive furniture. It is very resistant to splitting and is also a favorite wood for butcher blocks. The wood varies from pinkish to reddish brown in color and has prominent closely spaced rays. It is moderately easy to work with hand tools and is moderately priced.

Teak is one of the choice furniture hardwoods. Teak varies from rich golden-yellow to dark brown with dark and light streaks. It is very expensive!

Walnut has traditionally been used for fine furniture and is still in demand today. Walnut is chocolate brown and sometimes has dark or purplish streaks. Its grain is very striking and attractive. It is very expensive.


It is common today for many people who own furniture not to know what kind of wood their furniture is made of. Most often it is very difficult to determine what kind of wood the furniture is made of if it is not clearly labeled with the furniture. A little background on different types of wood and how they are used in furniture construction can go a long way in helping you find that perfect and long lasting wood furniture for your home! Good luck!