Almost any type of wood could be used to build furniture, but some woods have always been favored for their beauty, durability, and workability. Before 1900, most furniture was made with these woods: walnut, oak, mahogany, rosewood, fruitwoods, and rare wood veneers and inlays were in common use. American Colonial furniture, dependent on local availability, 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. Today, most furniture is made with ash, pine, gum, and poplar; pine, fir, and other inexpensive woods are used for hidden parts. The rare woods are used only for very good furniture, and they're often used in combination with the less expensive woods.

Being able to identify the type of wood used for your furniture can help you determine its real value. Wood identification can sometimes be the deciding factor when you aren't sure if a piece is worth refinishing or if it should be thrown away. There's a good chance that a beat-up old dresser, for instance, was built with what today is considered a rare wood. In this article, we'll show you how to examine a piece of furniture and what details or identifying marks to look for to easily identify the type of wood used to create it. It will be helpful to know the basic characteristics in all woods, such as hardness, grains, and color.

Wood Characteristics

Hardness: The simplest way to describe a wood is to say it's a hardwood or a softwood, but this description can be deceptive: not all hardwoods are hard, and not all softwoods are soft. The hard/soft classification is a botanical one -- hardwoods are flowering trees; softwoods are conifers. Although most hardwoods are harder than most softwoods, there are exceptions.

In general, hardwoods are more valuable than softwoods, because the wood is scarcer. But this isn't always the case -- gum, for instance, is a hardwood that competes in price with softwoods. A more practical way to identify wood is by its grain and color.

Wood grain and color: The cell structure of a tree, different for each species, determines its grain. Hardwoods have tubular cells called vessels, visible as pores in the wood. If the cells are large, the texture of the wood is slightly rough, or open; a filler may be needed to smooth the surface. If the cells are small, the texture is smooth; these woods, described as close-grained, don't require filling. Oak, walnut, ash, mahogany, rosewood, and teak are all open-grained woods; beech, birch, maple, cherry, satinwood, gum, and poplar are close-grained. Softwoods don't have vessel cells, but for all practical purposes can be considered close-grained.

All trees have annual growth rings, made up of the cells formed during each year's growing season. The types and arrangement of the cells determine how the wood looks. There are woods with subdued and with clearly defined grains; there are straight grains, stripes, swirls, waves or curls, ripples, eyes, and mottled effects. There are colors from white and pale yellow through red, purple, and black. Every species has its own particular grain and color, and although they vary from tree to tree, these characteristics can almost always be used to identify the wood.

Furniture woods are chosen and valued for the character of their grain and color. Hardwoods usually have a richer and finer-textured grain than softwoods, but there are rich grains of all colors and patterns. Woods with very distinctive patterns are usually more valuable than woods with subdued or indistinct patterns, and the weaker-grained woods are often stained to give them character. This is why the old finish must be completely removed before you can tell for sure what wood a piece of furniture is made of.

How to Assess Wood

How do you begin to identify the type of wood used for your furniture? This may seem difficult at first, but you'll find it easier as you gain experience. With practice, you may be able to recognize various woods by smell and touch as well as by color and grain. You should ask yourself some key questions:

  • Consider the piece of furniture itself. About how old is it, and what style is it? Some types of furniture are made with specific woods -- ash, for instance, is widely used in bentwoods -- and most new furniture is made with woods not used for older furniture.
  • Look at the color. Although color can vary considerably from tree to tree, its tone is fairly constant within a species; the color intensity may change, but not the quality. Some woods have very distinctive color characteristics -- poplar, for instance, is the only wood with a green tinge to it, and rosewood can be dark purple.
  • Finally, look at the grain. Is the wood open- or close-grained? Are the pores evenly distributed, or are they concentrated at the growth rings? Is the grain straight or wavy, mottled or swirled?

Now that you have closely looked at your furniture, you might notice it is made with veneer (thin layers of wood) or a combination of woods. Both are common practices for furniture building.Wood combinations: Another consideration is that many types of modern furniture are made with two or more kinds of wood, to keep the cost down. Rare woods are used where appearance is important, such as table-tops; the more common woods are used for less conspicuous structural pieces, such as table and chair legs. This multiple-wood construction isn't always easy to see until the old finish is removed -- a table you think is walnut, for example, may turn out to have gum legs, stained to match.

Furniture made with more than one wood eventually needs special refinishing treatment. If you find yourself with a multiple-wood piece, you may have to stain and finish the common wood again to match the wood of the most conspicuous surface.

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. Check out the next section for tips on how to easily identify common furniture woods.