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.
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.
Common Furniture Woods
Common furniture woods have their own distinctive marks, just like each person has his or her own unique fingerprints. Below are some details or characteristics that can help you easily identify the numerous types of furniture woods available.
Ash (white ash): Ash is a tough hardwood known primarily for its excellent bending abilities; it's used for bentwoods and for bent furniture parts requiring maximum strength. Ash veneers are also common. Ash varies in color from creamy white or gray with a light brown cast to a dark reddish brown. The price is moderate.
Basswood: Basswood is a common hardwood, often used in combination with rare woods such as walnut and mahogany. Its color varies from creamy white to creamy brown or reddish, 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: Beech is another hardwood that bends easily, but it isn't as attractive as ash. Beech is often used with more expensive woods, primarily in inconspicuous places -- chair and 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 (yellow birch): Birch, a common hardwood, is used in all aspects of furniture construction. The wood is light yellowish brown, very similar in color and in grain to maple. The grain is quite pleasing. Birch is close-grained. It is moderately expensive.
Butternut: This hardwood, often called white walnut, is similar in many ways to walnut. The wood is light brown, with occasional dark or reddish streaks. The grain is pronounced and leafy. Butternut is coarse-textured, with visibly open pores; it is usually filled. Butternut stains well, and is often stained to look like dark walnut. The wood is light, and is easy to work with hand tools. It is moderately expensive.
Cedar (Eastern red cedar): Cedar, a softwood, 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; the grain is quite pleasing. Cedar is close-grained. It should not be bleached or stained. Cedar storage chests should be left unfinished on the inside, and treated with a clear finish on the outside. Cedar is moderately expensive.
Cherry (black cherry): Cherry, one of the most valued of hardwoods, 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, often with a definite mottle. Cherry is close-grained, and does not require a filler. A light stain is sometimes used to accentuate the color. Cherry is difficult to work with hand tools, and it is expensive.
Elm (rock elm, American elm): This hardwood has excellent bending qualities; it's used in all types of furniture, and especially for bentwoods. Elm is light brown to dark brown, often with some red streaks Elm has a distinct grain; rock elm has contrasting light and dark-areas. Because Dutch elm disease has destroyed so many trees, elm has become a rare wood, and can be both hard to find and expensive.
Gum (sweetgum, red gum): This hardwood is often used in veneers or in combination with rare woods; it's also used in some moderately priced furniture. Gum is an even brown, with a reddish cast; it sometimes has darker streaks. Its price is moderate to low.
Hickory (shagbark hickory): This hardwood 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, with a straight, indistinct grain; it is open-grained. Hickory is very hard and heavy, and is difficult to work with hand tools. Its price is moderate.
Lauan (red lauan, white lauan): This hardwood, a mahogany look-alike, is used in less expensive grades of furniture; it is often sold as Philippine mahogany. The wood varies in color from tan to brown to dark red, with a ribbonlike grain pattern similar to that of true mahogany. Red lauan is more expensive than white.
Mahogany (New World mahogany, African mahogany): This hardwood is a traditional favorite for fine furniture, one of the most treasured furniture woods in the world. It's also used extensively in veneers. Mahogany varies in color from medium brown to deep red-brown and dark red; the grain is very distinctive and attractive. It is very expensive.
Maple (sugar maple): Maple is a strong, dense, attractive hardwood, used in furniture and for butcher blocks. Its color is light brown, with a reddish cast; the grain is usually straight, but also occurs in bird's-eye, curly, or wavy patterns. Maple is difficult to work with hand tools, and is usually expensive.
Oak (red oak, white oak): This abundant hardwood has always been valued for its strength and its attractive grain; It is used extensively for solid furniture and, in modern furniture, for veneers. White oak is a rich grayish brown color; red oak is similar, but with a pronounced reddish cast. Both types of oak are distinctively grained, with prominent rays or streaks. The wood is open-grained. It is moderately expensive; red oak is usually less expensive than white.
Pecan: This southern hardwood is quite strong, and is used extensively in dining and office furniture; pecan veneers are also common. The wood varies from pale brown to reddish brown, with some dark streaks; the grain is quite pronounced. The wood is difficult to work with hand tools; the price is moderate.
Pine (white pine): This softwood was used extensively for Colonial furniture, and is one of the basic woods of modern furniture; it's used in almost all types of furniture, and is the primary wood used for unfinished furniture. The wood varies from cream to yellow-brown, with clearly marked growth rings; it is close-grained. It is inexpensive.
Poplar (yellow poplar): Poplar is a moderately soft hardwood, used in inexpensive furniture and in combination with more expensive woods. The wood is brownish yellow, with a distinctive green tinge; the grain is subdued. Poplar is close-grained wood. It stains very well. Poplar is relatively light, and is easy to work with hand tools. It is inexpensive.
Redwood: This distinctive softwood is used primarily for outdoor furniture; it is resistant to decay and insects, and is rarely finished. The wood is a deep reddish brown, with well-marked growth rings. It is moderately hard, and is easy to work with hand tools; its price varies regionally.
Rosewood (Brazilian, Indian, or Ceylonese rosewood): This hardwood, like mahogany, is one of the finest and most valued furniture woods; it's also used for veneers. Rosewood varies in color from dark brown to dark purple, with rich, strongly marked black streaks. Rosewood is difficult to work with hand tools, and is very expensive.
Satinwood (East Indian satinwood): Satinwood has always been prized for fine hardwood veneers and also for use in decorative inlays and marquetry. Its color varies from bright golden yellow to a darker yellowish brown, with a very distinctive and attractive mottled or ribbon-striped pattern. It is very expensive.
Sycamore: This hardwood is used extensively in inexpensive furniture and in veneers; 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, with prominent, closely spaced rays; the grain pattern is distinct. It is moderately easy to work with hand tools, and moderately priced.
Teak: Teak is one of the choice furniture hardwoods, and has traditionally been used for both solid pieces and veneers. Teak varies from rich golden-yellow to dark brown, with dark and light streaks. It is very expensive.
Walnut (black walnut, European walnut): Walnut has traditionally been used for fine furniture, and is still in demand today; it is commonly used in veneers. Walnut is chocolate brown, sometimes with dark or purplish streaks; its grain is very striking and attractive. It is very expensive.
Other woods: Although most furniture is made from the woods listed above, many other woods are used in furniture construction.
Some of the other woods used for furniture are alder, apple, aspen, chestnut, cottonwood, cypress, fir, hackberry, hemlock, holly, koa, laurel, locust, magnolia, pear-wood, spruce, tupelo, and willow. Treat all wood according to its apparent traits.
A piece of furniture holds many clues that can help you assess what quality of wood was used in its creation. The key is just knowing how to assess the wood and what clues to look for.
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