Idenification of wood species- WHO CARES!

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Forum topic by itsmic posted 02-27-2011 06:05 PM 7210 views 0 times favorited 28 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View itsmic's profile


1419 posts in 3296 days

02-27-2011 06:05 PM

Topic tags/keywords: wood identification projects opinion question

I am a new woodworker, and use quit a bit of pallet wood and other wood that I can not identify accurately. I have investigated many sites on wood identification with some success. I know there are density tests and other methods, other than visual, to identify wood. I have not pursued all possible avenues as of yet, but that is not the question I am raising on this forum. The question is “who cares” how important is it to know what kind of wood it is. How important, and why is it important to the woodworker, the hobbyist, the client, the friend or family member receiving the finished project, or to all the fellow woodworkers on this site as they view projects. Let me know your opinion to help form mine, and others position on “WHO CARES”

-- It's Mic Keep working and sharing

28 replies so far

View tyskkvinna's profile


1310 posts in 3164 days

#1 posted 02-27-2011 06:21 PM

Some words are inherently more expensive than others. Because I sell most of what I make, it is important to me to know what kind of wood it is, whenever possible (which is not always, I also use a lot of recycled wood). If I just say it is a “recycled hardwood” widget, that holds a little less weight than being able to say it is a “recycled red oak” or “recycled birdseye maple” or what-have-you. A client that doesn’t know much about wood will see the name of the species and it helps associate value. Whereas, I’ve had a lot of people express the opinion that “hardwood” is something you can buy cheaply at the Big Box store and they don’t necessarily understand the context. And moreso, if I just say it is recycled pallet wood (something I use OFTEN), there is an inherent lack of value in what the wood is. It must be crappy, because they used it for pallets! (Of course not the case in actual practise).

-- Lis - Michigan - -

View William's profile


9950 posts in 3020 days

#2 posted 02-27-2011 06:40 PM

For some who may never give their work to someone else, I guess it only matters as much as that person cares about.
However, a lot of what I build winds up in the hands and homes of other people. The first questions they almost ALWAYS ask?
“What kind of wood is this?”


View Blue Mountain Woods's profile

Blue Mountain Woods

110 posts in 3112 days

#3 posted 02-27-2011 06:56 PM

Different species have different material characteristics. Wildly different. Before you go cutting up a piece, best know if it’s walnut or ipe.

-- Pete -----

View KnickKnack's profile


1094 posts in 3744 days

#4 posted 02-27-2011 09:52 PM

I like to know if the dust I’m about to breathe is carcinogenic or not!

-- "Do not speak – unless it improves on silence." --- "Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope."

View juniorjock's profile


1930 posts in 3943 days

#5 posted 02-27-2011 10:12 PM

Just guessing, I’d say that most LJs could give you a few reasons of their own to know what type of wood they’re working with. I know I like to know. But I have worked with some wood that I wasn’t completely sure what type it was. KK (post #5) has one of the best reasons.
- JJ

View mtkate's profile


2049 posts in 3503 days

#6 posted 02-27-2011 10:14 PM

I like to know the type of wood that I am working with, if only because the properties of the wood will dictate to me what I can do with it… and how I plan to finish it.

View Brian024's profile


358 posts in 3578 days

#7 posted 02-27-2011 10:45 PM

For me some reasons:

1) What’s the intended use for the piece, don’t want to make an endgrain cutting board out of red oak instead of maple.
2) Budget, built a coffee table a while back and the customer wanted it black and asked about ebony, once I told her the price $70/bd ft, she wanted to go another route, which was stained cherry.
3) Workability, if I have to do a lot of routing/shaping, I’d rather use a wood that handles that well, not something like Ash, the first time I used it on my router table the piece nearly exploded.
4) What knciknack said.
5) What style is the piece, (mission,federal,shaker)

View JasonWagner's profile


527 posts in 3358 days

#8 posted 02-27-2011 10:51 PM

spalted krate – love it!

-- some day I hope to have enough clamps to need a clamp cart!

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 3176 days

#9 posted 02-27-2011 10:56 PM

As with many things,it depends.

I have some exotics that I have drug around for years and I don’t have the slightest idea what they are anymore. I made stuff with some wood I grabbed from a landscaper that I have no earthly idea what it was. It just looked pretty. Sometimes even knowing is meaningless. You buy some oak. Ok, what kind? There are many with different looks and different properties. Same with what is marketed as pine. Maybe the hickory you get is pecan. Birch may be alder. Hard maple soft maple all are sold interchangeably. A lot of the exotics are pretty hard to differentiate without a botanist and scientific lab at your disposal. Don’t get me started of fruit woods because of all the hybrids. Then you have people selling wood from south america that they are calling mesquite and osage orange just because they look kinda similar. You just have to trust the supplier, many of which will just guess anyway—and that is the honest ones.

What we do instead is a lot of guessing. Some have some pretty unique properties and are easy to distinguish. Hard to confuse purpleheart with holly. Holly, basswood, and limewood may not be that straight forward. There is a lot of individual variation within one tree, let alone between species. Sapwood and heartwood can look like different species entirely. Look at something wild like a burl and you will be hard pressed to identify without cheat notes and that is if you were at the felling yourself.

You are obligated to be honest. If you know what it was (or what it was sold as) pass it on. If you don’t know but are guessing, say that. If you have no idea, make it a challenge to solve the mystery. If you think it might be a problem for people that are sensitive, speak up. More importantly, if you think there is a chance it could be a more toxic species, never make anything that contacts food with it. I see people making cutting boards out of some exotics that I think border on criminal. Just because it is “pretty” isn’t reason enough.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View Dale J Struhar Sr's profile

Dale J Struhar Sr

496 posts in 3308 days

#10 posted 02-27-2011 10:56 PM

This is a thought provoking question for me and I could go on and on about the subject based on each individual project I’ve undertaken but here goes.
To me each wood has its own natural character, beauty, grain, etc and depending on the finish used for the completed project these qualities are greatly enhanced. If you’re going to paint the item the only consideration might be whether it’s a soft wood or a hard wood depending on the application. If the finish is going to be natural or stained to show off the character of the wood used you have many options.
Chances are that most people when they look at a project won’t recognize the type of wood that you use, this includes family and friends. However it can be a learning experience for all as to what nature has to offer.
A lot of my projects are out of exotic woods because of the beauty of the individual woods. Using different exotic woods in a single project allows contrasting colors and wood grains which I feel enhances the look, and appeal of the item.
The importance to each of the category that you list I’m sure varies considerably. To me being a LJ member is a great experience. I learn a great deal from others; share in their work, experience and craftsmanship.
A big consideration is looking back on life and seeing the things disappearing because of new technologies being developed. A lot of the workmanship done by craftsman of yesteryear is done by machines now. Our children are losing out, what a shame.

-- Dale, Ohio

View reggiek's profile


2240 posts in 3448 days

#11 posted 02-27-2011 11:01 PM

Knowing what kind of wood you are working with is important for several reasons. Different woods have different grain patterns….different strengths…..different colors…..different finishing techniques…..different ability to hold a shape (i.e. carving woods)....different ways of drying (steaming…air….kiln).....there are many more differences and then certainly the costs. Pallet wood that is hardwood….may be from many different species if the pallet came from overseas it may be some of the local woods from where it was made (sometimes a great score).....If it is made in the U.S. it is typically oak…and not very good a grade…..or it is soft or hard maple of similar low quality. Knowing if the wood is hard wood….or soft will decide on what type of use you will want to put it too. Softwoods are not very suitable for table tops or other areas that need to be sturdy…..

So to me the answer is you should care what type of wood you are using, but certainly that is my opinion. Woodworking is an art form….not a science….that is what makes it so challenging…and so addicting to many of us. Wood is one of a kind….through skill and experience a craftsman can learn to bring out the best of the wood used in a project….but alot of that experience/skill comes from understanding a species and determining the proper way to craft it. You wouldn’t use a birdseye maple to make cabinet carcases? – A rather exaggerated example….but relative.

-- Woodworking.....My small slice of heaven!

View itsmic's profile


1419 posts in 3296 days

#12 posted 02-27-2011 11:15 PM

Now we are talking, so far your answers are fantastic, and very informative and useful, thanks for sharing your opinion and reasons for it. Would love to hear more woodworkers opinions and reasons for them. Does how old the wood is, or where it comes from matter, that’s part of it’s identity as well. I made some projects out of a Spalted Beech that fell on my Sweat hearts camps back house (which was formally her parents place), it was beautiful wood, and I gave projects to
family members, these projects seemed to have special meaning on account of where the wood came from. Lets here your story about a wood identity and how it mattered or didn’t to you.

-- It's Mic Keep working and sharing

View Dustin Ward (aka Tearen)'s profile

Dustin Ward (aka Tearen)

176 posts in 4128 days

#13 posted 02-27-2011 11:29 PM

I also use recycled wood products. Most are very easy to identify. Maple, oak, walnut, cherry, etc. Should you know what you are using? I would have to say yes. Very few of my customers do not ask about what type of wood I am making my products out of. The people that are buying handmade products almost expect this type of detail.

Now for the second major thing you must remember. It is your responsibility to ensure the materials you are using will not harm your customer. Especially when you are dealing with pallets. Many pallets are used many times by many different companies. They may be exposed to industrial chemicals, oils, solvents, pesticides, etc. Especially if they are shipped in from overseas or mexico.

View mainwoodworks's profile


112 posts in 2826 days

#14 posted 02-27-2011 11:52 PM

All of the reasons for knowing the wood type given above are certainly important. Also there is the matter of how will the wood hold its color (will it darken or fad with time), how much will it expand and contract with moister, how will it effect the tools (how much silica is in the wood), how will it take glue, and how much scrap can you expect (from knots checks warping and cupping). These are some good reasons for knowing the wood.

-- Measure twice, cut once, and hope for the best.

View Sawkerf's profile


1730 posts in 3246 days

#15 posted 02-28-2011 12:53 AM

If you’re making projects from pallet wood, you should be aware that pallets are made from whatever inexpensive material is available. It’s almost certainly not top quality lumber and a pallet may have more than one species in it. Pallets are built for strong – not pretty. – lol

-- Adversity doesn't build reveals it.

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