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I get wood from many places, including pallets. Often the wood will be of several varieties. By matching color and grain style, I can group similar types of recovered wood planks together. How do I determine which piece is what type of wood (e.g., pine, alder, ash, maple, etc.)?

  • 2
    Sometimes you can't. Before veneer over particle board took over, big furniture factories used to bleach several species of wood to a uniform lightness and then stain it. – saltface Mar 17 '15 at 20:39
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If nothing else The Wood Database exists solely for this purpose and has a great deal of information about all its woods in its database. The database contains picutres of all its known woods and details where known.

For aiding in identification, most woods will have published at least the following characteristics.

  • Common Name: e.g Marblewood. Yes in many cases if you already know the name then what is the point? It never hurt to be sure about your source or assumption.
  • Distribution: Where this wood is typically cultivated from
  • Color/Appearance: What it looks like.
  • Grain/Texture: What the end grain looks like. Site includes pictures under microscope. Some small handheld magnifiers can help in this area. You would need a clean cut in order to examine the end grain properly.
  • Odor: Some woods have an smell about them which can help narrow type.
  • Related Species: Many woods fall under an umbrella. Finding a similar one can lead you to the one you are looking for.

These property names are used specifically for The Wood Database but using any resource would benefit from you knowing as many of the above as possible.

Note on searching by region

I personally had an issue matching a sample from Indonesia. Using a search engine with Wood-DataBase and Indonesia narrowed the field for me since you cannot do that on the site itself.

The wood was from a pallet and had a country stamp from "IN" which narrowed it for me. For those on the edge of your seat I think it was Kempas

Not an exact science

To Quote Eric Meier

[T]he more I learn and discover, the more I realize how very little I know. The more accurate and thorough my identification process becomes, the more certain I become that I really cannot guarantee that I am correct.

Identifying wood can be tough especially when you know nothing about where it came from. You cannot always expect and answer, sometimes not even a right one. In a perfect world you would know what tree it came from and use the bark, leaves and local to hone your choices to a select few.

Seeking Outside Help

Not a guarentee but the person/people responsible for the Wood-Database also have a facebook page and has been known to help users there as well with wood id's.

If you still are stuck after looking through their website they recommend that you contact Forestry Products Laboratory as they will allow you to send them samples for identification. Read the page linked for more information but the most important point from the site would be

The Center for Wood Anatomy Research will identify a maximum of five wood samples per household or business per calendar year as a free public service to U.S. citizens. We try to accommodate inquiries from non-citizens, but such requests are typically assigned a low priority. Persons or businesses in need of more than five identifications per year should seek a private consultant to provide this service.

The highlighting and emphasis is my own. Note that non-U.S can use the service but are not prioritized

What is off topic

The problem with questions about a specific wood sample: Most of the time you would need to include a picture so that people can see what you are talking about. Pictures are not text based so new users would have an issue finding your post which reduces it value to the Community.

Also, this would be very subjective since since we cannot see the magnified grain, smell or other properties that would lead to guesses. Even if someone was super sure that does not mean they were right.

Please be aware of these points if you have any question about

Credit

Added comments about this topic into post from TX Turner and Daniel Ball

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A large part is experience and comparison to known species. It gets easier if you can narrow it down to possible woods. However, pallets can literally be anything that made a board big enough.

The Wood Database is one place trying to put together a list of attributes from all known woods. I think there are several others too, but some (all?) want a little money to support their endeavor.

Color and grain are two very big indicators of what the wood can be; density helps as well. Many woods have a distinctive smell too. Of course, the most important part is having a fresh cut or planed section to work with. Stains, aging, and other issues can easily hide a woods true character.

There are also lots of books out there for wood identification but I don't think any of them are all inclusive.

  • The Wood Database also has a facebook page, and the person running it will often help ID pictures posted there. Helped me ID some Cumaru a while back that had stumped all my wood-working friends. – TX Turner Mar 30 '15 at 20:37
  • wood-database.com/wood-articles/… And the caveat to go with it. The best way to identify wood is to see it before it's milled ;) – Daniel B. Mar 30 '15 at 21:22
  • Added both these comments into my answer for preservation. – Matt Mar 31 '15 at 0:30
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Bruce Hoadley's Identifying Wood makes it much more of a Science than a guessing game. In fact, what Hoadley and other folks do with identification of wood species is admissible in court.

FWIW.

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