Big-box stores like Home Depot and Lowes sell a lot of lumber labeled "pine" and "poplar", but these common names correspond to some very different species with very different properties.

For an application, I'm looking for wood with a very specific modulus of elasticity and Janka hardness, which some species of pine and poplar have, but not all.

How would I identify the species being sold at these stores without having to buy them and subject them to testing?

  • 3
    If you don’t mind me asking, what application is driving these requirements? And is the big box literally your only choice? (Top tip: you are less likely to be disappointed in any wood store that isn’t a big box.) Apr 29, 2023 at 23:33
  • 1
    @AloysiusDefenestrate, +10!
    – Graphus
    Apr 30, 2023 at 9:56

1 Answer 1


How would I identify the species being sold at these stores without having to buy them and subject them to testing?

A serious answer to this is: become an expert in the subject. That is literally the only way to know/have high confidence in the species you're buying.

Unfortunately it's still not as simple as that as it is pretty much only the end grain that can definitively identify (or rule out) many species and closely related cousins. And very often/most of the time the end grain on the wood being sold is not in a condition which would allow you to examine it closely enough. The wood ideally needs to be planed or pared dead smooth with a very sharp blade1, and then dampened before careful observation under a loupe, or at even higher magnification.

A further point
If you NEED a certain physical property in the wood you're using I suggest instead that you aim to buy something that exceeds your requirements rather than merely meet them. You might want to greatly exceed it to give a greater margin of error.

Why? Because wood varies. Sometimes a lot, far more than sources tend to tell us — it's perfectly possible to get a weaker piece of wood and a strong piece of wood from the same tree. That's what you're up against.

Now you can quite easily learn how to be more selective about which boards to buy2, or which parts of larger boards to use3. But still it's no absolute guarantee that the wood will match the written specs for that species4.

1 Note that in this specific case sanding is not a substitute. For a start it's completely impractical on-site, and anyway at high magnification the sanding residue can tend to obscure certain details you want to see.

2 The basics of selecting for strength: avoid knots (as much as possible), look for tight ring spacing and generally straight, uniform grain, and zero or very little grain runout. This is also pretty much how to select for appearance as well, so you'll get some really nice looking wood this way while you're at it.

3 Strips cut from the edges of a 2x10 or 2x12 can often be FAR superior to commercial 1x2s and 2x4s as odd as that might sound.

4 A real-world example of this is in hickory, the premier handle wood in the US (and now often elsewhere in the world). It isn't a recent observation that some of the handle stock being used is actually nothing like what hickory is supposed to be like. The problem is so bad in fact that some of it is truly junk, and readily breaks in service.

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