Wood Grains & Colors

By Alexander Portnoy

Different wood species have very different looks and are suited for different applications. Learning to identify wood by its grain and color will help you make good choices for your projects and also help you to know what you are getting when you purchase lumber or furniture. Unfortunately, there are so many types of wood that you'll never learn to identify every single species. However, by learning the look and feel of the more commonly used woods and wood types, and keeping a reference book on hand, you can effectively identify most woods by their grain and color.

Establish That the Wood is Real

Take a careful look at the piece of wood. Study the end-grain. If the end-grain does not match up with the grain on the top and sides of the the wood, it is probably a veneer or artificial wood. When you look at the largest surface of the wood, see if the same grain pattern repeats several times. If so, odds are that this is a veneer. Veneers are very thin sheets of real wood glued onto melamine or plywood.

Analyze the Condition of the Wood

Look carefully to see if a finish has been applied to the wood. Also see if the wood is weathered. Wood in either of these conditions can be more difficult to identify, so know that they will be darker than their freshly milled counterparts.

Soft Woods

All woods can be broken down into one of two types: hardwoods, which come from angiosperm trees, such as oaks or maples (often but not always deciduous), and softwoods, which come from coniferous trees, such as firs and pines, and are usually evergreen. Soft woods tend to be lighter in weight, less dense and don't have visible pores. Unfortunately, these are generalizations, not rules — maple, for example, is a hard wood without visible pores. Two by fours and plywood are usually made from soft woods.

Hard Woods

Cherry is a common hard wood with a distinctive grain.

Oak, one of the most common woods used in hardwood flooring, has a very distinct tight grain with open pores. It comes in many colors but is commonly available as red oak or white oak. Red oak has a pinkish tint before staining, much like cherry. Cherry, however is very distinct from oak in grain. It has a wider, freer, curvier grain. Generally, hard woods take stain better than soft woods.

Spend Time Looking at Different Woods

A trip to your local lumber store is a good way to familiarize yourself with common wood grains and colors. Pull pieces of lumber off the shelf and compare them. Notice the differences in color, weight, softness, grain and pore structure. Compare them to the wood samples in your veneer book if you have one. Look at the woods around you — on your floors, in your furniture, even in your firewood pile. Try to identify them or look them up in your veneer book. You will find that you can learn to identify most common woods quickly and easily even if they are stained.

About the Author

Alexander Portnoy is a writer, editor, designer and builder who has worked on books, journals and websites since graduating from Hampshire College with a B.A. in 2002. Portnoy specializes in articles on art, architecture, woodworking, construction, sustainability and science.