If there is even a chance that the color isn’t natural, the odds are increased that the entire effort of identifying the wood will be in vain. Many woods, when left outside in the elements, tend to turn a bland gray color. Also, even interior wood also takes on a patina as it ages: some woods get darker, or redder, and some even get lighter or lose their color; but for the most part, wood tends to darken with age. The most predictable baseline to use when identifying wood is in a freshly sanded state. This eliminates the chances of a stain or natural aging skewing the color diagnosis of the wood. Most softwoods will be almost perfectly smooth with no grain indentations, while many common hardwoods have an open pore structure, such as Oak or Mahogany; though there are some hardwoods that are also smooth to the touch, such as Maple. By observing the grain patterns, many times you can tell how the board was cut from the tree. Some wood species have dramatically different grain patterns from plainsawn to quartersawn surfaces. For instance, on their quartersawn surfaces, Lacewood has large lace patterns, Oak has flecks, and Maple has the characteristic “butcher block” appearance. Some species of wood have figure that is much more common than in other species: for example, curly figure is fairly common in Soft Maple, and the curls are usually well-pronounced and close together. Yet when Birch or Cherry has a curly grain, it is more often much less pronounced, and the curls are spaced farther apart.
Before proceeding too much farther into the remaining steps, it’s first necessary to confirm that the material in question is actually a solid piece of wood, and not a man-made composite or piece of plastic made to imitate wood. Can you see the end-grain? Manufactured wood such as MDF, OSB, and particleboard all have a distinct look that is—in nearly all cases—easily distinguishable from the endgrain of real wood. Look for growth rings—formed by the yearly growth of a tree—which will be a dead-giveaway that the wood sample in question is a solid, genuine chunk of wood taken from a tree. Is it veneered? If you see a large panel that has a repeating grain pattern, it may be a veneer. In such cases, a very thin layer of real wood is peeled from a tree and attached to a substrate; sometimes the veneer can be one continuous repeating piece because it is rotary-sliced to shave off the veneer layer as the tree trunk is spun by machines.
Fir is most often used for building; however, it is inexpensive and can be used for some furniture-making as well. It does not have the most interesting grain pattern and does not take stain very well, so it is best to use it only when you intend to paint the finished product. Douglas fir is moderately strong and hard for a softwood, rating 4 on a scale of 1 to 4. This wood is worth mentioning because it is very common at your local home center and it is so inexpensive you will probably be tempted to make something with it. Pine comes in several varieties, including Ponderosa, Sugar, White, and Yellow, and all of them make great furniture. In some areas of the country (especially southwest United States), pine is the wood to use.
If it’s possible, pick the piece of wood up and get a sense of its weight, and compare it to other known wood species. Try gouging the edge with your fingernail to get a sense of its hardness. If you have a scale, you can take measurements of the length, width, and thickness of the wood, and combine them to find the density of the wood. This can be helpful to compare to other density readings found in the database. Wood from freshly felled trees, or wood that has been stored in an extremely humid environment will have very high moisture contents. In some freshly sawn pieces, moisture could account for over half of the wood’s total weight! Likewise, wood that has been stored in extremely dry conditions of less than 25% relative humidity will most likely feel lighter than average. Taking into account the size of the board, how does its weight compare to other benchmark woods? Is it heavier than Oak? Is it lighter than Pine? Look at the weight numbers for a few wood species that are close to yours, and get a ballpark estimate of its weight.
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