Wood Identification

The first step to properly utilize wood is to correctly identify the species.  Wood species have unique anatomical characteristics that allow a trained eye to identify the species.  These unique anatomical characteristics are also important in determining many of the properties of the species, such as strength, dimensional stability, acoustical, conductivity, ease of pulping for paper and other applications, and energy yield.    Some anatomical properties can be modified by growth rate.

For example, we all know that faster grown pine trees have wider growth rings but did you know that they also have shorter fiber lengths and higher microfibril angles (MFA) on the S-2 wall.  The MFA is the angle of the cellulose chains on the thickest component of the cell wall and a high angle generally leads to less desirable wood properties.  Be careful when relying upon color or odor to make species determinations.  They can be helpful but also tricky.  For example, I have seen hybrid walnut that did not have the traditional chocolate brown color.  Also, aromatic species will lose their scent over time.

One final warning, if you see an old “pine” board with tight growth rings, don’t always assume that it is old growth southern yellow pine.  If you see little white dots visible on the latewood (the darker bands) then you are seeing the resin canals, and it is a pine.  If not, it is likely cypress.

I have served as an expert witness on several cases in which species identification was critical.   The most recent involved a family purchasing very expensive oak flooring and the company represented the flooring as oak.  I was asked to identify the wood species and issue a report of my findings.  It was not oak.  It was a much cheaper wood that was stained with an oak finish.  If you need wood identified for a legal matter, hobby, or whatever, please email me at [email protected].

Meet the Author

Dr. Todd Shupe is the President of Wood Science Consulting, LLC. He is a well-recognized expert on wood forensics, wood preservation, wood decay and degradation, and wood species identification. He has a broad background in new product development, quality management, and marketing and sales in both the public and private sectors. For more information please visit DrToddShupe.com.

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