How to Identify Old Wood


Antique wood furniture is highly sought-after, and many homeowners are pulling up carpets in their older houses to reveal wooden floors. One problem you may run into is identifying what type of wood you are dealing with. Some people might assume that this doesn't matter; wood is wood, right? Wrong. Different types of woods need to be treated differently and cleaned differently to keep them in top condition. If you want to preserve your furniture, floors, or other wooden item, your first task is to figure out what the wood is.

Things You'll Need

  • Magnifying glass
  • Ignore the color of the wood. Many people assume that this is the easiest way to identify their species of wood. In fact, it is not reliable at all: time, exposure, misuse, and artisan stains may have vastly changed the original color of the wood.

  • Look at the wood grain of the boards with your magnifying glass, if they are exposed. This is known as the figure. Different woods often have distinctive figures that can easily be compared to modern woods for identification.

  • Figure out the time period when your wooden item was created. For floors, you will need to know what year the home was built; request the original blueprints from your town's city hall or housing authority. Examine furniture pieces for details like moldings and shaped legs. Use these details to identify the style of the furniture using artisan catalogs and similar sources; this will give you a range of years during which the piece was built.

  • Narrow down the wood options based on the time period of your wood: 17th Century and earlier is most likely oak, William and Mary period is usually walnut, Colonial period uses woods indigenous to the first American colonies; maple, oak, walnut, and cherry, early Queen Anne items should be walnut and late Queen Anne items almost always mahogany. Windsor pieces are made from oak, ash, or pine; Chippendale-era furniture or floors are mahogany, Federal-style is mahogany, cherry, or curlymaple; Empire period artisans used mahogany. Gothic Victorian and Elizabethan Victorian items should both be mahogany, Rococo Victorian is generally walnut or rosewood. Renaissance Revival Victorian is walnut, Eastlake Victorian is Oak, Walnut, and Chestnut. Colonial Revival Victorian or Centennial Victorian is probably walnut or mahogany; Arts and Crafts and Mission-style items are oak. Art Nouveau pieces from the 1890s-1900s are usually walnut; Art deco and Art moderne-era pieces are likely maple or walnut.

  • Examine the characteristics of your wood to confirm your identification or further eliminate possibilities. Feel the wood with your hand; woods that feel soft or silky are most likely softwoods, which means any wood made from an evergreen tree like pine. Rougher boards or ones that give a very sharp sound when rapped with your knuckles are more likely to be hardwood, meaning they were cut from any deciduous tree.

  • Look at the wood with the magnifying glass to see how open the grain is and drag your fingernail lightly over the wood's surface. If your nail does not move easily, the piece is made from an open-grain wood: pecan, ash, elm, chestnut, hickory, or oak. If your nail moves easily but the texture feels bumpy, you most likely have a medium-grain wood: walnut, white walnut, or mahogany. Finally, wood that allows your nail to slide easily and feels almost like glass is closed-grain: beech, poplar, gum, birch, pine, cherry, or maple.


  • Photo Credit Lori Lee Miller/Photodisc/Getty Images
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