Identifying old wood (i)

Old houses are full of good quality, old-growth wood. Wood like chestnut which has long since disappeared from the lumber mills. It is often reclaimed in the form of beams when large old buildings are deconstructed, but this is not always the case with houses. (For anyone interested, Baltimore Brick By Brick is an excellent blog on unbuilding). One of the challenges of reclaiming old wood is being able to  identify it. How does one go about this?

There are many characteristics, including both macroscopic (visible to the naked eye) and microscopic features. Here are some macroscopic characteristics to consider: rings, pores, grain (long surface), rays, hardness, weight, smell, colour. I am going to write a few posts on the basic steps of wood identification. For identifying vintage wood, I strongly suggest getting a copy of  R. Bruce Hoadley’s book – “A Field Guide to Identifying Woods in American Antiques & Collectibles“. It’s packed with features of wood, tools and techniques, and a compendium of commonly used furniture and antique woods showing identification criteria and sample artifacts.

Here are some additional resources for anyone looking to identify the wood used in a piece of furniture.


So there are a number of resources out there to help identifying old wood. Mostly this is a visual process, and only becomes difficult if you are required to go to the micro level of investigation. Some of these books are somewhat older, but they are well written.

The Wood Database is an exceptional online database of wood species. Here’s a great article on softwood anatomy on The Wood Database.

Edlin, H.E., “WHAT WOOD IS THAT?“, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969.
– This is an excellent book which has gone through a number of printings. The book has three parts. Part I deals with a brief introduction to the history of lumber. Part II explores wood identification, using 14 keys. Lastly, Part III describes forty common trees and the wood derived from them.

Core, H.A., Côte, W.A., Day, A.C., “Wood Structure and Identification“, (2nd ed.), Syracuse University Press, 1979.
– This book examines the wood structure, at the “gross, microscopic, and ultrastructural levels”. The book provides an excellent key to differentiating hardwoods, and softwoods based on There is an indexed glossary of 75 wood species, with associated low-power photomacrographs.

Hough, R.B., “The Woodbook: The Complete Plates“, Taschen, 2013.
– This book has a nice set of photographs of each wood showing tangential, radial and cross-sections in colour.



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