Simple Hardwood Identification for Turners


Honey Locust


Ed Karch

Wood Wizard for

Capitol Area Woodturners

Montgomery County Woodturners




          Characteristics vary by Genius and species. No two pieces of wood are exactly alike.

      Characteristics effect:  







          Machine ability

          Finish type

 Do you really want to waste your time with Mystery Wood??

If you solve the mystery you can know the characteristics of your media and decide on appropriate design for the species or the appropriate species for the design

 Easiest wood identification is when it is still inside a tree. Recommended identification helps for this area is The Tree Identification Book, by George W.D. Symonds . It covers general form, bark, leaves, flowers, and twigs. Even in winter a tree still has form, bark, and twigs. It only gets real difficult with seedlings where you only have twigs.


Wood is identified using anatomical characteristics.  Color, taste, smell, and general appearance are limited to a few species but even then need verified.

Pictures of a piece of wood are worthless as can be observed on the internet with each reader gives a positive ID of something different. A bowl turned from mystery wood and buried under multi coats of plastic goop can only be identified by slicing off the goop and making a transverse cut. For some reason the owner won’t go for this.

 Most US woods can be identified to the level of genus with a 10X hand lens. In some woods such as Oaks one can only distinguish between the red oak and white oak groups. Some woods can be identified to species without microscopic examination.

 If the source of the wood is known this may be an important clue as to its identity.  “I bought it at Woodcraft” is not a clue. “It was a tree alongside a creek in California ”, is a clue. “It was a furniture crate from Thailand ” is a clue.


Glossary of terms

 Geometric terms


          Cross section


          In the direction of the radius


          Tangent to the growth rings perpendicular to the radius


Gross Anatomy

Growth rings

            Trees which grow in temperate regions with definite seasons, form one growth ring per year. The same is not true for all trees however, as some trees which come from arid or semi arid regions may form more than one growth ring, depending on the when the rains have fallen in a particular year. Trees from tropical climates which show less seasonal change, sometimes grow continuously and do not have any growth rings

Heart wood

            Heartwood  is the inner, older wood which in some large trees may be more than a meter in diameter. The tree uses the heartwood as a place to store waste products. Thus, as the tree matures, metabolites are deposited in the heartwood. These include resins, gums, oils and tannins which stop up the vessels and clog the wood. The heartwood is darker, denser, more durable and stronger than the sapwood and plays an important role in supporting the tree


            Sapwood  is the outer few centimeters of the wood which border the cambium. This is the xylem which transports water and dissolved nutrients (sap) from the roots to the leaves. It is often light in color and not as strong as the heartwood.


          A thin layer of reproductive cells between the bark and the wood which forms both bark and wood by cell division.


          Inner bark is living tissue while outer bark is dead and has a protection function.


Macro Anatomy


            Rays are groups of cells in the wood which are orientated perpendicularly to the main axis of the stem, unlike the tracheids, vessels and fibres which are orientated parallel to the main axis of the stem. They are composed of  ray paranchyma cells. They divide the stem into sections like the slices of a pie.  Their function is to allow the transport of water and dissolved nutrients, radially across the stem.


          The cross section of a hardwood vessel.



          The thin walled wood cells that are involved mainly in food storage and distribution


                   Not in contact with pores


                   In contact or in association with pores


                Surrounding pore with wing like extensions


                   Grouped to form a tangential band enclosing two or more pores


                   Found singly or in a sheath around pore


                   Complete sheath one to many cells thick surrounding pore


Pith (medulla)

          The soft spongy tissue that forms the central longitudinal axis of the stem, branch or twig of a tree.


          The bubble like protrusions in pores formed in conjunction with heart wood formation with some hardwoods.

Ring porous

          A hardwood with relatively large pores are concentrated in the earlywood and distinctly smaller pores are found in the late wood.

Diffuse porous

          A Hardwood in which pores are of uniform size and distributed  fairly evenly throughout the growth ring

Semi-diffuse porous

          A Hardwood in which pores are of diminishing size from early wood to late wood but distributed fairly evenly throughout the growth ring


Storied Rays


Characteristics seen with a 10X hand lens


          Ring porous If ring porous, depth and spacing of the earlywood zone, arrangement of the latewood pores.

          Semi-ring porous

          Diffuse porous

          Tyloses Present or absent?


          Storied structure Present or absent?

          Size Easy to see with the eye? Wider than the pores?

Axial Parenchyma

          Arrangement and abundance. Apotracheal or Paratracheal or Banded?


Tools Needed for Identification

Razor sharp blade


Hand lens 10x


Reference Book


How to prepare a wood surface for viewing

·        A sharp blade is required for good surface preparation. A razor blade is best.

·        A good clean surface is one where cells have been cut cleanly rather than torn.

·        Do not cut too deepl. Deep cuts will result in torn fibers and possible injury to your hands

·        Only a few growth rings on the cross section are needed

·        Wetting the surface with water can be helpful in getting a good, clean section.


Common hardwoods, with a brief description of their distinctive features.

Oaks Ring porous. Wide and tall rays, easily seen with the eye. Latewood vessels with a radial or dendritic arrangement; small and angular in outline in the white oaks, only visible with a hand lens and rounded in outline in the red oaks. Although there are hundreds of species of oaks, it is only possible to recognize the major groups of oaks: red, white, and evergreen; evergreen oaks usually are semi-ring porous to diffuse porous.



Beech vs. Sycamore. Diffuse porous. Tall and wide rays. The rays in beech vary more in size and the latewood zone is not as distinct as in sycamore.



Elm Family. Ring porous. Latewood vessels in wavy tangential bands. American elm earlywood with a solitary near-continous row of relatively large vessels; hackberry earlywood with multiples of rounded vessels; hard elms with a solitary discontinuous row of relatively small earlywood vessels.



Persimmon vs. Pecan. Semi-ring porous. Vessels encircled by vasicentric parenchyma. Persimmon has broken lines of apotracheal parenchyma (diffuse-in-aggregates); pecan has continuous narrow bands of apotracheal parenchyma.



Mulberry, Black Locust, Osage Orange Ring porous. Wood generally dark brown. Latewood vessels in clusters, and with paratracheal parenchyma.

Mulberry - not all earlywood vessels are filled with tyloses.
Black Locust and Osage Orange - earlywood vessels filled with tyloses.

Osage Orange latewood vessels very small, sometimes in short relatively straight lines.
Black Locust latewood vessels small, in short diagonal to oblique lines



Inexpensive Digital Microscope

or google QX5 Microscope


Pictures of wood samples


GRIN Taxonomy Database


Japanese Woods Database


Belgian Db (Tropical Woods)


Inside Wood  Db


US Forest Service Forest Products Lab


World Commercial timbers Descriptions Db


U Tenn Wood ID Publication


U Maine Wood ID interactive pictorial Db


Society of Wood Science and Technology


CITES Identification Endangered Tropical Woods


Forestry Extension Notes Wood Identification, Iowa State University

This is just a key without introductory text. It would be handy for quick id after some practice to learn anatomy. The species list is typical for an undergraduate wood technology course.


WPS 202. Wood Anatomy and Properties Hardwood Anatomy,

  E.A. Wheeler , North Carolina State University

This document outlines some features of hardwood anatomy.
The lists of features have links to images illustrating that feature


Andreas Heiss University of Innsbruck ,

This is the wood id page of Andreas Heiss an Austrian archeobotanist at the University of Innsbruck , it covers hundreds of European and North American species. To use it, it must be downloaded on your machine as directed. It can then be used interactively based on the anatomy of your sample.



 Identifying Wood : accurate results with simple tools

By R. Bruce Hoadley

1990; Taunton Press

   Identifying Wood will answer the question if you are willing to learn some wood anatomy. Looking at a clean cut cross section (transverse) with a 10x hand lens one should be able to identify common woods by using the keys found in this book.

 Just as I remember from class, diffuse porous wood is harder to ID than ring porous wood. The book contains a key for each group of anatomical types. One appendix even covers rotted wood and charcoal. There is a limited section on some of the imported exotics that we love to spin.

 With some practice and a few known samples, one can reasonably expect to identify many woods with this book. This is the best and most complete for the non-professional.


What Wood is That? A Manual of Wood Identification

By Herbert L. Edlin

1969 Viking Press

 This book is unique in the 40 actual veneer samples bound in the book. It is British with emphasis on British terminology and European and African woods. It also differs from Hoadley’s book in offering 14 different keys based on both anatomical details and gross characteristics such as color, smell, leaf shape, bark, and country of origin.  It is not very good for North American wood. It is not bad for major commercial species from Africa and tropical America . It can be found used on the internet for $15-$20.

 Two other books are used in university level wood technology courses.

 Wood Structure and Identification.  H.A. Core, W.A. Cote and A.C. Day.  Syracuse University Press, 1976

 Textbook of Wood Technology, 4th edition.  A.J. Panshin and C. deZeeuw.  McGraw-Hill, 1980.