Identifying wood in antiques Part I: an introduction for beginning collectors


Even experienced wood experts say that identifying the type of wood is difficult and involves guessing. There are a number of reasons for this difficulty. One is trees are generally categorized by external qualities such as shape, flowers and leaves, rather by the inner wood. This means different woods can be similar in grain and color and overlap with other woods. Further, there can be wide variations within a species of wood, including depending on age and where the tree came from. When wood is cut, varnished, shaped and/or painted, it can be difficult to impossible to identify. There is also ‘unwhole’ wood, meaning wood pieces that are made up of different kinds of wood and even non-wood wood. This includes veneered wood and particle board, laminated, painted and printed wood, and plastic and other material made to look like wood.

When looking at wood, the first question in wood identification: Is it wood?

It may seem that the answer to this question will more often than not be obvious, and it usually is. The look, feel and. of course, smell often gives away real wood. However, if the item is small, say a button, carved/polished/sanded or part of an intricrate and ornate design involving other material in may not be so easy.

As mentioned, a common test is the smell. Wood smells like, well, wood. However, the smell can be masked if varnished or painted.

Another test done often done on small items is the hot needle test, which will easily tell the diference between wood and say plastics. Plastic is sometimes molded to resemble wood, especially for things like buttons. Press a hot needle into the piece. If it’s wood, it will smell like burned wood. Plastic will not. This test is destructive, so you should be prudent and careful in its use.

For many collectors of buttons or toys, identifying that the item is wood is enough. An antique button collector may just want to know that it wood versus plastic or glass, and may have no great desire to know if its cedar, oak or ask. Obviously for funature collectors, the type of wood can be more important and influence the value. The latter type of identification is beyond the scope of this small intro article.

Is is a solid piece of wood?

Many wood pieces are not a solid, single piece of wood, but pieces of wood or wood with other wood and non-wood. This includes verneer, laminated wood, painted and printed wood, plywood and particle board.

A good test to see whether or not a piece is whole wood is to check the edge of the wood to see if the grain wraps and matches the front as natural wood. Also check the front and the back of the wood to see if the grain pattern matches.

Playood, verneer wood and particle board are obvious if you can example all sides of the wood.

Playwood: made of of multiple pieces of wood glued together.

Plywood: made of of multiple pieces of wood glued together.

Particle board, invented in 1950, made up of bits of wood mashed together. In person, it is clearly not a whole, single piece of wood.

particle board detail, showing the mashed up pieces of wood.

particle board detail, showing the mashed up pieces of wood.

Verneered wood. Veneer is a thin surface layer of higher quality wood glued to the surface of inferior wood. The edge of the wood will shows the different wood. If you see a large panel that has a repeating grain pattern, it may be a veneer.

Veneer is sometime uses surface plastic made to resemble wood. This may clearly look like plastic. The hot pin test test will give off the smell of wood.

Veneer is usually easy to identify if you can inspect all sides of the object.  

Veneer wood surface showing the different type s of wood used

Veneer wood surface showing the different type s of wood used


Painted or printed wood. Many times a modern piece of particleboard laminated with a piece of wood-colored plastic, or painted to look like wood grain. Many of today’s interior hardwood flooring planks are good examples of this.

The two major types of whole, natural wood: hardwood and softwood

There are two main categories of wood: hardwood and softwood. As the the name suggests, hardwood is more durable than softwood and includes such woods as mahogany, walnut, rosewood, maple and elm. Softwood is more susceptible to scratches and gouges and includes such woods as pine, spruce, cedar and fir. Identifying hardwood lumber from softwood lumber is an easy task, given that the inside of the wood is already exposed and easy to examine. Identification requires no special tools and is quick to perform.

Pieces of Veer wood, showing how the surfaces and edges are of different wood.

Pieces of Veer wood, showing how the surfaces and edges are of different wood.

Press a fingernail firmly into the lumber and then remove it. If an indention is left behind, the wood is a softwood. If no indention is left, it is hardwood.

Examine the color of the wood . Most hardwood, such as mahogany, is dark in color, while lighter wood, such as pine, is a light colour. Scratch the surface of the lumber with your finger to make sure it does not contain a stain to make it look like a darker hardwood.

Examine the surface with a magnifying glass and look for tiny pores that resemble holes or dots. All hardwood lumber has tiny pores in the wood, while softwood does not. A magnifying glass is necessary because not all tree pores are visible with the naked eye.

Common softwoods include cedar, fir, ponderosa, pine, spruce and woodwood

Common hardwoods include ash, basswood, birch, cherry, maple, black walnut and oak.