Accuracy in the Identification of Wood

BY CHARLES CLOUKEY

Did you ever think how hard it is to describe a variety or kind of wood without comparison, so that anyone reasonably familiar with the different woods would be able to recognize the kind you had in mind? While it is a fact that some different kinds of wood are so nearly alike as to be substituted successfully, still they have characteristic differences which make them easily distinguishable when the experienced sight, smell or taste put them to the test. But are they differences which can be described verbally?

Yellow Pine and Cypress

For instance, some certain pieces of yellow pine are so much like other certain pieces of cypress in appearance that but few men are expert enough to be guided by sight alone. Now these woods are not at all alike and, generally speaking, they do not look alike any more than it is a feature common to the two woods to show alternating hard and soft grain. In some soft specimens of cypress, this feature is almost entirely lacking, but in these there would be no room for doubt. In the matter of colouring there is always a characteristic difference between the pine and cypress although it may be very obscure. It consists of a peculiar blending of pink, grey and brown which does not occur in the hard pine. The odour of cypress is marked, especially when burning, while the hard pine does not smell so very much different from any other wood.

Besides cypress, the common woods which have the most pungent odours are black walnut, cedar, Douglas fir, and some of the lesser smellers are cotton wood, basswood, oak, ash, elm, and even hickory. These may all be determined by the odour, but this odour cannot be described by words so that it may become a determining feature of the kind of wood.

With the possible exception of bird’s eye maple, and quartered oak, there does not occur to me any common wood the description of which would not fit some other as well. I have before me a panel, the two face sides of which are made up respectively of rotary-cut white oak and white ash. There are barely two differing characteristics observable by one not versed in the cellular structure of the wood itself, and one of these regarding colour might easily be exchanged in another panel.

The main organic difference is in the fact of the oak having the hard streaks or medullary rays which show up in the quartered product, and in the rotary-cut show the narrow lines representing the

Difficulty in accurately describing varieties of wood structures, the peculiarities of surface, matter of odour, and other distinguishing qualities that count.

edges of the thin slices of harder wood. These do not show very plainly, but nevertheless can be readily seen when looked for. However, there are many other woods besides oak which show these rays, such as the maples, poplars, sycamores (these last being very beautiful in the quartered) and even that beautiful yellow wood commonly called hedge or Osage orange has the flakes in its quarter although they are even smaller than in maple.

To depend upon the colour of wood as its distinguishing mark is to invite error, unless a fresh cut is made deep enough to get under the effect of the persistent action of the sun’s rays. It is not necessary for a piece of lumber to lie directly in the sunshine the indirect rays will change its colour in time. The change in some woods is very slight, and amounts to little more than weathering, but in others the process is comparatively rapid and the results rather unexpected.

Take a piece of bright yellow poplar of a greenish tinge with an edge of white sap and lay it with surface exposed for three months or more. It will turn as brown as a cypress board and the white sap will be as brown as the darker heart. Mahogany will darken up wonderfully with exposure, while walnut will take on a decided brown.

Red Gum and Yellow Poplar

Red gum loses that lavender tinge which makes it so beautiful when first worked, and takes on a lustreless brown with time. This is the principal reason that it will never become popular as a cabinet wood in this country only as it is doctored up with some stain. So, it will appear that if a description of red gum should be given and the chief characteristics named as a mild purple, pink and brown, with modified streaks of black running through it in fantastic figure, one might say that it was figured red gum. But the same thing is met with in yellow poplar although much more rarely. However, he would be a novice indeed who would mistake a board of figured gum for one of poplar when looking at it. It is a fact, though, that one can find gum boards which have no figure but which are coloured very much the same as poplar which has been exposed to the light for a short time.

To attempt to tell the difference between tupelo gum, cottonwood, and basswood by verbal description would be hard enough, but to be able to write a description of any one of the three so that it might not be mistaken for either of the others is an accomplishment which seems hardly possible. A man who was given charge of quite a range of woodwork, once asked the writer how he could tell the difference between red and white oak. Of course, the only way was to procure some pieces and point out the characteristic differences, and even then, he was not made able to distinguish between the two varieties when the red was rather white and the white rather red. The texture and appearance of the grain, the open pores and the look of the end of the pieces often have more to do with determining the class than the colour alone.

Small Pieces Are Puzzles

One of the very difficult puzzles in wood craft is to classify very small pieces of wood, say pieces about 3 1/2-inch-thick, 1/4-inch-wide and 1 inch long. I remember having once cut a small piece from the red heart of a white pine knot and I had the wood- workers guessing what it might be. Everything they could think of from applewood to cherry, by way of cypress, birch and peach, was guessed, while the real thing was passed up on account of its colour and texture, but mostly on account of its colour. A little nibble would have told that it was a pine. It is altogether likely that a sharp nose would have done the same.

Take a small piece of the hard flake of oak and separate it from the more porous parts and many men of experience will not be able to identify it even though they cut into it; still, it may be readily placed by chewing it up into a tasty pulp, or by wetting it for a short time and then smelling of it. It is well and commonly known that oak has a very characteristic odour when it is wet or green, but has very little when well-seasoned. This accounts for some of the mistakes made by woodworkers taking oak out of the dry-kiln and testing its condition by the odour, thinking it is dry enough to work, when in reality there is but a portion of the outside parts dry, but which prevents the sap on the inside from reaching the nose of the workman. The only safe test for the centre of the piece is to cut into the board and smell of the middle of it.

It is evident to the experienced man that a correspondence course in wood craft must necessarily be of an abridged character; the latter-day idea is running largely to effects of natural beauty and much less to designs in the patterns of details. What wood can 1 use to best express the scheme of architecture I wish to employ? How match, blend, diversify, contrast or colour it so as to procure the greatest beauty and harmony? One may tell me to use quartered white oak, but if he is writing his advice from a distance he has told me in so many words all that he will be able to convey to my inexperienced mind and the next question as to its cost will receive an answer which the veriest ignoramus cannot fail to comprehend.

If he tells me to use that most beautiful wood known as cypress burl, his powers of description may well quail before the task of telling what may be brought out from under the rough sur- face of this lumber. Who can faithfully describe the golden mountain chains in miniature which thread through the boards at the middle of the crotch, which, when polished to the limit of 0000 sandpaper, seem to have the sun hiding behind them ready to burst forth into a blaze?

In these crotches, the grain of the tree sweeps up from each side in a stately parabolic curve meeting in the irregular row of hard growth patches. For a distance of 6 inches to a foot on each side of the middle, the beauty of the grain diminishes about as the square of the distance. But the plainer edges only serve to emphasize the exquisite figure colour and texture of the parts nearer the crotch.

Nature has been very lavish with her brush in some of these cypress burls, and mingled with the browns, yellows and greys will occur a delightful surprise of crimson. This is not like an applied stain but splashes and mingles with the other colours and the wood itself, sometimes predominating in minor streaks and sometimes showing but a rosy hint of red, but never dimming or diminishing the lustre of the yellows or the burnished gold of the high lights. Like all other rare things, the beauty of cypress burl comes out with excessive toil. The wood is naturally quite soft, so that while it levels down with comparative ease it is quite difficult to bring it to a high state of polish. Without this polish there can be nothing obtained to awake the enthusiasm of the connoisseur.

 So might one go on and on attempting to picture to the absent eyes of others the beauties of many rare woods, and after all what a pitiful attempt it is when we place ourselves in the position of the reader and try to follow our own words to the logical comprehension of what we know is meant by the descriptions.

No pen can describe, no brush nor pencil can picture, a true likeness of a beautiful’ wood, polished, lustrous, with the detail of grain and colour developed by the careful application of a trans- parent size of copal or shellac. It is true that individual taste has much to do with the admiration which any specimen is able to command, but it is also true that the most rarely beautiful woods are universally admired. As in the extreme case of the cypress burl the exquisite skill of the Master Painter has left nothing to do but to discover and uncover, unless the workman would spoil.

6 thoughts on “Accuracy in the Identification of Wood

  1. A difficult problem, and one many struggle with. Unfortunately, this difficulty is frequently used to deceive consumers. A common case in point is birch being substituted for more expensive maple. Very common in the US. Colored jelutong being substituted as cherry, walnut, mahogany and many other woods, especially by Chinese furniture makers, is prevalent. Experience and inspection of wood during the manufacturing process, especially before finishing, is important in commercial situations. Appearance, density, smell and even taste are clues one must seek short of having a lab perform analysis. Caveat emptor.

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    1. My supplier has mentioned about one of his customers who passes off durian as mahogany to his customers. I have durian in my workshop, but have never worked with it. I’m suspecting it’s going to be a pleasant timber to work with, but I can’t figure out for the life of me as to how he manages to pass it off as mahogany as it doesn’t even remotely resemble it.

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      1. Durian!? Stinky? There is a lot of deception in the the cabinet and furniture markets, even in the US. when purchasing cabinets/ furniture for projects where the species of wood may impact price/ durability/long-term appearance I try to visit the factory and inspect the work in progress and their material stockpiles. In many cases, I find I can’t even identify the wood, but I can certainly tell when the wood being used is not an expensive wood like walnut or rosewood before the finish is applied and I can smell the sawdust. Such inspections are worth the cost and trouble in my business, and I encourage my people to do inspections and Clients to pay the costs. I am sure I could learn much from you, but how to describe the smell of Alaskan Cedar versus Hinoki?

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      2. Aha on the contrary my learned it is I who could and have learned much from you. I couldn’t tell the difference as I’ve never worked nor seen either. The first thing I did when I purchased durian and it is a habit of mine with all timbers I buy is to smell them. But I will not know it’s true smell until I start working it. As for walnut & rosewood being inexpensive, try buying it from Australia. The quote on rosewood was $60 per metre and walnut forget it. I paid $17.50 for rosewood about 8 or 9 years ago. You have to be a banker to work wood now a days.

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  2. I love the story of the wood merchant who passed away. His son went to the prominent cabinet maker in town and requested a casket built of oak because it was his father’s favorite wood. A couple,days later at the funeral parlor the son complimented the cabinet maker on the beautiful casket. He added however that it was made of ash, not oak. The cabinet maker paused then replied “Well it was oak last week when your father sold it to me.”

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