Because wood typically darkens with age, and is likely the wood has been stained, color can’t be relied on for wood identification. Though it is not an exact science, the typical way to identify hardwood is to identify it by grain patterns.
Oak is traditional and can be recognized by a distinctive, recurring flame pattern. Oak has a wider grain than pine and looks rough. Red oak is the most common, with bold grain lines throughout the pattern. White oak, which is more exclusive, has similar patterns, but the lines are more delicate.
Maple has a creamy appearance and is distinctively different than oak. Sometimes devoid of grain, the light-brown lines are thin and subtle, wander aimlessly and are more complex. With its glassy surface, maple has more consistency than oak. Used in bowling alleys or dance halls.
Hickory has the hardness of maple but lacks the glassiness. Hickory displays thin, dark grain lines, with sharp, jagged points in random formations. It might have the flame pattern of oak, but the pattern is inconsistent. Blunt color variations, such as black streaks, may also be present. Used in baseball bats and ax handles.
Cherry and Walnut round out the domestic hardwoods commonly used. Cherry contains delicate, subtle grain lines that wander aimlessly and has a distinctive reddish color. Walnut has few visible grain lines but may present lighter, almost white streaks or bands and is chocolate in color. Used in fine furniture.
Mahogany is imported, but is typically grouped with the domestic varieties because of its availability. Mahogany has consistent, straight grain lines with few variations and has an orange tint that differentiates it from cherry.
Exotics are complicated to identify due to the unfamiliarity and wide assortment of imported hardwoods. But, in most cases, the wood is harder and darker than domestic varieties. The woo may have wild, crazy grain patterns that don’t fit common trademarks, straight, uniform lines or flat, ebony surfaces without obvious grain. Identifying exotics is difficult at best.
Pine and Fir are typical softwoods. Both have bold grain lines that are far wider than the hardwoods. Pine is one of the easiest to identify with a narrow grain with long, oval loops and dark spots scattered throughout the wood. Used in lodges and cabins.