How to Tell the Difference Between Wood Types In Antique Furniture

A friend of mine asked me the other day about how I distinguish different wood types on our antique furniture. Now, I only regularly deal with a limited selection of wood types, but there are two basic facts that you need to know.

The first, most important thing I could say on the subject is this: there is no such thing as a “cherry finish” (to name the most popular example). This is a misnomer invented for the convenience of cheap synthetic veneers made to look like cherry (or any other wood type), and the term has simply become so popular that it has come to incorrectly apply to real and imitation cherry alike. Finishing is the process of staining and coating applied to a wood.

The way to identify wood is by its grain—not by its color. There is, again, no such thing as a “cherry color.” Before staining, nearly all wood simply looks, in color at least, like the normal timber you’ll find at any hardware store. This is why you will find, for example, oak furniture that is very light, or orange, or even black (as when it is ebonized). Some woods, however, tend to be a certain color, like yew, which tends to be orange-ish, and all woods take differently to different stains. However, the rule still stands: you identify wood by its grain.

It is difficult to explain what each grain looks like, but it is easy to show with pictures. Just see the following.

6 thoughts on “How to Tell the Difference Between Wood Types In Antique Furniture

  1. My husband and I have a disagreement about what wood our coffee table is made from. I have always thought it looks like either rosewood or mahogany but he is sure it is teak. I can send you photos if you think you would be able to determine the right answer from them. I look forward to your reply.
    Thank you!

  2. I just found a really old dresser. It appears to be an empire style. It’s extremely heavy. It’s all hand cut with a rope look on the front. I don’t know if it’s Cherry or walnut. All the wood is 1 inch thick. I don’t see a way to upload a picture here

  3. Hi, I recently came across an old table that I am restoring and I am trying to identify the wood. Originally I thought it was oak, but then I held a piece of oak next to it and they didn’t really look anything alike. Then someone suggested it might be cherry, and again it did not resemble the cherry in grain either. I hear open grain and closed grain a lot, but it does not make much sense to me. Could I email you a picture to see if you could help me identify it?

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