Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Economical Wood Identification

Swietenia macrophylla - Honduran Mahogany

My good friend Freddy Roman recently shared a link to a blog post about the author’s time at a Wood Identification class taught by furniture conservators Tad Fallon and Randy Wilkinson. Included in the post are seven video clips from the class. The clips are a great watch.

Quercus Rubra - Northern Red Oak

This got me thinking again about wood identification. At the Institute where I studied, we got an introduction to basic microscopy for conservation examination but I never got time to delve into wood I.D. from endgrain samples. It wasn't until after I graduated that I began to experiment with this technique.

endgrain prepped

In order to do this kind of examination, you really only need a 10x jeweler’s loupe looking at cleanly sliced endgrain. They can be had for $10 or less. Though I have and use one occasionally, I find the desire to photograph what I am seeing. Without a microscope in my studio, I utilize macro photography. I purchased these inexpensive macro lens filters for my 17-85 lens and Canon 60d. With adequate lighting, a tripod, and cropping in photo editing software, I can get usable images for comparison to samples in wood ID reference material.

Swietenia macrophylla - Honduran Mahogany

I am not a conservation scientist so my conclusions are not definitive but as best as I can tell, the attributions in these captions are right. The bible on the topic is Bruce Hoadley’s Identifying Wood but I also find The Hobbit House site helpful when identifying pieces. (Scroll down to bottom of their page to look up specific woods.)

Juglans Nigra - Black Walnut

Often identifying primary woods (show surface hardwoods) on antique furniture is easily done without this intrusive of an investigation. Sometimes, however, a little confirmation of what I already suspect is helpful.


  1. And as it happens, you are currently reading Blink.
    Is there something more advantageous to looking at end grain? This seems to be the smallest aspect of any piece that you can considered for conservation given the desire to avoid exposing end grain. I consider myself good at identifying most woods from the northern latitudes. I've read that even experts, at best, can identify the genus of most tropical woods.
    How confident are you that you can identify a sample of Swietenia macrophylla from an assortment of other mahoganies?

    1. Potomacker,

      All end grain samples are harvested from objects so it is only done when it is critical for treatment or understanding. This is be no means a routine procedure. It is possible to be confident with identifying a particular species, though I admit to be an amateur in this field. Critical analysis of samples would be sent to someone like Harry Alden: http://woodid.homestead.com/ais.html