How to tell these woods apart?

linnea56December 9, 2008

IÂm looking at some antique (or semi-antique) wood dressers in a local resale shop. I know the obvious woods like oak but some of the others IÂm not sure of, and I think the staff are guessing wrong (the place has nice things but there is a language barrier too).

Is there a place online where I can see a good diagnostic picture of mahogany, walnut, and cherry? ItÂs more the latter 2 I think IÂm having a problem distinguishing. Thanks!

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First, you need to determine if the dressers are in fact solid wood or vaneers usually applied over a lesser wood. You can usually determine this by pulling out a drawer. You can often see a fine line indicating a vaneer. Also look at the wood on the back of the drawer front. Chances are it will not match the front. I have even seen older dressers where a faux wood grain is painted on the dresser case and drawer fronts.

IF the piece(s) turn out to be solid wood, a finish will often hide the grain of the wood. Example would be a walnut stain on American oak.

Finally, another factor would be where the piece was manufactured allowing for unusual woods.

    Bookmark   December 9, 2008 at 10:30AM
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And many pieces will be made from more than one kind of wood--an expensive wood for the outer case of a dresser, but cheaper woods for the bottom and sides of the drawers for instance. I'm including a link to a site with pictures of various raw woods, but an even better way is to go to your local home center and start looking at the woods they have there. Don't forget to go to the stain and varnish displays, because they often have finished samples on different woods to demonstrate the effects of the various products.


Here is a link that might be useful: wood samples

    Bookmark   December 9, 2008 at 11:02AM
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Walnut has a very characteristic "dot-dash" grain...look at the samples in the link Annie sent.
Cherry is tight grained, none of that dot dash stuff.
Regardless if it's veneer or not, it's still wood and you want to perhaps kniw if its' oak veneer or burl walnut veneer or mahogany which was very very often used as a veneer.
Secondly "cheap" old furniture frequently used a dark stain to cover ordinary woods and the fact that different woods were used. And some was painted in "faux wood". By cheap I don't mean cheap now....but cheap then, any original old false graining is very desirable.
Also any stain you might use on oak will not in anyway hide the fact that it's oak!....remembering a mahogany stained oak dresser trying to blend in with other mahogany pieces.....and it didn't!!!
Linda C

    Bookmark   December 9, 2008 at 11:21AM
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Thanks for the tips. Very helpful! I pulled the drawers out and opened the doors to see how they worked but never thought to check to see if they were solid! I will be better informed before I look again.

I think the piece I like the best is walnut. On the doors there are book matched panels that look like walnut burl. If the piece is walnut, do I assume that the flat parts are all veneer, as opposed to being all solid wood, which would be more likely with oak? The flat parts (top and sides) are beautifully and smoothly grained: I assume they are veneer. The grain is easily visible upon a close look. There are turned parts and decorative half-spindles applied that are probably solid wood (maybe those are a different wood?). It has a soft medium brown color but does not actually look stained (at least not heavily stained). It has been refinished.

When I went shopping I was looking for oak, because I have another oak piece in the same room, but now I think I like this piece more. Even if they are different woods the color seems pretty close in color, my existing oak cabinet is definitely stained a medium, slightly reddish brown. Is walnut inherently a more valuable wood than oak? Should I expect to pay more for a similar walnut dresser than for an oak one, stylistic issues being similar?

    Bookmark   December 9, 2008 at 12:45PM
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One is not necessarily more 'valuable' than the other, in and of itself. All oaks, and all walnuts are not created equal. Both can be a nice quality wood, and not considered cheap and the woods have some like and some different attributes. Both have been used in what was considered fine furniture for their times, and also common pieces. The grain of the wood needs to be considered in any carpentered piece. How it's finished. How well the finish is preserved. And the rarity of a piece of furniture and popularity might be a larger issue than of what wood it is made, where value is concerned. Also, there are different kinds of oaks, and also different kinds of walnuts. And certain woods tended to be used for different kinds of furnitures. It can get hairy and complicated. Value can even be influenced on what part of the country you live in, or how rare a wood was in the part of the country in which it is manufactured and certainly on how well the piece was crafted.

Unless you are seriously collecting a high ticket item, or suspect these to be an extraordinary "find", I'd go with the piece you find the most attractive.

    Bookmark   December 11, 2008 at 1:33AM
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I was taught many years ago that the best way to tell what kind of wood something is, is to turn it over (if possible), use you saliva and rub it around to see what the color of it is on your fingertip.

Can't remember what the colors mean, but I will certainly look it up.

I do recall that cherry will be light red tint - walnut light brown - and mahagany a darker brown.

Does this ring a bell with any of your more experienced people(s)?

    Bookmark   January 16, 2009 at 5:50PM
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Yep....cherry is rarely light red...more likely cedar....and depending on the walnut it may be light brown or a darker brown.
Spitting on the bare wood and judging by the color of the wood only works if you really know your woods and what you are seeing.
Linda C

    Bookmark   January 16, 2009 at 11:44PM
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Oh, thatÂs interesting! Even if not definitive. I brought home my new "I-think-itÂs-walnut" Craig's list dining room set yesterday. I found a whole set instead of the dresser/buffet I was originally looking at. I had to get rid of some of my old furniture to make room for it, but am really happy with it. I have never had a dining room set before, just a hodgepodge of clashing pieces, so itÂs quite a thrill.

I also have a very old family loveseat of a lighter, reddish colored tight-grained wood IÂve been thinking is cherry. What color should the spit test show on cherry?

IÂm off to go spit on some furnitureÂ..

    Bookmark   January 18, 2009 at 2:24PM
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It depends on the's not all the same. if yous ee as tack of cherry boards, there will be many different gradations of color and tone.....all the way from light tannish to deep reddish brown.
Linda C

    Bookmark   January 18, 2009 at 3:44PM
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I'd almost think the light reddish wood would be mahogany. I have a coffee table made by my woodworker uncle over 40 years ago from mahogany. After something happened to it which required my refinishing the table, the raw wood was almost pink and turned a medium reddish brown with just an oil finish. It's a lovely color and looks nothing like furniture I've seen in a store which have a "mahogany" finish.

The antique pieces I have which are made from cherry are not at all red -- more dark brown -- again with no finish but an antique oil -- no staining.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2009 at 8:18PM
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