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wood names and buying wood


naming and identifying woods, for woodworkers

Common Names:
Wood is identified by names, but who decides what the name is for a given wood? Standard linguistic tradition dictates what is called the "common name" for a wood, and for many woods and many uses, this name identifies the wood in a useful way in common everyday life. For example, if you go to a store to buy furniture, you and the salesperson will have no difficulty in distinguishing between walnut and oak and that level of identification is probably sufficient for that need.

Unfortunately, that it isn't always that simple. First there is the most obvious problem that many woods have huge numbers of varieties. Oak, for example, has from 300 to 900 varieties depending on what source you listen to, so the term "oak" is not necessarily sufficiently restricive to help you identify a particular wood. For example, English Brown Oak and White Oak are so different in color that it is enough to make the uninitiated think that they are completely unrelated woods, while white oak and red oak can be exactly the same color, and so similar in grain pattern that to the uninitiated may seem at first glance to be the same wood.

Next there is the problem that most woods have more than one common name. The list of common names in the oak family is extensive enough that I could get carpal tunnel syndrome just from typing them all here (although it is less extensive than the list of botanical names).

The existance of an extensive list of common names brings up another problem, which is that no one sets the standards for these common names, so it is entirely possible that people from different geographic areas, or people with different historical backgrounds, may use the same common name for different woods or different common names for the same wood. This is not a pervasive problem, but it is by no means rare.

For example, the term "tigerwood" is a common name for zebrawood (Africa), goncalo alves (South America), and benin mahogany (also Africa), three totally unrelated woods that can be readily distinguished from each other at a distance by a blind man in a snowstorm. So if you buy tigerwood, what are you buying?

Trade Names:
Then there is the problem of "trade names" which are commercial names assigned by folks who sell wood. They too, can arise out of linguistic tradition (hey, even companies can start a linguistic tradition if they are successful enough; the word chocolate was once a trade name), but have even less standardization than common names and they come and go more frequently than common names, so they are even less reliable, generally, than common names. For example, I know one vendor who uses the name "tigerwood" for a veneer that isn't ANY of the three woods I just mentioned that commonly are called tigerwood. He has no idea what kind of tree the wood is from and uses the name tigerwood just because his wholesaler told him that's what it's called. I assume that this is a case where the name tigerwood was given locally, either as a common name or as a trade name, to a wood that is not elsewhere called tigerwood.

Botanical Names:
Botanists have a whole system for accurately identifying wood based on the tree that it comes from. For complex reasons that I won't go into here, it does NOT produce unique names for a given species (although it usually does, and that's its goal) so considerable confusion can arise from using botanical names, but not as much as from using common or trade names. That's why there are hundreds of oaks, for example. But woods that are botanically different may be so totally identical in the kinds of characteristics that normal people consider significant for the USE of wood, that is is not useful to distinguish among them. If two oak trees have significantly different kinds of leaves, then to a botanist they clearly are distinct trees and must be given different names, but if the wood cut from the trees is indistinguishable, then to a woodworker, it is not just unnecessary but actually cumbersome to have different names for them.

It would be really nice for woodworkers if there were a system of naming wood that had (1) the ideal precision of the botanical naming system (as opposed to the lack of precision in the real world botanical naming system) AND (2) the point of view of the WOOD charactistics, not the TREE characteristics. Unfortunately, there isn't.

OK, you say, that leaves us with a cumbersome (from the point of view of the woodworker) botanical naming system that is totally accurate and has only the disadvantage (again, only from the point of view of the woodworker) that it uses multiple names for woods that to a woodworker are identical (and in fact also uses multiple names ["synonyms" that are not even remotely obvious as synonyms] for a single species). That is true but is a lot less useful than it might be because (1) many wood sellers don't use botanical names and (2) it doesn't take the WOOD characteristics into account. For example, it does a woodworker no good at all, when trying to get even a rough match between two planks to be told that they come from the identical species of oak, (or even the same tree, for that matter) if one is flat cut and the other is quartersawn.

Wood Characteristics
From the point of view of a botanist, it is irrelevant how the wood from a tree is CUT, it is only relevant that it is from a particular species of tree. To a woodworker, the cut may be more important than even the major species distinction. For example, it is possible that with careful selection quartersawn red oak and quartersawn white oak can be used in the same project without anyone noticing the difference but no amount of care in the selection of pieces will make it possible to use quartersawn red oak and flat cut red oak side by side without anyone noticing. (If you want to get picky, you can argue that some parts of a wide flat cut plank are nearly quartersawn, but let's not get picky, OK?)

So, what's a woodworker to do in buying wood:
Here are some suggestions to help you avoid at least the most obvious pitfalls: Ultimately, buying wood by mail-order is a risky business. Even when buying from a vendor you trust, wood varies so much that the most honest efforts at descriptions, including digital pictures sent over the internet, don't always tell you what you need to know. On the other hand, wood is such fun that most of the time you'll come out OK --- if you get a piece that isn't right for the current project, put it aside for a later project.

Happy buying and woodworking !