Identifying Timber

There’s a lot of different types of timber out there but some household names you really should get acquainted with if you intend to build, extend or renovate your home. So go on, get to know your beech from your birch, your Sitka Spruce from your Scots Pine, and all of the wood in between!

I remember as a kid in school we used to gather around the Nature Table; it showcased various items of interest we’d found in our gardens and from weekend visits to the park. Bird nests, pine cones and in the Autumn a rake of different leaves. I was amazed that the teacher could name each of the trees that the leaves had fallen from. While such acumen can only be gained from practical experience I’d like to shed some light on identifying different species of trees from their appearance and give a few suggestions on where you might use them around the home. Before I start, let me explain the main difference between hardwoods and softwoods. While the most common hardwoods are denser and harder than the most common softwoods, the difference between the two does not have to do with ‘hardness’. The real difference lies in the cell structure.

Softwoods

Also known as conifers, these trees are characterised by needle like foliage, are mostly evergreen and are shaped with a long, straight trunk and many branches throughout the length of the trunk. Common examples include pine and spruces, which are widely used in the manufacture of board materials such as OSB and MDF and also for papermaking. Yew is an example of a softwood that is much denser and harder than many hardwoods. Scots Pine: Anybody who did woodwork in school will be familiar with this particular timber. It goes by the common name of red deal and is widely used in cabinet making and joinery. It is the timber that all softwoods are compared to. Most pine kitchens and furniture are made from this very popular and durable timber. Red deal can outlast a lot of hardwoods when treated with preservatives, but it develops black streaks if untreated and allowed to stay wet. An extremely versatile timber. Sitka Spruce: This is the most widely used timber in Ireland, and the most widely planted. Processed materials for the construction industry include first fixing such as rafters, joists, floor boards and studding. It is whiter and paler than Scots pine and will bruise more easily. For this reason, it is not used in cabinet making or fine joinery. While preservative treatment is more difficult to apply on spruce than on other varieties of softwood it is still done and used for domestic and agricultural fencing. It is either visually or mechanically graded depending on quality and given a particular strength class. This will determine where the timber is best suited to be used. The most common strength class available for general carcassing work is C16. Cedar: Cedar has a reddish-brown colour, a straight grain and coarse texture. The wood has a lovely, sweet scent. This is why it’s often used to make drawer bases. Cedar is extremely resistant to decay, insect attack and severe weather conditions. As such, it is a popular exterior timber, e.g. paneling, roof tiles, and timber tiles on building façades. It will resist rotting even without a finish or preservative and will turn an attractive silver colour over time.

Hardwoods

Hardwoods are probably better known than softwoods; most people would have heard of oak or ash and have more of an idea of what these look like. Hardwoods are commonly known as deciduous or broadleaves and tend to lose their leaves in Autumn. They tend to have a wider trunk with a large or full crown of branches. The timber is generally denser than softwoods; but there are exceptions. Balsa wood, for instance, is used for model making and flotation devices – it’s in fact one of the softest and lightest timbers in the world. Hardwoods are also generally more figurative and attractive; for these reasons it is much sought after by the woodworking fraternity. A lot of your furniture, flooring and high quality fixings will more than likely be some sort of a hardwood. Oak: The majestic oak is known as the king of the forest. There are several varieties of oak with two native to Ireland. These are the sessile oak and the pendunculate oak. It has a straight grain, is pale yellow to pale brown in colour and can have an open and coarse grain. Oak has been used in furniture and building work for centuries, from the roofing of cathedrals, sleepers for railways and the building of tall ships. Nowadays, oak is widely used for furniture making, flooring, exterior work and panelling. Around the home, oak is commonly used in flooring. Oak is extremely durable and well suited to this purpose. However it’s very acidic and will turn black in contact with iron nails, etc. Ash: Ash is a beautiful pale timber with pale brown grain patterns. It has a very open coarse grain and is relatively split and shock resistant. Most people will associate ash with shovel and pick axe handles, and with the sport of hurling. It’s hard to believe but approximately 20,000 trees are required each year for this purpose. Due to this demand, a lot of hurley blanks are now imported from Eastern Europe. The elasticity of ash makes this the ideal timber for hurley making, and indeed for the handles of a lot of tools such as hammers and axes. Around the home, ash is used more and more in furniture making. Following the arts and craft movement of the late 19th century, people started to look beyond the dark mahogany furniture and steer more towards blond timbers such as ash. Ash flooring is also becoming more popular due to its unique grain patterns and bright colour. It would be one of my own personal favourites due to its ease of use with hand tools and its distinctive scent when working it. I have even used it to build electric guitars because of its excellent tonal properties. Beech: The beech tree is not a native Irish species but is now one of the most important trees in the Irish countryside. It is commonly used for hedging and holds onto its leaves during the winter to give shelter and colour. Beech is white to pale brown and is extremely durable and as such is used commonly in flooring. The grain is very close and even. It is easy to identify due to the distinctive brown fleck that runs through the timber. Many kitchen utensils such as chopping boards and wooden spoons are made of beech as it doesn’t taint food. A beautiful timber to use but not suitable for exterior applications. Spalted beech is a fungal infection in the timber. It produces a really beautiful black grain pattern and is much sought after by woodworkers and woodturners alike. Birch: The birch tree has one of the most attractive barks around. As the tree ages it turns a beautiful silver colour. It is fast growing, hardy and gives a welcome contrast to the more common bark colours. The timber is straight grained and pale. Some say it has little character but I would disagree. I once had a birch floor in my sitting room that was full of attractive grain patterns and contrasting colours. It is widely used for high quality plywood manufacturing. Due to its strength and paler colour, birch is often hidden under upholstery such as chairs and couches. Maple: Maple is not native nor common in Ireland but is planted for ornamental purposes. It has an easily recognisable leaf that is featured on the Canadian flag. Maple is very pale, almost white with a straight grain. It is very dense and hard and is ideal for floors. It is the number one choice for flooring in sports halls and dance floors so it can withstand anything you and your family can throw at it! It works extremely well as a contrasting timber against darker timbers, e.g. used as a border around a walnut floor. Walnut: Walnut is grown in Ireland but is not that plentiful, in fact it’s generally imported from North America. Walnut is one of the most attractive timbers around in my opinion. It boasts a lovely chocolate colour and can have beautiful grain patterns. There are several varieties and some can tend towards greyness – European walnut tends to be greyer than American. It is becoming increasingly popular for kitchen units and timber flooring. It is also used in high class furniture and interior joinery such as the risers in staircases. Teak: Teak is golden brown in colour. It is an endangered species at present and extremely rare. Most external joinery was once made from this timber due to the natural oils present. These natural oils are highly resistant to decay from fungus, insects, moisture and chemicals so therefore ideal for this purpose. Garden furniture, boat decks, window frames and all the old counter tops in school science labs would be made from teak. Due to the scarcity of teak, Iroko has become its substitute. It is similar to teak in ways due to its natural resistance to decay and chemicals but lacks the depth of colour and is coarser in texture. Mahogany: Mahogany is a generic name given to describe a number of reddish-brown timbers, many of which are not true mahoganies. Their properties differ hugely from species to species and there are many types depending on the region they come from. Most of the dark furniture you see around is possibly made from some species of mahogany. Mahogany furniture became extremely popular in the 18th century when furniture makers such as Thomas Chippendale began using this timber to produce exquisite pieces. It takes a finish such as oil or shellac well and can have a beautiful colour and attractive grain. It is quite expensive and is used for top class furniture and joinery. This is only a selection of the timbers that are available. They are some of the most common in use today but there are many, many more. It takes a while to identify each timber by looking at it but you get used to picking out each species’ unique characteristics. Colour, coarseness of grain, patterns and even scent allow the user to identify the material they’re using. It is fascinating to work with a material that is so natural, diverse and intriguing. Each timber type will react, smell and feel different. You could make the same project out of several types of wood and each one will be a different experience. I would encourage you all to try your hand at using these beautiful resources to create something, anything. It need not be a Chippendale chair, a simple piece like a picture frame will tell you a lot about the material you are using. When you develop an awareness of the many timbers around you, you will begin to see them everywhere. You will never watch Downton Abbey again without noticing the mahogany period furniture and panelling! Enjoy!

What do you think?

Written by Ciaran Hegarty

Ciaran is a woodwork and construction studies teacher in Moyle Park College, Clondalkin, Dublin. He qualified from the University of Limerick in 2005 with an Honours Degree in Materials and Construction with Concurrent teacher education.

Lifecycle series: Timber

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