Even professionals occasionally get stumped when it comes to wood identification. But only a handful of wood species are commonly used for wood floors in the United States, making identification easier.
Hard or Soft
Softwoods such as pine or fir typically have closed pores, resulting in a smooth surface. Hardwoods, such as oak and mahogany, typically have open pores, resulting in a porous texture with small divots, indentations or holes in the wood. However, wood can't always be identified by pores. Maple, for example, contradicts the rule. It has a smooth surface, similar to pine, absent of obvious pores.
Use Your Fingernail
Hardness is one indicator to find out if it's hardwood or softwood, but that can't be assessed without denting or gouging the wood. If you're unsure, gouge the surface in an inconspicuous area. If you can mark it with your fingernail alone, it's probably softwood. Hardwoods, such as maple, resist marks by fingernails.
Color can't be relied on for wood identification because wood typically darkens with age, and it's likely the wood has been stained. The typical way to identify hardwood -- and it's not an exact science -- is to identify it by grain patterns.
Oak is traditional; you've probably spent your lifetime looking at oak cabinets. Recognize oak by a distinctive, recurring flame pattern. Red oak is the most common, with bold grain lines throughout the pattern. White oak, which is more exclusive, has similar patterns, but the lines are more delicate.
With a creamy appearance, maple has a distinctively different appearance that oak. Sometimes devoid of grain, the light-brown lines that you can see are thin and subtle, wander aimlessly and are more complex. With its glassy surface, maple has more consistency than oak. Think bowling alleys or dance halls.
Hickory has the hardness of maple but lacks the glassiness. Hickory displays thin, dark grain lines, with sharp, jagged points in random formations. It might have the flame pattern of oak, but the pattern is inconsistent. Blunt color variations, such as black streaks, may also be present. Think baseball bats and ax handles.
Pine and Fir
Softwoods typically include pine and fir. Both have bold grain lines -- far wider than the hardwood patterns, that are distinctive, wild and darker than the surrounding wood. Think lodges and cabins.
Cherry and Walnut
Two species, walnut and cherry, round out the domestic hardwoods commonly used. Cherry, with its distinctive reddish color, contains delicate, subtle grain lines that wander aimlessly. Walnut, with its chocolate color, has few visible grain lines but may present lighter, almost white streaks or bands. Think fine furniture.
Even though mahogany is imported, it's typically grouped with the domestic varieties because of its availability. Recognize mahogany by its consistent, straight grain lines with few variations. Mahogany has an orange tint that differentiates it from cherry.
Given the unfamiliarity and wide assortment of imported hardwoods, identifying exotics is complicated. But in most cases, the wood is harder and darker than domestic varieties. It may have wild, crazy grain patterns that don't fit common trademarks; straight, uniform lines; or flat, ebony surfaces without obvious grain. Identifying exotics is difficult at best.
Should you decide to restore or maintain the floor, the finish should be taken into consideration. There are three types commonly used: penetrating, water-based and oil-based.
Rub your fingers over the floor. If you can feel the pores or grain lines, it's probably a penetrating oil finish. If the floor feels smooth, it's likely a topcoat. Oil-based polyurethane has a soft, flexible feel and is amber in color. Water-based polyurethane is clear, has a harder feel and is more glassy than oil-based.