A while ago, I attended a Jeff Jewitt finishing seminar hosted by the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, and we were encouraged to bring pieces of wood that were presenting us with problems. Jeff intended the problems be related to finishing, but a couple of members brought wood that they needed to have identified.
We spent some time looking at the wood, examining all the characteristics that could help in identification. Color, weight and grain all came in to play. Next we moved on to other clues like age of the samples (which would affect color) and from where the wood came (to determine if it was domestic or exotic).
The first member, Tom, had a sample that looked like sassafras. We looked at all the above characteristics and then smelled the piece. It didn’t have an obvious scent because the sample was not fresh. Tom’s board was a scrap, so we cut it to expose new wood and a new scent. Sassafras has a strong scent, similar to Murphy’s oil soap, and is indeed used as a scent in cleaning products. The smell test was conclusive and the scrap was confidently labeled as sassafras.
That is all well and good, but sassafras has a very strong, unique scent. It is easy to identify by the smell alone.
Next up was Cecil with his wood. We had the advantage of knowing that the piece came from Mueller Brothers sawmill in Old Monroe. They only mill certain species, so it was already narrowed down for us. We looked at the wood and it looked like poplar, but they don’t mill poplar at that sawmill. Cecil’s piece was scrap, so we cut it and smelled the end. It smelled like popcorn, not buttered or salted, just popcorn. It was cottonwood. A lot of the time it burns in the saw and then smells like burnt popcorn. Not the best of smells, but it is a good indicator of what wood you have.
After this, I realized that most of the logs that I cut could be identified just by the smell. It helps to have a days worth of sawdust from one species in your nose for proper training, but it can be done. Other examples that came to mind were cherry (very sweet and fruity), hard maple (butter cream icing), white oak (wine), sycamore (apples) and walnut (bitter and burns). And these are smells that I can describe. Other woods have distinct smells that can’t as easily be put in to words, but can still help identify a species.
Think about it next time you are trying to identify a wood, make a fresh cut and take a whiff. It may tell you what wood it is or at least tell you what wood it is not.