Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lignum quod sit eadem numero scientia.

The title makes me sound smart, doesn't it?

It is how Google translates the phrase, "Wood should be scientifically identified" into Latin.  Google translate can be a tricky thing, so I actually have no idea if the translation is in any way accurate. 

Perhaps Ben knows.

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately (often a quite dangerous thing!), and it dawned on me that I read blog posts by woodworking authors all over the world.  Also, according to my Blogger stats, this blog is read by people in many different countries and regions.

While we all may be able to follow different tools and techniques based on the photos and descriptions posted, sometimes really knowing what a woodworker is going through is difficult for the simple reason that the wood that is being used may only be identified by the author as "oak," or "maple."

Sometimes this is not so important to the story, but it can be.  Take, for instance, a friend who recently told me that birch is the perfect wood to learn spooncarving, because it is so soft.

Naturally I was surprised, because my only experience with birch was a board that was so heavy and hard, that I couldn't imagine it being great for beginning anything!

It turns out that my birch board was a hunk of flame, yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis, from the US, and the birch my friend was thinking of was likely downy birch, Betula pubescens, common here in Europe.

Just looking at the Latin, it doesn't mean much.  However, it turns out that yellow birch, B. alleghaneinsis, is about 35% harder than downy birch, B. pubescens.

We woodworkers refer to  a whole lot of different trees by only the common name of the genus.  For example, there are some 125 species of maple worldwide, and some 600 species of oak.

Lots of different maples.  Photo courtesy LoveToKnow Garden.
The only way for someone living in Ohio to really know what wood I am talking about (assuming he or she cares) is to use the scientific name.

A brilliant resource for woodworkers is the website The Wood Database.  This website lists photos of lots of different woods we as woodworkers are likely to come across.  There are technical specifications for each kind of wood, and photos of these woods both finished and unfinished.  Plus, there are some fantastic articles about identifying wood.

From now on, I will try to remember to include the genus and species of the woods I discuss here on my blog.  If you want to do the same, those of us who are interested in the different species of wood will thank you.

Guidelines on proper usage of the genus and species are spelled out on National Geographic's website.  Essentially, genus and species are in italics, with the genus term capitalized and the species beginning with lowercase.  If you know the genus but not the species, you can substitute "spp." or "sp." to indicate it.  For example, if you know a sample of wood is oak, but knot which kind, you would list it as Quercus spp.

A final word is to echo Eric Meier of the wood database, and state that it may not be possible to always be correct in identifying wood to the species, but knowing a little about where it came from may help narrow the list of possibilities down.

I'll get myself a jeweler's loupe to make identifying the wood on my rack a bit more accurate.

I am lucky to be near a lumber yard that sells wood from all over the world, and it always has a large stockpile of North American woods.  Some of the woods I have discussed on this blog  (or will soon):


  1. Yep, you were right to be wary, Brian. Google Translate has a lot of trouble with Latin, although it has gotten better. But it seems like the harder it tries, the less sense it makes.
    Oh, and if you want to use that special shipping rate to send me some of that Juglans nigra, feel free. ;)

    1. Haha! Hi Ben!

      Google Translate has actually gotten much better with German, but I know some other languages I've tried are virtually un-understandable. Is that a word? Anyway, I figure since Latin is a dead language, no one would be offended.

      Wouldn't it be ironic if I could ship you American Black Walnut for cheaper than you could buy it in Illinois?

  2. Cool blog!
    You should become the David Attenborough of wood.


  3. Here's another English/German/French/Dutch/Latin tree name translation page I had run across a couple years ago:

    1. Hi Brad,

      Thanks so much for that link. That puts the final piece to the puzzle together for me.

      One reason I became interested in this topic, is because knowing the common name of a wood in German often times helps none whatsoever.

      For example, a common wood that is seen often around here is what the Germans call Akazie. According to your web link, the Brits call it Acacia. Your list says this wood's scientific name is Robinia pseudoacacia, which we Americans call black locust, according to the Wood Database.


  4. Brian,

    Fantastic post. I'll be sure to save some of these links for later reference. Thanks!

    All the best,