While White Oak may not share the fame of the more common red oak, it does not deserve to be considered a second-class wood. The botanical and anatomical differences that separate white oak from Red Oak yield several desirable qualities that make White Oak a useful member of the woodworkers’ palette.
White oak end-grain
Commercially, several species of oak are grouped and sold as White Oak. The most common White Oak, Quercus alba, grows throughout eastern North America from Florida northward to southern Quebec. It is a long-lived species typically living well past 200 years. It generally achieves heights of 65′ to 85′ with diameters of 3′ to 4′. Trees from the forest can grow over 100′ high while those growing in open areas are shorter, often as broad as they are tall. The heartwood is white to a light tan brown with sapwood that is not often demarcated from the heart. It is straight grained with a coarse and uneven texture. The wood is hard, tough and durable, prized in boat and shipbuilding because it steam bends well. White Oak is also used in fine furniture, flooring, cabinetry, interior trim, and decorative veneer.
All oaks have large medullary rays visible to the unaided eye; those in White Oak are especially large. While most of the cells of a tree are longitudinal transporting nutrients up and down from the leaves to the roots, those in White Oak rays are arranged radially inward towards the pith. When White Oak is quarter sawn these large rays are made visible giving quarter-sawn white oak its distinctive appearance. Furniture makers in the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as by Gustav Stickley, used quarter-sawn White Oak as the signature wood for their mission style furniture.
White Oak also contains large amounts of tannin, a chemical the tree uses as a pesticide. The tannin content of white oak makes it an ideal choice for outdoor and marine applications. Tannins have their downside, though. They react with ferrous metals producing a dark stain wherever metal contacts wood. Clamping should be done with care and non-ferrous fasteners may be a wise choice. Homemade stains made from steel wool dissolved in vinegar can rapidly stain White Oak black yielding a wood that resembles the famous bog oaks of Europe.
The longitudinal cells of White Oak are plugged with structures called tyloses. This results in a wood that is renowned for cooperage and barrel making. Red Oak, which lacks tyloses, makes a barrel that would quickly leak its entire contents. Shrinkage is relatively high, so movement must be accommodated, especially in flat-sawn boards. White Oak works well with all manner of power and hand tools. Being ring porous, it stains beautifully and glues and nails well. Supplies are plentiful and it is one of the few species that is sorted into flat-sawn and quarter-sawn parcels. All told, it is a common yet underutilized wood that more woodworkers should try, and for anyone undertaking mission style furniture it is irreplaceable.
Peter MacSween - [email protected]
Peter's woodworking journey began with a career in carpentry followed by a decade buying and selling veneer. His spare time is spent abusing his guitars and exploring the great outdoors.