This Wood Species series comes to us from guest writer Rob Wilkey, an Atlanta-based woodworker and industrial designer whose expertise is in small home goods, furniture, and large installations.
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Over the next few articles, we'll be analyzing a number of common North American wood species. This week's featured species:
Oak is abundant, inexpensive, easy to work, and remarkably durable. It's no surprise that oak is one of the most popular choices for every kind of woodworking project. Due to its abundance and comparatively low price, oak is also an excellent choice for large-scale projects. The tables, booth and benches pictured below (which happen to be at my favorite bar) were made entirely from boards of solid oak.
Over 600 species of oak exist throughout the world, but those most commonly available in North America are Red Oak and White Oak. Both are lighter brown in color, with Red Oak exhibiting a slightly more reddish hue. Red Oak is typically less expensive, and is common enough to be found at most hardware stores.
This difference in price and availability is mainly due to differences in rot resistance: Red Oak is far more susceptible to water damage and fungal decay than its hardy cousin White Oak. In fact, White Oak is so durable that it was the lumber of choice for old wood-frame boats, and is still used today for whiskey and wine barrels. These oak barrels aren't just economical and reusable—the wood's tannins actually play a large role in flavoring the spirits as they age.
Both species have excellent working properties. They are rated at around 1300lbf Janka, making them hard enough to use on any surface, but not so hard that they become difficult to cut and shape. Both are ring-porous, straight grained, and experience only moderate seasonal movement. Quartersawn oak boards often display strong ray flecks. These irregular, reflective patterns can really enhance the look of a project when used as an accent.
Oak glues easily, and takes stains and finishes beautifully. Due to its high porosity, however, it may take a few coats of finish to fill in the grain and make the surface of the wood smooth and even. Oak's abundance and favorable working qualities make it an excellent choice for flooring, cabinetry, furniture and many other applications. In fact, the wood's only real downside is that it is perhaps too commonly used—so much so that it won't really stand out in its natural state. Fortunately, there are a myriad of stains and dyes available that can help you get a more unique color out of the wood.
Next week we'll learn about maple, and why it's a popular choice for the construction of stringed instruments.