This article will explain why you may want to select oak as the wood for your next woodworking project.
One of the most difficult things to do as a new woodworker is to decide which type of wood to use for your projects. Many different species of hard and soft woods are readily available these days, ranging from cheap pine construction lumber bought at the local big box store to expensive exotic woods available from specialty lumber dealers.
Having so many woods to choose from may make it difficult to choose the right wood. Here are some things to ponder if you think oak may be the way you want to go.
Main Uses of Oak Lumber
Red oak and white oak are two of the most commonly used woods in the US. It’s been said that America was built with these woods because of their availability, strength, and durability since the colonial years to the present.
Red and white oaks are used in a wide variety of applications. These include furniture, flooring, architectural millwork and trim, doors, kitchen cabinets, paneling, and even caskets. White oak is used for aging wine and whiskeys. In fact, bourbon, by law, must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.
Interior vs. Exterior Uses
Red and white oak are very durable. However, some oaks are not suitable for exterior use. Because of its open grain structure, red oak is very porous, especially if it is not properly finished.
In fact, red oak is so porous that you can rub a small amount of dishwashing liquid on the end of a freshly cut board and blow through the other end to create bubbles. This is a fantastic way to really impress your non-woodworker friends of your super hero-size lung power. They’ll never know a ten-year old can do the same!
On close examination, the cells of red oak resemble a bundle of straws. This structure results in a capillary action where the cells draw moisture up into the wood, resulting in lower resistance to water damage and rot. Because of this porosity, red oak is best suited for interior uses and not for outdoor furniture.
In contrast, white oak’s pores are filled with something called tyloses, resulting in a closed grain structure that reduces the amount of moisture the wood absorbs. This makes white oak more resistance to rot and decay. Therefore, white oak, properly finished, is a great choice for outdoor furniture.
Red oak and white oak are beautiful woods. They convey a sense of strength and glow when properly finished. However, you may want to consider if another wood would be a better choice if your furniture design is more contemporary.
That is not to say you can’t use red oak for a modern coffee table, but the grain may overpower the design of the table and appear out of place. You probably should choose another wood, such as walnut or mahogany, rather than red oak for a Chippendale-style cabinet.
On the other hand, a table made out of fumed white oak may imbue a contemporary sense of design.
Red and white oaks are the most abundant hardwoods grown in the United States. Oak trees grow predominately in the eastern, central, and southern regions of the U.S. and up into southeast and south-central Canada.
The wide native range of the trees makes them some of the most economically important hardwoods for the lumber industry. That means you should have little trouble finding a source of good quality oak lumber no matter where you live.
While big box stores may have a lower selection of sizes, they usually have red oak in stock in one-inch thicknesses. Other sources for oak lumber include local sawmills, where you’re likely to find the best selection of quality lumber and sizes at the lowest prices. Local home building supply companies should also have oak available for sale.
While they are usually more costly than pine, spruce, cedars, and other softwoods, red and white oak will take less of a bite out of your wallet than some other common American hardwoods such as cherry, maple, or walnut.
Like other hardwoods, oak is typically priced by the board foot (BF). A board foot equals 144 cubic inches, or one square foot. The formula to calculate board feet is: (width in inches multiplied by the length in feet multiplied by the thickness in inches) divided by 12. For example, a board that is eight inches wide, eight feet long, and one inch thick contains 5.33 BF.
Prices will vary from retailer to retailer, but one well-known online hardwood dealer prices red oak (select and better grade, which is one step down from the highest grade of FAS) at $3.60 per BF in quantities of less than ten BF. The price drops to $3.25 per BF for orders of 11 to 99 BF.
White oak is slightly more expensive at $5.95 per BF for one to ten BF and $5.35 for 11 to 99 BF. Additional discounts apply to even larger quantities.
In comparison, cherry costs $4.85, walnut runs $10.00, and hard maple is $4.65 per BF for one to nine BF.
Keep in mind these are prices from an online retailer and do not include shipping. I have personally known of local sawmills selling red oak for $2 per BF!
Physical Characteristics and Working Properties
In addition to design, availability, and cost factors, you will want to think about whether the physical character and workability of oak lumber is appropriate for your project, tools, and skill set.
Appearance / Color and Grain Patterns
The color of red oak ranges from a light pink to a reddish-brown. White oak can be very similar in color but often is a light to medium brown with nearly white to light brown sapwood.
Both red and white oaks have straight grain with an uneven, coarse texture. Cathedral grain can appear in flat-sawn red oak boards, while quarter sawn oak displays prominent rays, sometimes called flecks.
Working and Finishing Properties
The oaks machine well with both hand or power tools. Pre-drilling of holes is recommended if using screws. You should make sure your saw blades, drill bits, and router bits are sharp to avoid tear-out or burning the wood.
Because of its open grain, you should consider using a grain filler on red oak prior to finishing it. Follow up with a coat of sanding sealer, then a coat or two of a top coat like polyurethane or lacquer. The finishes can be buffed with wax to result in a gorgeous glowing piece of furniture.
You should be careful if staining oak because the large pores in the early wood will soak up more stain than the smoother late wood. It’s always a good idea to test out any stain or other finishes on sample pieces of wood that have been planed or sanded to the same degree as the work piece. This can save you some nasty surprises and from having to strip down the project and start the finishing process anew!
Strength and Hardness Rankings
Oak lumber is known for being strong, but how does it compare to some other common woods? Wood strength is measured in terms of density, compressive strength, hardness, bending strength, and stiffness. Let’s take a look at how oak measures up for each of these factors.
Density is measured by specific gravity, or the weight of a volume of typical dried wood divided by the weight of the same volume of water.
Lumber is composed of cells that made up the tree’s body. The tighter a tree’s cells are packed, the fewer air spaces exist, which causes the wood to be denser or harder. Wood that has loosely packed cells is considered softer because it is less dense. In other words, the more dense a tree, the higher the amount of wood substance is present and the stronger it is.
A softwood like basswood has a density of around .42, while African blackwood, one of the world’s most dense woods, is denser than water at 1.20, meaning it won’t float! Red oak and white oak are a little more dense than cherry and just a little less dense than hard maple.
- Pine, Eastern White .35
- Poplar .42
- Soft maple .54
- Walnut .55
- Cherry .58
- Red oak .63
- White oak .68
- Hard maple .72
- Hickory .72
Compressive strength reflects the load a board can take along the grain. For example, how much weight can a chair support before the legs crack? Woods are tested for compressive strength by applying force to a wood board parallel to its grain unit it breaks. The force is measured in pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure.
Red oak has a compressive strength of 6,760 PSI, and white oak can support an even higher 7,440 PSI. These strengths are comparative to those of the following North American woods:
- Western red cedar 4,560
- Poplar 5,540
- Soft maple 6,540
- Red oak 6,760
- Cherry 7,110
- White oak 7,440
- Walnut 7,580
- Hard maple 7,830
- Hickory 9,210
The Janka hardness scale rates the relative hardness of different woods. The test measures the amount of force required to embed a 0.444” steel ball into wood to half of its diameter.
The harder a wood is, the more resistant it will be to getting dinged, scratched, and otherwise damaged. Red and white oaks have very respective hardness ratings as compared to some other woods:
- Cherry 950
- Walnut 1,010
- Red oak 1,220
- White oak 1,335
- Hard maple 1,450
- Poplar 540
- Soft maple 950
- Eastern white pine 420
- Hickory 1820
As you can see, both red oak and white oak are harder than cherry and walnut and rank closely with hard maple.
Bending strength (Modulus of Rupture)
Bending strength is a measure in PSI of how much load wood can hold perpendicular to the grain before it fails. An example would be how much weight can be hung on a wood rod before it breaks.
- Polar 10,100
- Cherry 12,300
- Soft maple 13,400
- Red oak 14,300 PSI
- Walnut 14,600
- White oak 15,200 PSI
- Hard maple 15,800
Stiffness (Modulus of Elasticity)
Wood deflects when weight is applied perpendicular to the grain. This can often be seen in sagging bookshelves. Therefore, it’s important to consider how stiff a wood is when deciding whether to use it in your project. Picking a wood that’s not stiff enough for a bookcase may result in your family’s prized possessions crashing to the ground when the shelf can take no more and breaks apart.
Wood stiffness is measured in terms of megapound per square inch (Mpsi), which is equal to a million PSI. Both red oak and white oak rank relatively high on the stiffness scale, meaning they are good choices for use in wood projects like bookcases. Here’s a comparison of how the oaks rank to some other common hardwoods for stiffness.
- Cherry 1.49
- Poplar 1.58
- Soft maple 1.64
- Walnut 1.68
- White oak 1.78
- Red oak 1.82
- Hard maple 1.83
As pointed out, oak lumber has a lot going for it! I hope this article will help you decide if oak is the best wood for your project. If not, there are many beautiful kinds of wood to choose from. The important thing is to make a decision and start making some sawdust!