White Oak Wood

White Oak Wood

¶ In considering the relative value of our native woods for interior woodwork, we are inclined to give first place to the American white oak, which possesses not only strength of fiber and beauty of color and markings, but great durability, as its sturdiness and the hardness of its texture enables it to withstand almost any amount of wear. In this respect it is far superior to the other woods, such as chestnut, ash and elm, which we have mentioned as being in the same general class of open textured, strong fibered woods; although these, under the right treatment, possess a color quality finer than that of oak, in that they show a greater degree of that mellow radiance which counts so much in the atmosphere of a room. This is especially true of chestnut, which is so rich in color that it fairly glows. But in addition to its dignity and durability, there is something about oak that stirs the imagination. Not only is it suggestive of the rich sombre time mellowed rooms of old English houses which have seen generation after generation live and die in them, but it is the wood we are accustomed to associate with nearly all the magnificent carved work of earlier days. In fact, oak has come to stand as a symbol of strength and permanence, and a great part of our affection for it comes from the romance and the rare old associations with which its very name is surrounded.

White Oak

¶ There are many varieties of oak in this country, but of these the white oak is by far the most desirable, both for cabinetmaking and for interior woodwork. One reason for this is the deep, ripened color it takes on under the process we use for finishing it, a process which gives the appearance of age and mellowness without in any way altering the character of the wood. We refer to the fuming with ammonia, which we have already described in the preceding chapter. The fact that ammonia fumes will darken new oak was discovered by accident. Some oak boards stored in a stable in England were found after a time to have taken on a beautiful mellow brown tone and on investigation this change in color was discovered to be due to the ammonia fumes that naturally are present in stables. This ripening, so essential to the beauty of oak woodwork, takes a long time when left to the unaided action of air and sunlight, and the fact that the wood darkened very quickly when it was stored in a stable led to experimenting with the effect of ammonia fumes upon various kinds of oak. The reason for this effect was at first unknown and, to the best of our belief, it was not discovered until the experiments with fuming made in The Craftsman Workshops established the fact that the darkening of the wood was due to the chemical affinity existing between ammonia and tannic acid, of which there is a large percentage present in white oak. This being established, preparations were at once made for using ammonia fumes in a practical way.

¶ The process, however, is practicable only when furniture is to be fumed, as it is quite possible to construct an air tight compartment sufficiently large to hold one or more pieces of furniture, but when it comes to fuming the woodwork of a whole room it is not so easy. The fuming boxes we use in The Craftsman Workshops are made of tarred canvas stretched tightly over large light wooden frames which are padded heavily around the bottom so that no air can creep in between the box and the floor. The box is drawn to the ceiling by means of a rope and pulley; the furniture is piled directly below and shallow dishes are set around the edges inside the line that marks the limits of the compartment. The box is then lowered almost to the floor; very strong aqua ammonia (26 per cent.) is quickly poured into the dishes and the box dropped at once to the floor. The strength of the ammonia used for this purpose may be appreciated when one remembers that the ordinary ammonia retailed for household use is about 5 per cent.

¶ Of course, for fuming interior woodwork, the air tight compartment is hardly practicable; but a fairly good substitute for it may be obtained by shutting up the room in which the woodwork is to be fumed, stuffing up all the crevices as if for fumigating with sulphur and then setting around on the floor a liberal number of dishes into which the ammonia is poured last of all. It is hardly necessary to say that the person to whom the pouring of the ammonia is entrusted will get out of the room as quickly as possible after the fumes are released.

¶ Another way of treating oak with ammonia is to brush the liquid directly on the wood, but owing to the strength of the fumes this is not a very comfortable process for the worker and it is rather less satisfactory in its results. The ammonia being in the nature of water, it naturally raises the grain of the wood. Therefore, after the application, it should be allowed to dry over night and the grain carefully sandpapered down the next day. As this is apt to leave the color somewhat uneven, the wood should again be brushed over with the ammonia and sandpapered a second time after it is thoroughly dry.

¶ This method of getting rid of the grain is by no means undesirable, for the wood has a much more beautiful surface after all the loose grain has been raised and then sandpapered off. Where paint or varnish is used there is no necessity for getting rid of the grain, as it is held down by them. But with our finish, which leaves the wood very nearly in its natural state, it is best to dispose of the loose grain once for all and obtain a natural surface that will remain permanently smooth.

¶ We find the finest white oak in the Middle West and Southwest, especially in Indiana, which has furnished large quantities of the best grade of this valuable wood. Like so many of our natural resources, the once bountiful supply of our white oak has been so depleted by reckless use that it is probable that ten or fifteen years more will see the end of quartered oak, and possibly of the best grades of plain sawn oak as well.

Quarter Sawn Oak

¶ The popularity of quartersawn oak, a very wasteful process of manufacture, is one of the causes of the rapid depletion of our oak forests. We append a small cut showing the cross section of a tree trunk marked with the lines made by quarter sawing. As will be seen, the trunk is first cut into quarters and then each quarter is sawn diagonally from the outside to the center, naturally making the boards narrower and increasing the waste. There is some hope to be derived from the fact that great stretches of oak timberland are now being reforested by the government, but at best it will be a generation or two before these slow growing trees are large enough to furnish the best quality of lumber. There is no question as to the greater durability of quarter sawn oak for uses which demand hard wear and also where the finer effects are desired, as in furniture, but for interior woodwork plain sawn oak is not only much less expensive than quartersawn but is quite as desirable in every way. The markings are stronger and more interesting, the difference between the hard and soft parts of the grain is better defined, and the openness of texture gives the wood a mellower color quality than it has when quarter sawn. The distinguishing characteristic of quarter sawn oak is the presence of the glassy rays, technically called medullary rays, which bind the perpendicular fibers together and give the oak tree its amazing strength. In quarter sawing, the cut is made parallel with these medullary rays instead of across them, as is done in straight sawing, so that they show prominently, forming the peculiar wavy lines that distinguish quarter-sawn oak. The preservation of the binding properties of these rays gives remarkable structural strength to the wood, which is much less liable to crack, check or warp than when it is plain sawn. This, of course, makes a difference when it comes to making large panels, table tops, or anything else that shows a large plain surface, and for these uses quarter sawn oak is preferable merely because it "stands" better. But for the woodwork of a room, we much prefer the plain sawn oak on account of its friendliness and the delightful play of light and shade that is given by the boldness and color variation of the grain. When quarter sawn oak is used for large stretches of woodwork, the effect is duller and more austere because the color of the wood is colder and more uniform and it shows a much harder and closer texture.

Cross section of tree trunk, showing method of quarter sawing.

Finishing Oak Wood

¶ In the final finishing of oak woodwork, the method that we find most practicable differs somewhat from that described in the directions we have already given for finishing furniture. As the woodwork in a room is not called upon to stand the hard wear that is necessarily given to the furniture, we do not need the shellac, and after the right tone has been obtained by fuming, the wood may be given several coats of prepared floor wax and then rubbed until the surface is satin smooth. If, however, a darker shade of brown is desired, the fumed wood may be given one or more coats of thin shellac, with a little color carried on in each coat, and then finished with wax after the manner described in the directions given for finishing furniture. This method of finishing is one that we have adopted after years of experimenting and it has become so identified with the Craftsman use of oak that it has been very generally taken up by other makers of this style of furniture and by decorators who advocate the Craftsman treatment of interior woodwork.

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