Oak Characteristics & Types of Oaks

Oak Characteristics & Types of Oaks

Info on the characteristics of oak wood for woodworking and finishing projects as well as information on the main types of oaks.

Craftsman Style

¶ The characteristics and the sterling merit of oak are so well known to all that it would seem like a waste of time to describe it. Since the very earliest records of man oak has played an important part in life. Its fruit, acorns, has fed man and beast and its wood has served every conceivable purpose from that of forming humble huts to stately castles and mansions, from shrines and churches to battleships.

¶ The qualities of oak are truly remarkable. It is hard, open grain, heavy, tough and strong. It is durable even in contact with moisture beyond all common belief, especially white oak.

¶ There are about 295 kinds of oaks found in the world, of which about 50 are found in the United States. More than one-third of all hardwood produced in the United States is oak. Of all the kinds of oak found they may be generally divided into two groups, red and white oaks. The white oak is more durable, less porous, finer textured, has better color than red oak; it is considered better for furniture and cabinet work. But on the other hand, red oak is greatly used and is considered just as good as white for a great many purposes. The color of red oak will usually enable anyone to identify it,it has a reddish tinge, especially near the knots. The most reliable way to distinguish between red and white oak, however, is by noting the grain of the woods. Bed oak is invariably a coarser wood and white oak has a more prominent figure.

¶ There are differences between oaks of the same kind according to where they were grown. Oaks which grow slowly and evenly on high, well drained land make lumber of the finest grain, easiest to work with tools and least likely to shrink or swell in humid atmospheres. Oaks grown in low, warm, humid lands which are flooded occasionally are coarse in structure, though very hard and tough.

¶ Considerable oak is imported from Europe and is considered superior to American oak. English oak is harder on the surface, although more difficult to work, and is preferred by some for furniture. Slavonian or Austrian oak is imported, too. It is softer to work and has a very straight grain. It also has a small grain figure which is especially interesting and is very easily stained and finished like antique oak.

¶ Pollard oak is a cultivated variety grown in sections of Europe for its peculiar figure of grain. The small limbs of this tree are cut into rounded heads close to the tree and as the tree grows larger the stunted heads are included in the wood growth. Then when the tree is cut up for lumber these heads produce burls or knots which form very unusual grain figures.

¶ Oak is prepared in two ways with the saw, straight or plain sawed and quarter-sawed. It is peculiar in the fact that there are strips of special tissue radiating from the center of the logs, like spokes in a wheel, called medullary rays. When these are cut through by quarter-sawing the logs the boards show flakes of smooth wood with which all are familiar. Quarter-sawed is much preferred for many purposes, yet plain or straight-sawed oak is greatly used for carving and for the finest of furniture, cabinets and general trim lumber. It is especially not desirable to use quarter-sawed lumber with large flakes when the boards are narrow or small in both directions,casings around windows, small panels and delicately designed furniture and cabinets are especially not the place for prominently flaked quarter-sawed oak. Both are pictured in Pictures 23 and 24.

¶ When to Use Fillers in Oak. Some of the period and standard finishes on oak call for a paste filler and some should be produced without filler. The division of the common finishes is as follows:

¶ No Filler Required - Finish with Shellac and Wax.

¶ Baronial, deep brown; Jacobean, yellowish brown; Smoked, black; Weathered, very dark, greenish black; Gothic, medium, warm brown; Fumed, warm, reddish or yellowish browns; Flemish, black or dark brown; Mission, rich brown or very dark brown; Flanders, reddish brown; Italian, grayish brown.

Paste Filler Required - Finish with Shellac and Varnish

¶ Golden, yellowish brown colored filler; Antique, black filler; Old English, very dark, rich brown filler; Forest Green, black filler; Light Oak, natural filler color; Early English, black filler.

¶ Novelty Contrasting Filler Required - Finish with Shellac and Wax.

¶ Silver Gray, white filler; Ash Gray, light gray filler; Hungarian Oak, white filler; Italian Oak, gray wax filler; Frosted, natural paraffin wax color; Greens, gold bronze filler; Dark Gray, aluminum bronze filler.

¶ Oak being open grained to a great extent offers a greater opportunity than any other wood for novelty finishes by using two-tone finishes which are produced by using a stain of one color and a filler of a different and contrasting color. By developing the flake of quarter-sawed oaks, by sanding and picking out the pores, after treating with a water sponge coat to raise the grain of the wood, and by the use of various filler colors a great number of interesting special finishes are produced. Such finishes are welcome relief and afford variety for tea rooms, clubs, shops, store fixtures, window trims, furniture, etc. When the grain is raised with water in one or more applications a stiff bristle or fine steel wire picking brush can be used to open up the pores more and to remove the dust resulting from sandpapering. Then the filler will show up better because there is more of it left in the wood cells. A penetrating stain should be used and white shellac and wax or white paraffin wax alone constitute the finishing materials.

¶ To Offset the Color of Red Oak. - Some kinds of red oak are so red that it is not possible to produce very light gray finishes on it unless the red color is killed. Brush on a light green aniline stain first and let it dry; the wood will be toned to take a gray or a brown stain with a much more satisfactory effect. This toning is needed quite as much for light brown oak stains as for gray.

¶ The whole tradition, sturdy quality and dignity of oak seem to forbid that it be stained red to imitate mahogany. Don't do it. Gum, cypress and birch, on the other hand, make very fine finishes to represent mahogany when selected for grain and suitable figure.

Next Page: Birch Characteristics.

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