Woodsense: Red Oak

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This article is from Issue 28 of Woodcraft Magazine.

North America boasts approximately 60 oak species—some with value as timber and others serving no commercial value for timber. Those species we typically find in woodworking fall under the botanical surname Quercus, Latin for “a fine tree.” Under this classification, the oaks split into two groups—red and white. The numbers of commercially available red and white species are about even.

Although northern red oak (Quercus rubra) is distinct and top-rated for lumber, the wood products industry lumps all red oak (about 8-10 species) together and markets them under that name. In fact, red oak represents around a third of all commercially available hardwood in the United States.

History in woodworking

Taking a long look back, practically any wooden item you can imagine has—at one time or another—been fashioned from red oak. It was even a significant factor in America’s industrialization, providing everything from slack cooperage to plows and railroad ties, steamboats (and their fuel), as well as furniture and flooring. Furnituremakers in particular loved red oak because it was abundant, easily worked, and could be finished in a multitude of ways. That’s still true today, although red oak also finds its way into flooring, architectural millwork, molding, doors, all types of cabinets, and paneling.

Red oak has a great reputation for wear (abrasion) resistance, but is not ideally suited for outdoor use. 

Where the wood comes from

Red oak principally grows from Oklahoma eastward, northward into southern Canada, and as far south as Florida, although there is one timber variety on the West Coast (Quercus kellogii, California black oak).

All in all, you’ll find red oak abundant—of the estimated 80 billion standing board feet of oak in this country, over half of it is red. 

What you’ll pay

Red oak, due to its quantity on commercial timberlands, remains a very moderately priced hardwood. On average, you’ll pay about $3.50 per kiln-dried board foot for flatsawn 4/4 (3/16") FAS stock. Lesser grades (#1 and #2 Common) cost much less, quartersawn more. Traditional 1/42"-thick, plain-sliced red oak veneer costs about $3 per square foot. A special, more costly, veneer cut called “rift” or “comb” produces straight grain with the appearance of thin lines.

How to select the best stock

Choosing good red oak boards isn’t at all difficult. Keep in mind that the heartwood of red oak generally tends to be reddish pink. Although it has a thin band of nearly white sapwood, you’ll seldom see it when buying the best grades of lumber. So if you’ll be using a clear finish on your project, try choosing boards with similar color. Common red oak grades may have a few knots, but FAS should be relatively knot-free.

Does your plan call for quartersawn wood? You can check boards for this cut’s desirable ray flecks by wiping them with a damp cloth. 

It’s a fact that…

• Six states designate a specific oak as their state tree—three in the red oak family. Iowa simply proclaims “oak” as its tree.

• The porous nature of red oak makes it a poor choice for outdoor projects. You can blow air out of a length of red oak much like a straw.

Working red oak in the shop

Be prepared: Freshly sawn red oak usually has a sour, often unpleasant odor. But that’s about its only negative. Due to red oak’s large vessels in the earlywood and smaller vessels in the latewood of each growth ring, it features a coarse texture. A real plus: It machines easily with less potential burning than hard maple. Try the following tactics for milling success.

 • Ripping and routing. Use carbide-tipped blades for ripping red oak for a clean edge. Feed wood at a moderate rate into the table saw blade—too fast and it will burn. This applies to routing, too. If you do end up with burns, they’ll easily sand off.

Shallow passes with a router counter red oak’s tendency to splinter, especially on end grain. As always, it’s good policy to employ a backing board.

• Jointing. Joint flatsawn red oak with the knives rotating in the direction of the grain (some call it feeding “downhill”). This prevents gouging.

• Assembling. Keep in mind that red oak’s tannin content in contact with the moisture in glue squeeze-out and steel from clamp jaws or bars can create an ugly blue stain on the wood. So protect red oak in the glue area with waxed paper. With screws, always drill pilot holes.

• Sanding. Don’t hand-sand flatsawn red oak without a pad or block—you’ll remove more of the softer earlywood than the harder latewood, resulting in pronounced depressions that show up under a finish. Otherwise, red oak sands without a problem. Avoid abrading with steel wool as small steel fibers tend to lodge into the grain and can later rust.

Deciding on the right finish

Many woodworkers like the contemporary look of unstained red oak. That’s simple enough because all clear film finishes work well if applied in thin coats (thick finishes may turn out bumpy).

But staining is a whole other story. Why? Red oak’s large-pored earlywood (in flatsawn boards) soaks up pigment, resulting in darker areas that accentuate the wood’s coarseness. What can you do? One option is to fill all the pores with a paste-type filler. The filled wood yields a less dramatic grain contrast, the result is smoother, and it takes fewer coats to build the final finish. A pickled or antique finish offers two more ways to go. 

Another option: use any kind of aniline dye. It penetrates evenly, with one exception—the ray flecks of quartersawn red oak won’t take as much. That’s okay, though; they really need to stand out.

Red oak finishing tips

• Any type of dye for wood will do, but the water-soluble kind won’t color the pores as well. You can, though, add a pigment stain over the dye and wipe off excess for even color.

• Again, for even color, you also can seal the wood with a thinned mixture of shellac, then add a finish coat toned with either a pigment or dye.

• For the adventuresome: Use a colored wood filler or glaze to take advantage of red oak’s large earlywood pores. It’ll create a striking contrast with the denser latewood.

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