The wood most commonly known as White Oak is harvested from a tree known to botanists, foresters and other plant scientists as Quercus alba. Q. alba is native to the eastern parts of North America and occurs in a large range that stretches from as far north as southwestern Maine and extreme southern Quebec, west to southern Ontario, central Michigan, to southeastern Minnesota; south to western Iowa, eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas; east to northern Florida and Georgia. Essentially between the Mississippi River and the eastern seaboard White Oak is at home. The tree is generally absent in the high Appalachians, in the Delta region of the lower Mississippi, and in the coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana. The west slopes of the Appalachian Mountains and the Ohio and central Mississippi River Valleys have optimum conditions for white oak, but the largest trees have been found in Delaware and Maryland on the Eastern Shore.
For the sake of clarity, it is important to note that much of the lumber sold as “White Oak” may in fact not actually be Q. alba at all. Instead, the term “White Oak” refers to a large group of different species, up to at least 10 different species from different parts of the country, which share some important characteristics. The other common oak group is “Red Oak” and while there is an actual species commonly referred to as “Red Oak,” the Quercus rubra, more often the term “Red Oak” refers to one of the at least 10 other species within that grouping.
Unlike in some other timber groups, in this case, which group the wood you are proposing to use can matter. The most commonly important distinction is that White Oak group woods are waterproof and can therefore be used for making casks, barrels, even ships, while the Red Oak group is not waterproof and water carrying, or water-borne, vessels made from it will leak. This distinction is especially important when considering the origins of the piece of Q. alba that I used, which will become clear later.
For the sake of simplicity and common understanding I will refer to Q. alba as White Oak from this point forward.
The heartwood of White Oak tends toward a light to medium brown color that commonly features an olive tone. It is helpful to note that the name White Oak refers to the color of the bark, not necessarily the color of the wood. The sapwood, which is not always clearly demarcated, is a white to light brown color.
As is true in some other woods, quartersawn sections will display prominent ray fleck patterns and because of this quartersawn White Oak is in high demand and sells for a premium. The premium price is also because quartersawing a log reduces the volume of usable material that can be recovered, so a higher price is necessary to make the process cost-effective.
White it is true that wood from the Red Oak group tends to be a bit redder in coloration, color is simply not a reliable way to distinguish between the two wood groups. If you feel it important to reliably distinguish White Oak from Red Oak, you can follow some established guidelines.
The grain of most White Oak is quite straight but the texture is coarse and uneven.
White Oak endgrain takes a ring formation that is porous. The reliable presence of tyloses in the endgrain, the reason for the waterproof nature of the White Oak group of trees, is an excellent means of distinguishing White Oak from Red Oak. Tyloses are not present in Red Oak. Note, however, that tyloses may not be visible in the sapwood of White Oak, the endgrain of the heartwood must be examined to determine which group the sample belongs to.
White Oak is very durable and is resistant to rot. Because of this, it is commonly used in boat-building and cooperage (barrel making).
When worked with either hand or machine powered tools, White Oak tends to produce good results.
White Oak does have a relatively high shrinkage rate and therefore less than ideal dimensional stability as the wood dries. This is especially pronounced in flatsawn boards.
All oaks, including White Oak, can react with iron, especially when the wood is wet. The reaction causes discoloration and staining.
White Oak can be steam bent and the wood responds well to this process.
White Oak glues, stains, and finishes quite well.
White Oak has a distinctive and tell-tale scent when worked that is common to most all woods in both oak groups. Most users find the scent pleasant.
White Oak is one of the most commonly found woods in American homes. It appears in cabinetry, furniture, interior trim, and as flooring.
White Oak is also commonly used and highly valued in boat-building and coopering. In fact, the pieces of White Oak which I used were salvaged from barrels that were used to age Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey.
Some White Oak is also used as a veneer.
White Oak is abundantly available throughout the country in a good range of widths and thicknesses, both as flatsawn and quartersawn lumber. White Oak is often slightly more expensive than Red Oak. However, prices tend to be moderate for a domestic hardwood. As would be expected, thicker planks and quartersawn boards will command a slightly higher price, but this is true of most all wood species; larger pieces and special cuts command higher prices.
I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
I have also recently discovered and have had fantastic experiences with two vendors selling strictly, or mostly, domestic woods native to the Southeastern United States. Those vendors are NC Wood and TurningBlanks.net (Got Wood?) of North and South Carolina respectively.
West Penn Hardwoods is selling only dimensional lumber in both regular and quartersawn curly White Oak. Prices range from $5.40 to $9.50 per board foot.
Bell Forest Products is also only selling dimensional lumber in the large 8/4 size (2 inches thick) for $8.60 per board foot.
TurningBlanks.net does not offer White Oak and while NCWood usually does offer quartersawn White Oak they are currently out of stock.
While the four dealers above are personal favorites, White Oak is likely to be readily obtainable from other hardwood dealers, probably including one near you if you live in the eastern United States or Canada. If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for White Oak, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
Whenever possible, obtain photos of the actual piece you will be buying or better yet, pick your blanks in person. This is especially sage advice when in the market for especially pricey pieces of turning wood, although this shouldn’t be an issue with White Oak, unless it is advertised as highly curly and quartersawn, in which case you will want a good look first.
White Oak is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
White Oak is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.
I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon. I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of White Oak sourced their material legally and responsibly. In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors. I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price.
I also realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, oak has been reported as a sensitizer. The most common reactions include simple eye and skin irritation as well as asthma-like symptoms. Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with White Oak.
My Personal Experiences
I have not yet had the opportunity to work with White Oak in a bowl blank size, although I do have a quartersawn piece obtained from NCWood when it was in stock.
White Oak cut fairly easily and cleanly as it is a relatively hard and dense wood. However, White Oak by its very nature is quite rough in texture with very open pores and this makes it quite a challenge to achieve a fine smooth finish sand no matter how patient and diligent you are. Many users of White Oak simply use a filler to close the pores prior to sanding and while I have considered this, I have never yet done so. Inevitably, the finish will not be as fine and smooth as is common with a wood like Maple but it is still reasonable. I think it makes a fine turning wood as long as one doesn’t require a glassy smooth surface finish to feel satisfied. I would be happy to work with White Oak again and look forward to trying it in a larger format soon.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!