Is It Red Oak or White Oak?

Since I started milling lumber, determining the difference between red oak and white oak has been a challenge. I’ve got a good handle on it now, but there are plenty of times (at least once a week) when a customer has a piece of wood that they want to identify. It is usually some old barn lumber and usually some sort of oak.

I have had a lot of practice trying to figure out what kind of oak I am dealing with since many of the logs I cut are salvaged. Often they are old, without leaves or even bark, and a challenge to identify. Even just raw, newly planed oak lumber can sometimes be tricky. The secrets lie within the structure of the wood itself.

What about color? Color can help, but it can also be misleading. While white oak is less red in color, red oak can range from very red/pink to the exact same color as white oak. I use color as an indicator only if the board is very red, which most likely makes it red oak. Anything in the tan range needs to be investigated further. Note that newly cut white oak lumber turns a bright pink when exposed to the air and then goes back to tan after drying (read more about that by clicking here).

How about the grain? The grain or texture of oaks is very similar. Even when finished, both just look like oak. There are subtle differences, but if you only have one oak in front of you and you aren’t sure what it is, it still just looks like oak. White oak is, on average, a finer texture, with tighter growth rings and a more refined appearance, but there are plenty of red oaks out there with tight growth rings that look similar. Red oak as a family has several members that are fast growing like shingle oaks, willow oaks, laurel oaks and pin oaks, while all white oaks are usually slower growing. If you find an oak board with wide growth rings and a coarse appearance there is a good chance it is a red oak.

Isn’t white oak water tight? Now, we are on to something. White oak, as compared to red oak, is water tight and is used to make wine and whiskey barrels. White oak can hold water because the “open” pores are filled with tyloses, which looks like foam – red oak is not. If you look closely at the pores on an oak board (and your vision is good) you will be able to see grain that either has open pores or pores that are filled with tyloses. On a very small level, especially with a magnifying glass, you can see the difference, and it is usually very clear.

 

The tyloses can be seen in the pores of the white oak sample on the left. Red oak, on the right, has open pores and no tyloses. The tyloses makes white oak water tight. Click on the photo to see a closer view.

The tyloses can be seen in the pores of the white oak sample on the left. Red oak, on the right, has open pores and no tyloses. Click on the photo to see a closer view.

How about the rays? Finally, we’ve got it. The big difference is in the rays. White oak has long, showy rays, which are especially visible in quarter sawn lumber and give quarter sawn white oak it’s one-of-a-kind appearance. However, the rays are also visible on flat sawn lumber, which is the main way that I discern between red and white oak. On the face of flatsawn red oak lumber the rays look like little short tick marks, usually no longer than 1/2″ long. The marks are very visible and strongly contrast with the surrounding wood. White oak has long rays, and on flat sawn lumber the rays look more like straw. The rays are so long that they blend together and are often hard to tell apart. There may be a few shorter ones here and there, but on average the rays are well over 1/2″ long.

Red oak can be discerned by the short tick marks on the face of flat sawn lumber. The tick marks are actually the ends of the rays which are visible on quarter sawn lumber.

Red oak can be discerned by the short tick marks on the face of flat sawn lumber. The tick marks are actually the ends of the rays which are visible on quarter sawn lumber.

The rays of white oak lumber are large and show up as long lines on the face of flat sawn lumber. They are much longer than the rays in red oak lumber and usually have less contrast. White oak looks more like straw.

The rays of white oak lumber are large and show up as long lines on the face of flat sawn lumber. They are much longer than the rays in red oak lumber and usually have less contrast. White oak looks more like straw.

The main reason it is necessary to discern between red and white oak, besides general appearance, is to determine its durability. White oak is water-tight and great to use both indoors and outdoors. Red oak is more like a sponge. It will tend to soak up water when it can and quickly rot. Red oak can be used outdoors in vertical applications, like barn siding, and last for quite a long time, but in horizontal applications, especially where the wood will dry out slowly or not at all, it wouldn’t be uncommon for red oak to decay in just a season or two. My unofficial testing of both species used in my own garden for tomato stakes showed a major difference between the two species with red oak rotting and breaking off at ground level in just one summer/fall season, while the white oak showed no symptoms.

The good news is that while it may be difficult at first to tell the difference between red and white oak, it isn’t impossible and actually pretty simple if you look in the right places. Remember you can check out the color, gawk at the grain and peek at the pores. And, if all that doesn’t work, you can always just rely on the rays.

 

 

 

 

Factory Cart Bench

I have been through a lot of factory carts in the past couple of years, all of which have been repurposed into coffee tables. Things changed a bit when we built our first factory cart bench. It came about when a customer that wanted to have a bench made sent me some pinterest photos and one happened to have industrial cart wheels on it. That was a gimme for me because I happen to have in my possession about 50 carts that are already bench height.

This is our official, first-ever factory cart bench.

This is our official, first-ever factory cart bench.

We started by trimming the whole thing down from 28″ to 19″ in depth and cleaning all of the hardware. That was followed up by building the back and armrests out of wood we saved from other disassembled carts. After a little distressing around the new cuts and a light sanding overall, we stained all of the hard maple with a medium-dark brown stain before spraying a lacquer finish on the entire cart, including the hardware (I prefer the look of the hardware with a clear coat as opposed to black paint).

When the bench was almost finished, I told Chris (my wife) that I think we might need a factory cart bench in our house. She asked how much I charged for it and she then advised me that it would look much better in someone else’s home. I guess that is how it goes at the cobbler’s house too.

A Walnut in the Walnut

We were sanding some walnut lumber the other day in the shop, and look what we found. It’s a walnut in the walnut. How nutty! It looks like the walnut shell fell into a crotch in the tree and the tree grew around it. I am so glad to run into a foreign object that doesn’t ruin the equipment.

I've never seen this before. Usually it's a big chunk of metal.

I’ve never seen this before. Usually it’s a big chunk of metal.

This photo was sent in by a WunderWoods follower. He was resawing lumber for the top of turkey calls and cut a walnut perfectly in half. It makes a nice turkey call and a great story.

This turkey call was made from walnut with a walnut.

This turkey call was made from walnut with a walnut.

 

New Found Love for Cypress

I am currently working on installing a wood ceiling in the basement of my house. I thought it would be a great use of eastern white pine and a treat to actually do a little work on my own house. I “treated” myself to eastern white pine because it is the cheapest lumber I sell and therefore causes me the least financial negativity by not selling it.

A mixture of eastern white pine, spruce, and cypress are finally whitewashed and installed on part of my basement ceiling, minus the extra nutty cypress that I couldn't bring myself to paint.

A mixture of eastern white pine, spruce, and cypress are finally whitewashed and installed on part of my basement ceiling, minus the extra nutty cypress that I couldn’t bring myself to paint.

As I was rounding up all the pine in my shop, I was worried I didn’t have enough stock, so I looked for lumber that was similar. I grabbed some spruce and cypress that seemed fairly similar, and since I am whitewashing all of the lumber, I decided they would work. The spruce looks great. Most people couldn’t tell the difference between it and the white pine.

The cypress is a different story, but not for the reasons you would think. The problem with the cypress is that after I sealed it with shellac prior to the whitewash some of it looked so cool I couldn’t bring myself to whitewash it.

I have always poo-pooed local cypress because it has so much sapwood from growing quickly in wide open spaces (usually yards). The sapwood is less durable than the heartwood so the wood is not the best choice for exterior applications, which kills me because that is the first thing that people expect out of cypress. When someone asks if I have cypress I say,”Yes, but not the cypress you are thinking of. It didn’t come out of a deep swamp from a slow-growing old tree, and there isn’t much clear wood.” Almost every board is knotty since the trees are usually covered in branches to the ground. Everything about this “exterior” wood says don’t use it outside, so it tends to lean against the wall for sale and only very slowly trickle out of the store.

Now, I got a fresh look at my cypress, but not for an exterior application. Now, I just looked at it as wood, and what I saw was a wood that stands out from the crowd. Some of the boards looked more like burls and less like lumber. The knots are clustered in tight pockets, mixed with bark inclusions and swirly grain. Again, not great for exterior wood, but awesome for a future piece of furniture.

The cypress on the bottom is not local, but it is what I expect cypress to look like if it is going to be used outdoors. I milled the cypress on top, and while it may not be great for outdoor use with all of its "character", it is way too cool to paint.

The cypress on the bottom is not local, but it is what I expect cypress to look like if it is going to be used outdoors. I milled the cypress on top, and while it may not be great for outdoor use with all of its “character”, it is way too cool to paint.

Another portion of the same lumber shows the difference between the two cypress boards.

Another portion of the same lumber shows the difference between the two cypress boards.

As I went through the stack and rediscovered the boards, I set them aside, hoping that I could finish the job without using them. At this point, I have the ceiling almost completed and it looks like I won’t need the cypress. But, even if I did, I have a feeling that I would be milling up some new, not-so-cool lumber to finish the job. This stuff is just too cool to paint and put on the ceiling. Go-oh, Cypress!

Hickory Wine Cellar & Home Theater

It started out as a simple wine closet, a small room to be built-in the corner of an unfinished basement. My customer has simple tastes and he really just wanted an improvement on his simplified (non) design that had left his wine collection in a closet under the stairs. In it he had a wine room cooler on the floor that was running with the exhaust pointed out the semi-shut door. I don’t think it really helped the quality of the air, but it could still qualify as a wine cellar, at least in very loose terms. No matter what you call it, it needed some sort of upgrade to take its rightful place in this custom Ladue home.

As I mentioned, he has simple tastes, but apparently his wife does not. On my second meeting with him, he pulled out a photo book with a lavish French theater that his wife had found and said that since we were going to build something downstairs and he had the extra room, he would like to add a theater to the mix. It was a giant jump from where we started, but I did not argue.

The theater room quickly took shape with our new directive, and the wine cellar followed, becoming equally involved and in a French country style, which called for the racks to have more of a furniture feel. The nine pieces, the arched entry door, and the two beams in the wine cellar where made from a batch of hickory logs that I recovered from a tree service a year earlier. It turns out that about twelve months is the perfect amount of time for hickory to get very wormy and nicely spalted.

Much of the racking in the wine cellar is traditional, with ladder racks holding the bulk of the collection, but each piece of furniture displays the wine in different ways, from individual bottles to entire cases. One of my favorite little details that I commonly use now in other wine cellars is adjustable shelving. I know it doesn’t sound earth shattering, but in a wine cellar the shelves can be used flat for case storage or offset with a tilt for displaying individual bottles. The shelves have a strip across the front which is flush on top and forms a lip on the bottom, which when flipped over keeps the bottles from sliding off and crashing to the floor. The tilted shelves are especially helpful for holding and displaying odd-shaped and larger bottles that don’t fit in the other racks.

Between the theater and the wine cellar is a spot for a poker table and a back bar made from rift sawn white oak cabinets and walnut countertops with art glass windows above. All of the woodwork around the windows is made from poplar that was stained dark brown and glazed with black for an antique appearance. The walnut countertop was built up to 1.5″ thick by laminating two layers of 3/4″ thick stock together. I have done this many times and it works great (click here to see how it’s done).

The theater itself involved a lot of trim details. The ceiling is broken into three sections with painted beams and large crown molding, while the walls feature a hand-crafted plaster finish and picture-frame moldings – all of which add to the French feel of the room.

From humble beginnings to this showcase of a job, things really changed. I would have never guessed that this is how it would turn out when we started.

The French Country style comes to life with big beams and wormy, spalted hickory throughout the wine cellar.

The French Country style comes to life with big beams and wormy, spalted hickory throughout the wine cellar.

The back wall of the wine cellar has leaded-glass windows with dark stained and glazed woodwork.

The back wall of the wine cellar has leaded-glass windows with dark stained and glazed woodwork.

The rear of the home theater has a back bar and an area for playing cards.

The rear of the home theater has a back bar and an area for playing cards.

Looking towards the wine cellar in this home theater shows off the recessed lighting.

Looking towards the wine cellar in this home theater shows off the recessed lighting.

An arched front with powered curtains welcomes movie-goers.

An arched front with powered curtains welcomes movie-goers.

 

2014 Woodworking Projects

I am terrible at remembering to take photos of my projects. I usually tell myself that I will take the  pictures next time since the job isn’t officially done yet, or the background doesn’t look great, or my shop looks like it houses six families of hobos, but when the job is unceremoniously complete, I set off for my next one without even a snapshot.

In an effort to prove that I actually do work every now and then, I have pulled together a quick photographic rundown of 2014. Some of them you may have already seen, some are new, and yes, some are still missing (just imagine all of the other swell things that I did that aren’t included).

This antique reproduction table was a little tricky to make. The smaller legs don't leave much room for joinery.

This antique reproduction table was a little tricky to make. The smaller legs don’t leave much room for joinery.

This nightstand features whitewashed rustic cypress with lots of character.

This nightstand features whitewashed rustic cypress with lots of character.

My customer said to do whatever I wanted on this one, and I did. This spalted maple log wasn't wide enough to make a one-piece top, so I made a three-piece top with the curved slabs. The top is shaped like a football with the ends squared off. A glass insert in the middle will finish off the top.

My customer said to do whatever I wanted on this one, and I did. This spalted maple log wasn’t wide enough to make a one-piece top, so I made a three-piece top with the curved slabs. The top is shaped like a football with the ends squared off. A glass insert in the middle will finish off the top.

A cute little nightstand for a little room.

A cute little nightstand for a little room.

This round dining table is made of American elm (one of my favorites). While a bit cantankerous to work with, it yields beautiful results.

This round dining table is made of American elm (one of my favorites). While a bit cantankerous to work with, it yields beautiful results.

About 150 of these carts have made their way through my shop. Luckily, I didn't have to refinish all of them like I did this one.

About 150 of these carts have made their way through my shop. Luckily, I didn’t have to refinish all of them like I did this one.

I used every durable wood I could think of for this play structure. Osage orange, cedar and white oak all teamed up for this preschoolers playground.

I used every durable wood I could think of for this play structure. Osage orange, cedar and white oak all teamed up for this preschoolers playground.

My daughter inspired my first official driftwood project with her mermaid-themed swimming party.

My daughter inspired my first official driftwood project with her mermaid-themed swimming party.

This mantel was milled from a piece of driftwood and the fresh cuts were stained to match the gray exterior.

This mantel was milled from a piece of driftwood and the fresh cuts were stained to match the gray exterior.

Dark-stained cherry and iron (aged like a man) worked together to create a focal point for this new kitchen.

Dark-stained cherry and iron (aged like a man) worked together to create a focal point for this new kitchen.

This contemporary TV wall is a slight departure from my normal projects since I didn't mill any of the lumber. It is built from natural maple plywood and red oak plywood stained black.

This contemporary TV wall is a slight departure from my normal projects since I didn’t mill any of the lumber. It is built from natural maple plywood and red oak plywood stained black.

Here’s to a new year of great projects and remembering to take more photos! Happy New Year!

 

Let It Sit or Use It: Acclimating Wood

“Be sure to let the wood acclimate before you use it.”

That’s what every knowledgable woodworker will tell you about wood. After all, it has to be in equilibrium with its environment to ensure a good, long-lasting result. I personally preach this to everyone I meet, if they are willing to listen (and sometimes when they are not). But, it’s not as simple as just letting the wood sit before you use it. Sometimes letting the wood acclimate to its new environment is actually a bad idea.

The logic behind letting wood acclimate before you use it is to have all of the craziness of wood movement happen before it is installed. If the wood is moved to a dry environment it is going to shrink and if it is moved into a wet environment it is going to expand. This “dry” or “wet” description is relative though – wood moisture in relation to the environmental moisture (humidity).

I often think of wood trim and casework when I think of acclimating wood to its environment, with a close second being hardwood flooring. In a perfect world, I would install both of these items on the 2nd of February after the heat has been running in the house for months and everything is shrunk up as much as possible. In this shrunk up world, I want my flooring or trim to be super dry and super shrunk so everything fits nice and tight and only tightens up as summer rolls around and the humidity rises. However, the opposite is usually true. I seem to only install woodwork around July 20th, when the humidity is a billion percent and everything is fat, which means in the winter everything will shrink and gaps will appear.

“Well pal, if you weren’t such an idiot and you let that wood acclimate before you installed it, everything would be great and the gaps that open in the winter would be a thing of the past.”

Not true, I say. Remember, the dry and wet thing is relative. Letting the wood acclimate in winter to a super dry environment is good. Your wood will most likely be shrinking (it definitely won’t be expanding if the heat is running all day long). You will install everything tight and it will only get tighter as the summer rolls around. This is good – in winter.

In summer, the opposite is true. Say that you take your wood flooring that is dried to 6% to a job site in the summer. Your flooring is shrunk, it is small and ready to be installed. Yes, it will swell up in the humidity of summer, but you want it installed when the wood is shrunk so it will expand and only tighten up. Letting it acclimate in the summer only ensures that you are installing fatter wood, which is guaranteed to open up in the winter. Flooring will show gaps between boards and casework will open up at the seams.

I think the whole acclimation just-do-it, don’t-think-about-it thing started because there are so many chances in life to have wood that is a little too wet going in to an environment that could use drier wood. This, perhaps, isn’t the case in the deep south, but I would say it is the norm for much of the country. Wood has too many opportunities to pick up extraneous moisture before it makes it into its final resting place. From sawmills and distributors to retailers, lumber is stored in environments that are not climate controlled, possibly for quite a while, picking up moisture the entire time. And, even after it makes its way into your hands it may spend time in a garage, shed or job site that isn’t climate controlled.

The default in all of these cases is to get the wood inside, in a climate controlled environment and let it acclimate to the environment, but what we really mean is to let the wood dry. I have never had an issue with interior woodwork being too dry and causing a problem after it swelled up. Again, in the high humidity of the deep south this might be a problem, but for most of us wood can’t be too dry. It is almost always a little wet.

So, what to do in summer. Say you’ve got wood that just came out of the kiln and is dried to a target of 6-8%. Do you take it to the job site and let it acclimate, knowing that it is going to pick up moisture and get fatter before you install it, just to shrink again in the winter? I say, “Heck no!” It makes zero sense to let the wood acclimate in this scenario. If the wood is dry, put it in – and fast.

I have found this Wagner MMC 220 pinless moisture meter to be the most reliable and easiest to use. It gives deeper more rliable readings than a pin-type meter without damaging the wood.

I have found this Wagner MMC 220 pinless moisture meter to be the most reliable and easiest to use. It gives deeper more rliable readings than a pin-type meter without damaging the wood.

The key in any scenario is knowing the moisture level of your wood and what the acclimating environment is going to do to it. A reliable moisture meter is a good place to start. Test your wood, and if it is dry based on your area of the country, start using it. Refer to the chart at the end of this post to see what moisture content your wood should be. If you don’t have a moisture meter, assume that the wood is a little wet (since it usually is).

In the dead of winter letting the wood acclimate is always a good idea because it can’t really cause a problem. It won’t improve your lumber if it is already dry, but it won’t hurt it, and it will only help wet lumber. Winter is by far the best time of the year to install interior woodwork.

In the spring and fall acclimating wood is likely to have little to no effect. Heat and air conditioning will be running less, windows will be open, and humidity levels will be closer to outdoor levels. Only let your wood acclimate during this time of year if you know it is wet and could benefit from some drying. If it reads as dry on a moisture meter and/or hasn’t spent awhile in an environment without any climate control, start using it.

Acclimating your wood in summer only really makes sense if you know that your wood is extra wet, either because your moisture meter told you so or because the lumber was stored in an environment that wasn’t climate controlled. If your lumber is in a condition that acclimating it during the summer makes sense, you may want to reevaluate your situation. In this case, additional drying, not just acclimating, may be necessary. Summer is the worst time to install interior woodwork.

Use common sense when deciding whether or not to acclimate wood. If the environment is extra dry, no matter the time of year, let it acclimate. If humidity levels are extra high, it probably makes sense to start using the lumber right away. Any other times, when the humidity is moderate, you are probably just kissing your sister (getting no benefit) and possibly making the wood worse by letting it acclimate.

This chart shows the high (summer) and low (winter) moisture levels for interior wood throughout the country. In a perfect world, your wood will read at the lower number when installed.

This chart shows the high (summer) and low (winter) moisture levels for interior wood throughout the country. In a perfect world, your wood will read at the lower number when installed.

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