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