Slippery White Oak Changes Woodworking History (Maybe, Kinda-Sorta)
When I build a piece of furniture I like to build my own drawers and drawer guides. The drawers make me feel like the furniture is more useful, like it has a reason for being. The key is that they must work well. I started out trying many different ways to make drawers operate, but have been using only one way for a long time now.
About ten years ago, I went to a presentation at a local furniture store about Stickley furniture. The one thing I keyed on that night was the video of a worker at the factory fitting a drawer and closing the drawer with just the push of a finger (video link below). I had been around plenty of drawers, especially old ones that don’t work properly, and I wanted to know more.
The secret at Stickley (which isn’t much of a secret), and now at my shop, is the side-hung, center-guided drawer glides or runners. The drawers hang on runners mounted to the inside sides of the cabinet which are made to fit a little loose up and down and not touch the drawer at all left to right. This set up alone isn’t enough though. Without the center guide the drawers would rack in the opening and bind. The center guide under the middle of the drawer allows the drawer to only move in a straight line in and out, and it eliminates the possibility for racking. In fact, the drawer can only go in one direction and can easily be pushed shut with one finger from anywhere on the drawer front. Forget using both hands to push in the drawer.
The system works great and doesn’t take much fussing to install. After I fit the drawers and make sure they are working, I wax the guides with Johnson paste wax, and they work as smooth as silk. One of the keys to extra smooth operation is the use of white oak for the drawers and guides.
I don’t know Stickley’s intent on using white oak for the drawers and guides. I assumed originally that he just used white oak in the drawer system because he was using white oak on the rest of the cabinet, so it just made aesthetic sense to use the wood that was in the rest of the piece. But now, I am starting to think that ol’ Gustav came to using white oak through the back door. I am thinking that he found the perfect wood for drawers and drawer guides that also just happened to be a great wood for furniture – an awesome 1-2 punch. Here’s why: White oak is a hard wood, a very stable wood when quartersawn and also a very slippery wood. That’s right – slippery. Slippery is not the first adjective that comes to mind when you think about white oak, but it is slippery after it is planed. I can’t explain it, but if you take two planed pieces of white oak and stack them up, it is hard to keep them together. Plenty of times in the shop, when I am planing white oak, I slide a piece on to the stack and it just keeps going.
I haven’t noticed this phenomenon with any other woods, just white oak. It doesn’t seem slippery when I am pushing it through the jointer, in fact, just the opposite. On the jointer, it feels like it wants to stick to the bed. But once that white oak touches another piece of white oak it wants to take off. So, I am thinking Stickley noticed that white oak repels white oak like a reverse magnet and thought it would make the best drawer guides ever. Then he looked at white oak and said quietly to himself, “If I am going to use white oak, it has to be quartersawn to be as stable as possible.” He also knew that quartersawn white oak looked more refined and that it was expensive to produce, all of which makes the finished piece seem more valuable. He then loudly exclaimed, “Quartersawn white oak all around.”
And the rest is history (maybe, kinda-sorta). This, of course, doesn’t explain why he used white oak for chairs, but I choose to ignore that for now.