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.
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!
On a semi-regular basis I talk to someone who would have used me for their last project, but they didn’t because they didn’t know everything I do. My woodworking customers don’t know I mill lumber, my milling customers don’t know I sell lumber, my lumber customers don’t know I do custom woodworking, and I blame it all on my inept advertising department.
I am here to change all of that with a new video that shows what is really happening at WunderWoods (when I am working). With the help of a few of my customers, I have put together a montage of the goings on in a three-week span of my daily work life. The clips are chronological in order, but random in their approach. One day I cut a tree, the next day I finish a piece of furniture – just like real life.
The bottom line is that if it involves wood there is a good chance I do it.
Thanks to Dwayne Tiggs from Crafty Naturals, Jermain Todd from Mwanzi, and Martin Goebel from Goebel and Company Furniture for starring in the video.
The following photos are of the finished products shown in progress in the video:
American black walnut is one of the most beautiful woods on this planet. I like the way it doesn’t rot, I like the way it mills, I like the way it dries, I like the way it works, and I like the way it smells like money. Walnut is one of the most valuable trees, and right now, it’s the most requested lumber from my customers.
I sell walnut as fast as I can cut it and sometimes even faster. Whenever I have a chance to pick up a walnut log, I do it. There is nothing better than finding a good quality walnut log and turning it into lumber. Well, except for finding a veneer quality walnut log and not turning it into lumber. A veneer quality log is so valuable that I make more money by just selling it to a veneer buyer than I do by milling, drying and planing all of the wood from the same log.
To be veneer quality, a log has to be perfect or close to it. It needs to be straight, round, defect free, and, if it is to be very valuable, it needs to be large (24″ or larger on the skinny end, inside the bark). The log also has to have one other key characteristic – no freakin’ visits from a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
In the veneer business, they call it bird peck. I just call it bird _____ (you fill in the blank). Bird peck is a defect caused by a woodpecker called a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker digging holes in the tree to find bugs and to get the sap flowing out of the holes which attracts even more bugs. These holes eventually heal over, but they leave dark marks in the wood and make veneer buyers head the other direction. Bird peck can take a log destined for a veneer mill that would sell for $7 or more per board foot and make it only worth $2 per board foot when it ends up at a regular sawmill.
Even though I get a lot of logs, I don’t get veneer logs very often – maybe only a couple a year. Recently, I had what looked to be the most valuable log of my career, except for, you guessed it, the ol’ Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. The log wasn’t giant, but it was big and long (24″ x 13′) and straight. It could have been a little more round, but otherwise it looked great on the outside.
When I was cutting the tree and harvesting the logs, I saw a couple of bird peck marks in the top logs, but hoped that it wouldn’t be so bad lower in the tree. After all, birds should more often be up in the tree instead of down in the tree. I trimmed the top of the log more than a foot, but I couldn’t get the log to be clear. Every cut I made still showed at least a couple bird pecks.
At that point, I stopped cutting and decided to see what the veneer buyer had to say. I remembered selling logs in the past that showed a little bird peck and the price was lower, but he still bought it at a good price. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I couldn’t do anything about the bird peck, so it was time to sell it, or try to. The buyer, Damian from Tracy Export, had always treated me fairly, and I expected him to offer as good a price as he could.
I pulled in to the yard in Columbia, Illinois with the log on my trailer and expected Damian to be in awe of my big walnut and to start throwing money at me. I prepared by practicing my straight face and trying to not look too excited. Anyone that has ever met Damian can tell you that he does all of that naturally. He is always straight-faced and is never the giddiest of the bunch. Outwardly, he looks like he would break you in two for fun and not even blink. He has always been helpful and courteous and we have had some good discussions about wood, but he would never be accused of being soft. I imagine his rough exterior and no-nonsense approach serve him well as a log buyer.
It wasn’t the best day weather-wise and the cold rain didn’t help raise Damian’s mood. He grabbed his log scale and cant hook and headed towards the trailer. He was ahead of me and I couldn’t see his face, but I was sure he was saying to himself how good the log looked.
Within a micro-second of looking at the skinny end of the log, Damian’s cut and dry attitude somehow became even drier. He saw the bird peck immediately and had no interest in the log for veneer, not even a little. He said that the log would go to a sawmill and most likely would be cut into flooring and he offered me $2 per board foot. The same log without bird peck could have sold for as much as $2,100, but as is, the offer was only $600. At that price, it made more sense for me to cut it and make one of my customer’s happy than it did to sell the log, so I drove back to my shop with the log still on the trailer.
Since then, I milled the log and got a chance to see the inside. Much of the log was perfect, but there were areas that had bird peck. Buyers like Damian avoid these logs because they just can’t tell how much of the inside will produce high-grade veneer. Since they are paying top dollar for veneer logs, it just makes sense for them to only buy the best logs for veneer and avoid the questionable ones.
The good news for this log is that it made very nice slabs that will end up in some very nice furniture. Even the areas with bird peck are still perfectly usable, though they lend themselves to more natural pieces, which just so happens to be what most of my customers prefer. After all, it is actual wood produced in nature and not perfect wood that came out of a machine. At least that’s what I tell myself when the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker comes to town.
We recently went to Elephant Rocks State Park, the home of largest round granite boulders and awe-inspiring landscape in the great state of Missouri, for a second time. On our first visit we almost missed the main attraction because we were a little too adventurous. We took a side trail, missed the easy entry to the top, and only found the path up the center as we were leaving. Looking back, it seems almost impossible to do, but we did it. The trees were thick, and we just couldn’t tell where to go. In that case, we should have followed all of the wacky kids that ran up through the trees and disappeared (I guess they had been there before).
On this trip we knew how to get to the big rocks, but started by cruising the perimeter a bit before lunch, and we found even more cool stuff that we missed on the first trip. To the right of the parking lot, the rocks make a nice surrounding for the picnic tables, and are where we started to explore. Once we got up past the picnic tables and started climbing, we quickly went into slow-down-Mira mode, so that she could live to see the rest of the park.
We got Mira to focus, get away from the edge, and stop running and quickly found a quarry pond with steep ledges and more big round rocks, that we hadn’t seen on the first trip. After we were done checking out the new-found area, we headed down for lunch. On the way back down, I noticed for the first time (really noticed) the trees growing on the top of the rocks. I found a dead log and brought it back with me so I could slice it and take a photo. For those of you wondering, all of the signs said don’t take the rocks, they didn’t say a thing about dead logs. Anyway, here is a picture of the unbelievable 28-year-old post oak log. Click on the photo to see what makes it so unbelievable.
I knew that it would be a slow grower since it was growing on top of a rock, but it was really slow. The log is a tiny, itty-bitty 1-1/4″ in diameter. At that rate, to grow to a reasonable-sized log for milling of about 18″, it would take 409 years or maybe never even make it. To put that more into perspective, a normal slow-growing tree would have about eight rings per inch. This one had about 40, and so close together that they are hard to see.
The tree it came from was small and stunted, trying to grow out of a crack in the granite. It looked like many of the trees directly on the rocks. One of them can be seen in the first photo and another is pictured below.
A few trees were much larger. Perhaps they were very old or just had more soil to work with, even though they were in a tough spot. I was surprised to see a tree this size in this spot.
We also found many trees with odd shapes, trying to work their way through the rocks. After this next post oak, I was told to stop taking tree photos and move on by both of my boss’.
From then on we enjoyed the rest of the park and spent our time climbing on the rocks. We followed the very nice asphalt trail that makes a loop around the rocks and takes you to the top. The following photo shows you the other reason (besides the trees) for going to the top of the mountain. The rocks are unbelievably giant. It is amazing how big the rocks are and that they don’t just roll down the hill. By the way, that is not my family.
This is how the rest of the park looked when we visited on November 10th:
If you have never been to Elephant Rocks, I highly recommend that you go. If you have been there before, I highly recommend that you go again. It is truly amazing, and at about 1-1/2 hours south of St. Louis, worth the drive.
Below are a few notes that I put together after just two trips to Elephant Rocks. If you have been there before, feel free to add your own in the reply section.
Notes for visiting Elephant Rocks:
- Granite gets warm. The park has lots of shade from the trees, but the open spans of granite get toasty in the sun.
- Plan to stay awhile. The path around the park is only a mile, but there are lots of things to see and explore.
- Bring a lunch. There are many nice picnic tables around the parking lot, all situated among trees and rocks.
- Be ready to climb. The entire park is open to be explored. Older kids (and some adults) will be jumping from rock to rock, rock climbers will be honing their skills, and parents of little ones will be very nervous. Even so, there are plenty of places to safely explore close to the ground.
- Granite is slippery. Some spots are well worn, polished and smooth. Don’t be afraid to get down on your butt. You will end up there anyway.
- Bring your camera. You will definitely need a photo of yourself holding up a giant rock.
Don’t miss the biggest rocks. At the bottom of the hill and the entrance to the loop Braille Trail, is what I will call the “foyer” of the park. At this spot, which has a single rock with a ring of asphalt around it, you can head directly into the trees and up the mountain. It is not marked as a trail or a path, but others will most likely be headed through this passage. This is the spot we missed the first time because it is not identified at all, especially compared to the very nice trail that heads away to either side. When there are no leaves on the trees the path will be obvious. Otherwise, just trust me and head up the gut to the top. Do note that heading up the center is on the granite rock and not on an asphalt path. It isn’t too hard to climb, but it isn’t for everyone. If you think you might have trouble climbing the rock, just follow the main trail around the back and to the top. You will end up in the same spot.