White oak produces fine lumber and exquisite veneer. Its cellular structure proves impermeable to liquids and is resistant to decay, making it suitable for outdoor projects — a rare feat for a North American hardwood.
Although only one species, Quercus alba, is botanically correct when called white oak, the forest products industry lumps 16 species together under that name because they share the same characteristics. When you buy white oak lumber, it may have come from bur oak, chinkapin oak, live oak, overcup oak, or others in the Quercus family.
History in Woodworking
Though somewhat revived at present for furniture and cabinets, white oak has traditionally been more of a workhorse wood, a role that began with the seafarers of Colonial New England. Their ships of white oak sailed the world in trade of molasses, rum, silks, spices, and wine. America’s ocean-going white oak also proved its mettle in battle. The frigate Constitution, known as Old Ironsides, boasted a gun deck, keel, planks, and frame of this rugged wood. Increasing world trade earmarked white oak for yet another role-barrels. Cooperage became a thriving
industry along the nation’s eastern coast, taking its place with ship builders, wagon makers, and other users of utilitarian white oak. Even basket makers yearned for its green wood for weaving. It was only during the Victorian Age of the late 1800s that the wood stepped up to furniture status. With stain and coats of varnish it became the immensely popular “Golden Oak,” a style only to be surpassed by the 1920s Arts and Crafts creations of Gustav Stickley and others. This mission furniture, as it has come
to be called, took full advantage of the attractive ray flecks exposed in quartersawn stock.
Where the wood comes from
With the exception of an Oregon and Arizona species, white oak hails from the East. It grows plentifully from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and west to the Great Plains. In the eastern forests, white oaks can attain heights well over 100′ and 4′ diameters. (Trees with 8′ diameters have been logged).
You’ll find the largest white oak trees in Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
What you’ll pay
White oak, given its application to so many uses, surprisingly remains quite a bargain. Readily available, although not in the same abundance as red oak, white oak FAS 4/4 (13/16″) flatsawn stock sells for about $5.50 a board foot. Add at least $3 per board foot for riftsawn or quartersawn boards. White Oak veneer runs any where from $1.15 – $3.50 per square foot (@ 4′ x 8′ sheets). White oak plywood, when you can find it, costs around $90 a sheet for flatsawn – more for riftsawn. Note: Home Depot carries 4×4 white oak project boards. Best bet, if you are not a pro woodworker who gets their lumber via freight delivery, check out your local millwork shop.
Information for this article is sourced by permission of Woodcraft.