Oak is one of the most popular woods used in furniture and flooring in the US. It’s often found in traditional, craftsman, and mission style furniture and is the wood of choice for the Amish, as well as famed furniture designers Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright. Oak is highly durable, easy to work with, and looks great stained or with a clear, natural finish. It’s also one of the most efficient woods to burn due to the high BTU content.
Oak wood comes in a number of hues, but its grain pattern is quite unique, which makes it one of the easier species to recognize. It has a long history of use around the home dating back to pre-colonial times and remains every bit as popular today. While this makes it a mainstay in traditional design, its versatility means that it can also make a modern piece come to life.
Characteristics of Oak Wood
|Color||White oak tends to be a light beige through brown, while red oak has pinkish and reddish hues instead.|
|Source||Oak Tree (Quercus L.)|
|Hardness||White Oak 1360 on Janka scale; Red Oak 1290 Janka|
|Cost||$4.10 to $9.25 per board foot|
|Common Uses||Furniture, cabinets, flooring, wine caskets, boats, barrels, kitchenware|
One of the reasons why oak can take on so many different looks is that there isn’t a single type of oak tree. There are actually more than 60 varieties growing across the United States alone. When it comes to furniture making and other uses around the home, the most common species are red and white oak. Both are stunning choices and work well in busy homes because of their durability.
If you’re on the fence about whether oak wood is the right choice for your home, you can learn more about what sets it apart from other choices and how to care for it below.
A piece of natural oak wood can take on virtually any hue; from light beige through brown and red. While white oak tends to look more beige-to-brown and red oak looks rosier, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the various types of oak based on color alone. Moreover, the same oak tree can have different colors throughout, and both red and white oak stain well, meaning a piece can look as dark as walnut or even brighten a whole room when stained a vibrant hue.
Most trees show a significant color shift between the heartwood (innermost portion of the tree) and the sapwood (layer closest to the bark which transports the tree’s nutrients). You’ll see this in oak too, as the sapwood is usually a bit lighter, though this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the heartwood and sapwood blend seamlessly in an oak tree.
You’ll also note that oak pieces will change color somewhat as the years pass, with white oak tending to pick up an amber hue.
Oak wood may darken slightly over time, taking on more amber tones. This happens due to exposure to oxygen and UV light, making it a largely unavoidable process. When it comes to oak furniture, most people won’t even realize the change is happening, as the color change is fairly subt. They may catch on if they purchase a set one piece at a time or try to add in a new piece years down the road hoping for a match. For this reason, it’s generally better to purchase a full set all at once.
Oak wood is prized in furniture making as well as in flooring and cabinetry because of its durability, workability, and natural beauty. White oak has some water resistance to it, so it has historically been the choice for crafting things like wine barrels and boats. Barrel-aged liquors are often aged in oak barrels.
Specifically, most mission style furniture is often crafted with solid oak, although it’s also common to find mission furniture crafted with cherry or maple (note that most of our product photos contain cherry furniture).
Oak wood is generally straight-grained and has an uneven texture. However, there are other aspects of oak’s grain that makes it quite unique. For example, white oak’s water resistance lies in its pores. They’re totally sealed off by tyloses. Red oak doesn’t have the same cellular growth and its pores are open. One other unique characteristic of oak is the rays which run alongside the grain. In red oak, it can sometimes look like someone took a dark pencil and drew dotted lines across a board. The same marks are present in white oak as well, but they tend to be much longer.
You may hear the phrase “quarter sawn” when people are discussing wood products, particularly oak furniture. This is a nod to how the wood was cut. Traditionally, a tree is simply sliced in a series of cuts which run parallel with the trunk, which means the grain comes to the top of the board at about a 30-degree angle. With this type of cut, usually referred to as plain sawn or flat sawn, it’s very easy to get lots of workable boards from a single tree, and as such, it’s a little less expensive to manufacture and purchase.
As a variant to this, trees can also be quartered first. Think of it like a pizza sliced into four equal pieces. From there, each quarter is then cut into smaller boards running from the widest portion down the direction of the point. This makes the grain of the wood look different because the rings reach the face of the board at a 60-90-degree angle instead. Whereas a piece of flat sawn wood will have clear thick rings on it, which can sometimes even look like they were drawn with ink that bled, a quarter sawn piece will have finer lines which tend to run straighter. The grain pattern makes the wood easier to work with and can be used to craft more structurally-stable furniture. Plus, it’s gorgeous to look at, so it’s often used in premium pieces even though it’s a little costlier to manufacture.
Oak is a hardwood. This distinction doesn’t refer to a wood’s ability to resist damage, though. It has to do with whether the wood came from a dicot or gymnosperm tree. Leafy trees are typically from the dicot group, and so they’re all hardwoods. Others, such as pine and fir, are from the gymnosperm group, and that’s why they’re called softwoods.
When people want to better understand whether a specific wood type is suited to their lifestyle or how they intend to use a piece, another type of hardness is measured. In the United States, we use the Janka Scale to demonstrate damage resistance. Wood is put under a basic compression test. A steel ball is pressed on the board until it embeds half way and the amount of force needed to do it is measured. With white oak, it takes 1,360 lbf or 1,360 pounds-force to embed the ball half way. Ergo, white oak is represented as being 1,360 Janka, while red oak comes out at 1,290 Janka.
This makes it one of the toughest woods. Sugar maple beats it at 1,450 Janka, but it comes out above walnut at 1,010 Janka and cherry at 995 Janka. That means if you have an active lifestyle or a family, oak will hold up better for you than other wood types will.
Read more about the Janka Values of North American Hardwoods.
Oak wood comes from a plethora of oak trees. Even when we say “red oak” or “white oak,” it could still be referencing any number of trees within the category. For example, “red oak” could come from a northern red oak tree, a southern red oak tree, or another variety. Conversely, white oak generally does mean the wood came from Quercus alba, the scientific name for the white oak tree, but there are other white oaks too, such as the Arizona white oak or swamp white oak.
Oak trees are found all over the world. They’re native to most states in the US as well. Here in Vermont, we have many varieties of oak, including red and white.
White oak trees can grow as much as 100-feet-tall and to 50-inches in diameter. They mature and begin producing acorns within about 20 years.
Oak has a fairly unique grain pattern, so someone familiar with wood species may be able to recognize oak fairly easily. However, depending on the milling, species, and tree, it can be deceptive and sometimes confused with ash or other woods, particularly if it has been stained. Your best bet is to make sure you’re purchasing furniture from a reputable and experienced company.
Oak trees grow in abundance, especially here in Vermont. Oak wood is generally a good choice in terms of eco-friendliness because it’s durable, which keeps it out of landfills, and is biodegradable. However, our craftsmen take it a step further and select sustainably-grown local wood as much as possible. That means you’re not contributing to deforestation, rainforests stay intact, local ecology is protected from the transport of invasive species, and the carbon footprint is minimized because transport is too.
Finding quality oak furniture isn’t always easy because some companies will market things as if they were real oak when they’re really using an oak-look product or they cut corners and produce inferior products as a result. That said, read between the lines a bit when you’re making a decision and look for signs of the following:
The care of an oak piece will depend largely on how it’s finished or what measures have been taken to seal the wood. It’s also best to avoid commercial polishes and cleaning solutions, as these can often damage the finish.
Learn more about the different wood finishes we offer and how to care for each one.
Oak is gorgeous in its natural state, particularly because it has bits of character like rays. That said, oak wood’s light coloring makes it a great candidate for staining as well. A wide variety of options are available, so it’s easy to customize your furniture to look the way you want it to based on your personal style or the décor of your home. If you’d like to get a better feel for what a specific hue will look like at home, you can purchase wood samples.
We stand behind our craftsmen 100% and applaud their eco-friendly practices as well as their dedication to excellence. We pair this with our own top-notch service, as seen across countless positive reviews and testimonials, go above and beyond to ensure your piece is customized to suit your preferences, and top it off with a lifetime guarantee. If quality, authenticity, and ethics matter to you, Vermont Woods Studios is the place to shop.
Learn more about our wood types on our wood page, or use the links below to read about specific types: