This post presents some helpful information for those buying quarter sawn white oak. I’ll talk about what to look for, and answer some common questions that arise.
Stickley and other manufacturers of Arts and Crafts furniture used quarter sawn white oak because it was stable, inexpensive, and in abundant supply. I use it because it is the wood, most associated with Arts and Crafts era furniture; and I also enjoy the unique ray fleck patterns it presents. Quarter-sawn white oak is also representative, albeit on a national level, of a local material, which is consistent with the movement’s philosophies.
When going to buy quarter sawn white oak, besides ensuring it is free of the usual kinks, crooks, twisting, bowing, and cupping; there are a couple physical characteristics that I examine. First, I examine the growth rings on the end grain. I pay attention to the growth ring’s angle relative to the board’s face plane. I’ve heard those in the lumber industry defining quarter-sawn as anywhere from 45 – 90. But for me, my preference is nothing other than 90 (photo 2); it is more stable and predictable than a board less than 90.
While examining the growth rings, I also look to see how close they are to one another. The closer they are, the “older” the growth. In other words, I prefer old growth to new growth. Old or new growth is determined by the density of annual growth rings; or how many rings are contained in an inch when examining the end grain. It’s possible to find old growth with 30 – 40 rings per inch; while today’s new growth is typically 5 – 10 rings per inch. Supply and price will determine what you get.
Old growth quarter sawn white oak is getting harder and harder to find. When you do find it, the price may be prohibitive. It’s not uncommon to pay $30 BF for old growth quarter sawn white oak. But if you can find it, and afford it, the ray fleck pattern is much more intense and beautiful than new growth. Old growth wood will also typically have a darker appearance than new growth boards; and this will be more intense if it’s salvaged old growth as compared to recently harvested old growth. This is not to say that new growth is unattractive and should be avoided. It’s more the case of comparing a sirloin to filet mignon; both taste great, but ones a little bit better.
The second physical characteristic I look at is the lumber’s thickness. In my experience buying lumber, you’ll come to realize that 4/4 lumber is cut in varying thickness depending on the sawyer. I’ve seen it anywhere from an 1″ to 1 1/8″ in thickness. So I like to check and know what I’m getting. If I’m ultimately going to re-saw the board, the thicker the better. If I’m just going to mill the board and it’s clear of other defects (i.e.: cupping, bowing, twisting etc) I can get away with the thinner board.
Next I like to try and assess the boards ray fleck pattern characteristics. Normally when examining rough cut lumber you can see the ray fleck pattern by examining the boards face. If you can’t see it, it doesn’t necessarily mean the board is void of ray fleck. The ray fleck could also be light in color, or the board may have a light amount of ray fleck. In this case there are two things you can do to better assess the ray fleck. First, you can take a couple shavings off the board’s face with a block plane (photo 5) and see what is revealed. Or if the dealer doesn’t allow this, go back and examine the rays on the end of the board. These run perpendicular to the growth rings–the more rays there are, the more ray fleck pattern there will be present on the face. Also the thicker these rays the larger the ray fleck pattern will be on the face.
Photo 6 shows the end grain rays, perpendicular to the growth rings, for the ray fleck pattern shown in photo 5.
If you’re interested in maintaining a consistent ray fleck pattern throughout a piece of furniture, your safest bet is to buy board from the same tree, and if supply and price allow, buy book-matched from the same log.
There are a couple questions I often here from those looking at quarter sawn white oak. The first is “should I buy air-dried or kiln-dried lumber?” In short, on this subject I come from the Bruce Hoadley school of thought; described in great detail in his book Understanding Wood.
Essentially Bruce says air-drying and kiln-drying are simply methods of removing moisture from the boards. Air-drying by definition simply equalizes the logs moisture content with that of its surrounding environment (typically 14 – 20%); and kiln-drying lowers the boards moisture content to a percentage determined by the kiln’s settings (typically 6 – 8 %). As a furniture maker I need my wood approximately 8% before I can start making furniture. So if I buy air-dried lumber I still need to lower the moisture content before I can begin work. There are many popular arguments for air-dried vs kiln dried:
* One method produces boards that take a finish better * One method produces “softer” boards that are easier to work with hand tools * One methods controls drying defects better than the other
You’ll have to decide for yourself what works best for you. I think as with most things in woodworking, your choice is driven by your experience, tools, skill inventory, and project goals.
My belief is that you can find both types of drying done correctly and incorrectly; and this more than anything determines the quality of the dried boards. My shop rule is regardless of what I buy, or where I buy it, it comes into my shop, gets stickered, and acclimates for 4 – 8 weeks before I begin work. An excellent resource on the drying kilns and the process is Department of Agriculture’s Dry Kiln Operator’s Manual (publication AH-188).
The second question is “how do I differentiate between white oak and red oak?”
As with the air-dried vs kiln dried discussion, there are many popular arguments here too. The first is that white oak is white and red oak is red, and you’ll be able to tell the red oak from the white when you cut longitudinally. Another method says to cut off a short soda-straw sliver and try to blow bubbles with it in a glass of water. With red oak (and not white) you’ll be able to blow bubbles.
The problem with these claims is that they’re not true 100% all of the time. And even the method I’m suggesting has instances of not holding true. But, short of carrying around a bottle of sodium nitrite solution, which I’m told is the only 100% accurate test; the simplest way to tell the difference is to look for the presence of tyloses in the earlywood pores of the wood. This is easier to do than you might thing. An inexpensive hand held microscope can easily be used to examine these pores from the end grain.
The final question I hear quite often is where do I buy my oak? In my experience, when I want the best quality ray fleck, and want to buy from someone who controls and knows the whole drying processes, I go see Sam Talarico of Talarico Hardwoods in Mohnton, PA. Finally, if you really want to learn lots, and lots of “stuff” about Oak, pick up a copy of OAK: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan.