Oaks loom in designs, folklore and symbolism

Oaks loom in designs, folklore and symbolism

Jo-Ann Kaiser

Wood of the Month debuted in June 1986 with a column on oak. Since then we have devoted much space to red oaks and white oaks because, very simply, oak continues to be a beloved and much used species in the United States.

The Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn. tracks the use of various hardwoods at the two major U.S. residential furniture shows, the Spring and Fall Furniture Markets in High Point, N.C. Oak has dominated as the wood species of choice for the past decade. This is symbolic for many reasons. One, it marks a return to lighter colored woods. And two, it signifies a resurgence in the popularity of country design and most recently, the Craftsman style of furniture.

In the book, “The Furniture of Gustav Stickley,” authors Joseph J. Bavaro and Thomas L. Mossman state that Stickley, the “Father” of the Craftsman style in the United States in the early 1900s “chose oak as the primary material for his furniture. Oak was abundant in American forests (and thus served as an expression of the natural environment of the people), and it had historic use as a strong structural building material (a direct application of the theory of structural style).”

The authors state that after choosing oak as the raw material, Stickley used both hand and machine tools to work the wood. According to the authors, he did not believe in “abusing wood” by forcing it into “unnatural” shapes. “Wood is designed to be cut and metal to be molded; therefore when the craftsman fails to recognize these separate and distinct methods of treatment, he violates the intuitions of taste and the laws of logic,” Stickley wrote.

“The quarter-sawing method of cutting oak, that is, the making of the cut parallel; with the medullary rays and therefore preserving them, instead of cutting across them and destroying their binding properties, renders quarter-sawn oak structurally stronger, also finer in grain, and less liable to check and warp than when sawn in any other way,” wrote Stickley. He said plain sawn oak was an entirely different wood, presenting a marked coarseness of texture that relegates its use to “purposes that do not demand finer and more pleasing qualities.”

Multitude of species

There are 450 species of oak in the world covering every form from evergreen to deciduous trees, shrubs and bushes in North America, Europe and Asia.

The oaks of North America include some 80 species, with 60 classified as trees. Of the 60 tree species of oak, some 25 are considered noteworthy for commercial or ornamental reasons.

Oaks in North America generally are classified in two distinct groups: the white oaks and the black oaks. Another way to distinguish the oaks is if they are live or evergreen oaks or deciduous oaks. The white oaks include Quercus alba and the black oaks include the live oaks and the red oaks.

White oaks distinguished by location

Oaks are also often distinguished by the area where they grow. Of the white oaks there is the so-called classic white oak, Quercus alba, which grows from Maine to Texas. Other prominent white oaks include Quercus prinus, the shallow lobed chestnut; Quercus muehlenbergii, or chinkapin oak; Quercus michauxii, also called swamp chestnut; Quercus bicolor or swampwhite; and Quercus macrocarpa, the burr oak. Quercus stellata is the post oak; and from the West Coast, Quercus lobata, the California white and Quercus garryana, the Oregon white.

Some believe that the white oaks of the species Quercus alba get their name from the color of the tree’s trunk, which is whitish grey and scaly. The black oaks have a blackish trunk.

Varied uses

Oak has many uses. It is very popular for furniture and cabinetry, joinery, heavy construction, and parquet and regular floors. Oak is also used for church pews and pulpits, boat building, wagons, and coffins. It remains a popular choice for cooperage.

Oak is used to make barrels because of its strength and properties but also because of the wood’s natural tannin acids. Food and beverages have been stored in specially made oak barrels because oak gives off some of the tannin. Brandy, wine, beer and sherry, for example, have long been stored in oak barrels. According to experts, the time spent in the oak casks has helped to develop the flavor of the beverage. Root beer is another drink that gets part of its flavor from the oak barrel during aging.

The natural tannin of oak is also used to tan leather because it stops the decay of skins and animal hides.

Properties depend on rate of growth

White oaks primarily grow in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. They vary in color from a pale yellowish brown to a faintly pink tan color.

The white oak’s properties are dependent on its rate of growth. Experts believe that the faster growing southern trees can produce harder timber. Appalachian oak, which supposedly grows slower, produces a lighter weight wood.

Slow grown oak is considered to be easier to work with hand and machine tools. Oak needs to be prebored before nailing or inserting screws. Gluing of oak can be difficult at times. Oak finishes very well.

Family Names

Quercus alba of the Family Fagaceae

Other Names

Related species of white oak also known as chestnut oak, overcup oak, swamp chestnut oak, Appalachian oak, northern and southern oak, stave oak and forked-leaf white oak.


Quercus alba has an average height of 100 feet with a wide crown, irregular dome, with heavy, spreading limbs. Weight averages 47 pounds per cubic foot with specific gravity of 0.76.


White oak has medium bending and crushing strengths with low stiffness. It has excellent steam-bending qualities. The heartwood is durable. Working properties vary according to the rate of growth of the tree. White oak dries slowly with a tendency to check, split and honeycomb. Care in handling is recommended air or kiln drying.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Vance Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning