English Brown Oak

By Jo-Ann Kaiser | Posted: 04/08/2008 2:00AM

 

Flakey, but fine design: English brown oak survives the beefsteak fungal attack in fine style.

Family Name
Quercus petraea and Quercus robur of the Family Fagaceae

Common Names
Brown oak, English brown oak, European oak, pollard oak, pollardok

Height/Weight
The oaks grow from 60 to 100 feet tall.

The weight varies according to the country of origin, with the English oaks typically 45 pounds per cubic foot.

Properties
Experts recommend extreme care and slow drying to avoid problems such as surface checking.

Although a hard wood, oak works well with hand and power tools.

Takes finishes well. Glue joints are durable. Screw and nail joints hold well but may cause staining in the wood if moisture is present due to the acidic nature of the wood.

Experts recommend the use of non-ferrous or galvanized metals to avoid staining and corrosion.

Brown oak is the name for the European oak trees affected by fungal attack from Fistulina hepatica. Also known as the beefsteak fungus, it attacks live trees, turning the heartwood of the trees a dark brown with distinctive markings for what some call a happy accident of nature.

According to Sam Talarico of Talarico Hardwoods, Mohnton, PA, “It grows in about one out of every 500 Quercus robur and Quercus petraea oak trees in England and France. The ‘brown oak’ that results from [this] growth in oaks has traditionally been the only sort of oak used in fine European furniture.

“We specialize in old growth lumber and carry old growth French brown oak from Quercus petraea,” Talarico continued. “One parcel of logs that was rift and quartersawn netted lumber with growth rings that were 30 to 60 rings per inch.”

Rick Banas of Shelbyville, KY-based Interwood Forest Products Inc., a subsidiary of Fritz Kohl Veneer Mill, said his company recently processed a large parcel of English brown oak from selected trees purchased in France.

 “As it turned out, there was some private land in which all of the oak trees growing there were decayed to the point where all of the heartwood was completely brown as well as being sound,” said Banas.

Only when the entire heartwood is fungi infested will the heartwood turn dark brown. The distinctive flake effect is achieved by quarter-slicing or rift cutting, he added.

A Courtly Tree

Banas said brown oak is a traditionally used in courthouses throughout the United States. “I assume this is a custom handed down from our English heritage,” he said. “We have supplied veneer for use in courthouses, libraries, yachts and planes, as well as for some antique furniture reproductions.

According to Banas, once cut, the wood again becomes vulnerable to attack. “A postscript about this wood is that English brown oak is like filet mignon to our woodworking ‘friends,’ the powder post beetle,” he said. “Consequently, all our veneers are wrapped air-tight in plastic so that we don’t invite our ‘friends’ for a free meal.”

Talarico said the U.S. market traditionally prefers rift and quartersawn lumber and veneer from English brown oak. “Logs that are not good enough to be quartersawn, either because they are too small or too crooked, will be ‘cut in the boule,’” he said.

Although there can be a significant waste factor with some English brown oak logs, because either the logs are not totally brown or some sapwood must be cut, Talarico said, “The best quality logs suitable for rift and quarter sawing have [a very low] amount of waste. It is gorgeous stuff and meant to be used in high-end applications.”

Beautiful Color

According to Talarico, good quality English brown oak is beautiful, ranging in color from a deep brown to a lighter brown. “It is used primarily for high-end furniture and architectural woodworking,” he said.

Jim Dumas of Certainly Wood, East Aurora, NY, said his company has been selling English brown oak for 30 years. “There was time, about 20 years ago, when it was extremely popular,” he said.

Back then though, the demand was for the most colorful English brown oak, Dumas added.

“English brown oak can have many shades of brown, from the biscuit color to a light buttery brown, and a medium brown to a rich coffee. It can also have what they call salt-and-pepper English brown oak,” said Dumas. “The little brown dashes were what some people called pepper and the light streaks were called salt. It has always been a popular choice for architectural woodworking as well as for custom office furniture.”

Other applications for the veneer can include flooring and specialty custom items, such as Black Forest clocks, said Tom Lenderink of Belmont, MI-based Lenderink Technologies. Lenderink said he is such a big fan of English brown oak that he used it for flooring in one of his homes and also for a bedroom suite.

“We cut it into micro-thin veneer and protected it with a clear film overlay. It is an expensive and rare wood, but this method is environmentally friendly as the yields are high,” Lenderink said.

“English brown oak, depending on how you cut it, is unique and attractive. It has a very rich look to it,” he added.


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About the Author

Jo-Ann Kaiser

Jo-Ann Kaiser

Jo-Ann Kaiser has been covering the woodworking industry for 31+ years. She is a contributing editor for the Woodworking Network and has been writing the Wood of the Month column since its inception in 1986.

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