White Oak: A Cut Above for Cabinets & Casegoods

By Jo-Ann Kaiser | Posted: 09/05/2012 3:15PM


northwest hardwoods   Sponsored by: Northwest Hardwoods: Lumber that’s Graded For Yield®.



click image to zoomWhite oakFamily Name:
Quercus alba and various species of Quercus of the Family Fagaceae

Common Names
American white oak, white oak, Appalachian oak, Northern oak

White oak trees grow to 70 to 80 feet tall with some reaching heights of 100 feet or more. Their weight averages 47 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.76.

• Working properties can vary according to the rate of growth. The wood dries slowly with a tendency to check. Care is needed in air or kiln drying .
• The wood takes nails and screws well. Experts recommend pre-boring.
•The material works with well with both hand and machine tools. White oak also steam bends well.
Steven Schmidt, owner of Schmidt Furniture Co., is a long-time woodworker and an acknowledged fan of white oak. Schmidt began building cabinets some 30 years ago in his home workshop after apprenticing at a local cabinet shop.

His Wakarusa, IN-based business is a custom operation, employing Amish furniture and cabinet methods of the past, such as mortise-and-tenon face frames, frame-and-panel cabinet sides and dovetailed drawers. The company uses select grades of lumber, including mahogany, cherry, quartersawn red and white oak, ash, maple and walnut to build its furniture.

Of the species used in the shop, Schmidt said he enjoys working with white oak, especially when the wood is quarter sawn. “There is little difference between rift cut and quartersawn white oak, but the quartered material gives you the watermark or fleck,” he said.

Rift sawn wood is generally described as the log having been milled at an angle of between 45 degrees to 75 degrees. Wood is described as quarter sawn when the log is milled at a radial angle into four quarters, a method that produces a straight linear grain pattern.

The two cuts became popular in the days before kiln drying was the norm, Schmidt said. “The rift or quartersawn oak material will have less expansion and contraction and more stability.”

Stickley FurnitureAvailable from Stickley Furniture, the Ellis Fall Front bookcase features inlay on the doors, adjustable shelving and a locking drop front lid. Schmidt said he considers white oak a beautiful wood to work, and will purchase Northern oak because it tends to have a more even color. “It works very well, with mortise-and-tenon face frames it will fit together so well and it is one of the woods that sands well, too. It doesn’t leave swirl marks.”

It is also a great choice for Mission style furniture, for which Gustav Stickley is credited with creating.

“It is used there because the grain lends itself to a more rustic look and more linear lines,” Schmidt said. “White oak is also a good choice for contemporary styles and Shaker. A ‘slab’ contemporary door featuring quarter sawn bookmatched white oak veneer gives a wonderful look that is linear, but also woody.”

Ben Zienty, also at Schmidt Furniture Co., likes quarter sawn white oak as well. “It gives a stronger figure than red oak, has a lighter color and is just generally more consistent. White oak finishes well, too.”

A White Oak Mission

White oak’s range spans across the Eastern and Southern United States, and comprises approximately 15 percent of the commercially available hardwoods, according to Northwest Hardwoods’ website. According to the company, the trees average 70 to 80 feet in height, with a dense wood and coarse, open grain.

In addition to furniture, the commercial uses for white oak include cabinetry, flooring, doors and panels, and millwork. It also is used in bridges, shipbuilding, coffins and railroad cars and is the preferred species for tight cooperage such as wine and whiskey casks.

Stickley FurnitureOak is featured in this Mission-style cabinet, a 2012 limited edition collector piece from Stickley Furniture. Veneers: A Fritz Kohl Handbook says white oak is a wood held in high esteem in both the lumber and veneer trades. “The white oak can be used universally in all branches of the woodworking industry because it is the most resistant to external influences.”

According to the book, there are more than 80 different species of oak in the United States, with many mixed genera and varieties. “Due to the strong interbreeding of the different species the color spectrum is broad and extends from light yellow to dark brown with deviations into pink.”

Other species of white oak include Quercus prinus or chestnut oak; Quercus lyrata, also known as overcup oak; and Quercus michauxii, also known as swamp chestnut oak.


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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