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Traditional uses for white oak include decidedly unglamorous applications, such as: railroad ties, mine timbers, fenceposts, pallets, agricultural implements and fuel. Because of its strength and durability, and natural resistance to decay, white oak is used in a variety of construction work and has a long history in ship and boat building as well. Staves made from white oak are exported around the world for use in vats, barrels and casks used in the production of wine, beer and liquor. White oaks are closer grained than red oaks and have numerous, angular pores filled with tyloses, membranous growths that make the wood watertight.
White oak lumber and veneer have also long been used in furniture, casegoods and cabinetry, as well as millwork, and plank and parquet flooring.
Sam Talarico, president and owner of Talarico Hardwoods Ltd. in Mohnton, PA, specializes in old growth white oak. Talarico said most of the old growth white oak is used for restoration jobs, where the client needs to match existing lumber in a home built 100 to 150 years ago. "It is also used in architectural applications and for custom furniture makers looking for tight grain and exceptional color."
Talarico said the best growth areas for white oaks in the United States traditionally have been in the Northern Appalachian Mountains, because of the elevation and soil. Ohio and Indiana were home to great white oaks and still have some great old growth timber. Southern and South Central Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia offered great stands of white oak as well. "A good white oak needs very shallow, thin soil with no minerals so it will grow slowly and evenly. Soil makes all the difference in the tree's growth and quality."
In addition to buying lumber from U.S. suppliers, Talarico has been buying old growth white oak (mainly Quercus petraea) from Germany, England and Scotland. Talarico said in his search for old growth white oak he's competing with the veneer mills and the barrel makers. "Both of them need good white oak. Wine makers need good, tight grain for their barrels, but whiskey makers can use lower grades of white oak. In whiskey, it isn't as critical to the flavor as it is in wine." Talarico said that today, supplies of old growth white oak are harder to find in the United States. "Much of the U.S. old growth white oak is coming from private property."
Scott Wright, production manager of Renaissance Specialty Veneer Products, Columbus, IN, sees more demand for white oak than red. "It is more popular with veneer buyers, probably because of the lighter color and the grain." His company sells quarter sawn and rift-cut veneer, two popular cuts that show off the grain of white oak. "The tight grain material is the most sought after. It is being used for high-end architectural applications, paneling, elevator interiors and court houses, for example, as well as high-end furniture," Wright said.
More than 300 species of oaks are native to North America, although those native to the United States and Canada number around 50, with only nine or so species of white oaks considered commercially important. One of the most famous commercial oaks is the American white oak.
Botanists divide oaks into two general groups, the white oaks and the red oaks. White and red oaks have many similarities, but the main differences between the groups are the shape of their leaves and the time it takes the acorns to mature. An identifying characteristic of white oaks is their lobed leaves and rounded tips. Red oaks sometimes have lobed leaves, but the tips to the leaves are pointed.
Both white and red oaks are major commercial timbers in the United States and Canada. White oaks, unlike red oaks, yield wood highly suitable for tight cooperage because of the pores of the heartwood. American white oak is similar to European oak, although due to the many species that share the white oak name, American white oaks vary in color. The heartwood ranges from a pale yellow brown to a gray brown or tan "biscuit" brown, to a darker brown, occasionally with a pink tinge. White oak sapwood is usually lighter in color, often close to white.
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