Oak’s Great Divide: Whether rift cut or quartered, white oak continues to be a hit with users.


Family Name

Quercus alba and related species of the Family Fagaceae.

Common Names

White oak, American white oak, stave oak, forked-leaf white oak, Appalachian oak.


White oak’s average height is 60 to 100 feet, with diameters between 4 and 6 feet. Weight averages between 45 to 47 pounds per cubic foot.


White oak wood is typically heavy, very hard and strong. Care in drying is essential to avoid problems with checking and warping.

Wood has medium movement in service. Working properties vary

according to growth rate. Slow-grown lumber is easier to work with hand and machine tools.

Wood has medium bending and crushing strength, low stiffness and is well-suited for steam bending.

Wood takes screws well. Preboring is recommended for nails.

Versatile is a good description for American white oak, the popular species that is used as veneer or in solid form for a wide range of uses, including flooring, furniture, cabinetry, doors, paneling, architectural millwork, moulding, shipbuilding and even caskets.

With its distinctive, water-tight properties due to its tyloses, white oak also is highly popular for cooperage, where it is used to make staves for whiskey, wine and beer barrels. The time of storage in oak barrels also is essential in imparting that well-known flavor, due to the tannins in the wood.

Rift Cut Gains Popularity

White oak long has been a favorite with users and is available in all the “flavors” of production: rift cut, quartered and plain-sawn, said Ben Barrett, president of Berkshire Veneer Co. in Great Barrington, MA.

“Rift cut is currently very popular with our customers, especially in the New York market where we are moving a lot of high-grade rift white oak, most of it going to paneling and into doors for architectural millwork companies,” Barrett said. “The benefit of rift-cut white oak is its consistency. Big, large expanses can be covered in a homogeneous look.”

A general guideline to distinguish rift and quarter cut is rift lumber has growth rings of 30 to 60 degrees, compared to 60 to 90 degrees for quartered. Oftentimes, though, “Veneer is too thin to check the growth rings, so people rely on appearance,” said Barrett.

Sam Talarico, owner of Talarico Hardwoods, Mohnton, PA, said that when growth rings are visible, “12 to 16 growth rings per inch is considered ‘old growth’ or tight grain. Sixteen to 25 growth rings per inch are considered Number 1 texture; 30-60 plus is a whole other level of quality and rare.” According to Talarico, old-growth quarter-sawn wood offers a warm color and soft texture as well as more flake figure.

‘A Ray’ of Opportunities

Talarico said customers often value old growth quartered white oak for its looks, properties and ease of workability. “It has many applications, including restoration work. For people restoring old homes and floors and furniture, we can find matches going by the tightness of grain.”

According to Barrett, quartered oak also is popular for Arts & Crafts and Mission style furniture and can give a “masculine” look to dens and rec rooms.

“It is hard to pigeonhole the uses for any wood because in the custom field, the client can use it for just about anything he wants,” Barrett said. “With the medullary ray figure from quarter sawn oak, a bundle of 24 leaves can yield radically different looks from leaf one to leaf 24,” said Barrett. “The quartered material doesn’t usually yield large expanses with a consistent look. Often, door panels will be laid up with a quartered panel and rift will be used on the stiles and rails,” he added.

“People rely on appearance, but that can be subjective in that one person might see a flake figure while another won’t,” Barrett said. “Because wood is a naturally occurring product and not something engineered by the mile, you won’t see complete consistency. I offer clients samples of veneer with varying degrees of flake or rift and let them tell me the look they want,” Barrett added.

In addition to rift and quartered old-growth white oak, Talarico said he also sees some demand for fumed or “smoked” oak, which is spessart oak fumed under pressure, and a comb figure, which he described as a cross between a true quartered figure and rift with quartered rays that are long and fine and run more parallel to the grain.

Oak Facts

Worldwide, there are some 200 species in the Quercus species. In the United States, botanists typically divide the 60 plus species of oak into two main categories — white oak and red oak. American white oak, Quercus alba, is the most widely used of the commercial white oaks. Other white oaks include swamp white oak, (Quercus bicolor), chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauzii), chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), overcup oak (Quercus lyrata) and post oak (Quercus stellata).

White oak’s range is primarily in the Eastern United States and Southeastern Canada. Its color ranges from a pale yellow brown to a light brown to a deeper brown. Some oaks have an ochre or a pink tinge.

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