Oak

Since I sell furniture (small shameless plug), one of the questions asked of me most often is, “What kind of wood is that?”  In the next couple of columns, we’ll talk about the different hardwoods used for furniture making and how you can spot them.  Why hardwoods? Although there is furniture made from such softwoods as pine, hemlock and fir, the nature of the wood itself tends to make it less durable and so it was less likely to be chosen to make fine furniture.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with pine furniture.  I’ve seen some great dining tables made from 2 inch thick pine boards.  It is just that to get the same durability as hardwoods, softwoods are usually thick and heavy.

The hard part about distinguishing between types of wood is that it can be covered with several kinds of stains and finishes and can be made to look like what it is not.  Given the shortage of North American hardwoods, this is not necessarily a bad thing because it allows us to buy a more modern piece (likely a tropical hardwood) and still have it match grandma’s mahogany dresser.

So, the first step is to distinguish whether it is a hardwood or a softwood.  In an unobtrusive spot, I try to dent it with a fingernail.  If I can put a small dent in the wood, I consider it a softwood.  This can be less than obvious, because in a chest of drawers it is likely that the wood inside the drawers are made from something different than the top, and the apron on a dining table can be a different wood than the top.

Let’s start with the easiest to spot and the one you’re mostly likely familiar with…oak.  Oak has a long and glorious history going back to the Greeks and was the wood of choice since the Middle Ages for English furniture. Bishops preached from oak pulpits while kings ruled from oak thrones.  Oak was the wood of choice for both Spanish furniture and Spanish missions in the New World.  It was this popularity, both in England and in the new world missions that made it the wood of choice for arts and crafts (aka mission) furniture.

Although the United States is home to about 50 of the 200 species of oak, the best known is the white oak, a tree that can reach 70 to 100 feet, and the red oak which, because of its amber color and durability, is usually the oak of choice for flooring.

oakOak is heavy, easily machined and the open-pore structure makes it less likely to fuzz than hickory or ash.

In the picture you can see this characteristic open-pore structure.  This can give oak a somewhat rough feel and sometimes furniture makers will fill in the pores with fine sawdust or silica to help give it a more glass-like feel.

Of course, the type of grain will vary with how the wood is cut and the quarter sawn oak in the picture below is considered particularly choice and, in part because of its rarity, more beautiful.

quartersawnQuarter sawing oak is a much less efficient use of the log, which is why it is rarely seen any more but when Gustav Stickley made his classic furniture, he was so fond of the look that he constructed posts out of 4 boards, so the quarter sawn look could be seen on all four sides.

I’m about out of time for this week, but next time we’ll continue to explore the great North American hardwoods of maple, walnut and cherry.  Got something you want to know about?  Send me an email at