Woods to Know: White Oak - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Woods to Know: White Oak

White Oak (Quercus alba)

by Peter MacSween, A&M Wood Specialty

While White Oak may not share the fame of the more common red oak, it does not deserve to be considered a second-class wood. The botanical and anatomical differences that separate white oak from Red Oak yield several desirable qualities that make White Oak a useful member of the woodworkers’ palette.


Commercially, several species of oak are grouped and sold as White Oak. The most common White Oak, Quercus alba, grows throughout eastern North America from Florida northward to southern Quebec. It is a long-lived species typically living well past 200 years. It generally achieves heights of 65' to 85' with diameters of 3' to4'. Trees from the forest can grow over 100' high while those growing in open areas are shorter, often as broad as they are tall. 
The heartwood is white to a light tan brown with sapwood that is not often demarcated from the heart. It is straight grained with a coarse and uneven texture. The wood is hard, tough and durable, prized in boat and shipbuilding because it steam bends well. White Oak is also used in fine furniture, flooring, cabinetry, interior trim, and decorative veneer.
All oaks have large medullary rays visible to the unaided eye; those in White Oak are especially large. While most of the cells of a tree are longitudinal transporting nutrients up and down from the leaves to the roots, those in White Oak rays are arranged radially inward towards the pith. When White Oak is quarter sawn these large rays are made visible giving quarter-sawn white oak its distinctive appearance. Furniture makers in the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as by Gustav Stickley, used quarter-sawn White Ooak as the signature wood for their mission style furniture.

White Oak end grain
White Oak also contains large amounts of tannin, a chemical the tree uses as a pesticide. The tannin content of white oak makes it an ideal choice for outdoor and marine applications. Tannins have their downside, though. They react with ferrous metals producing a dark stain wherever metal contacts wood. Clamping should be done with care and non-ferrous fasteners may be a wise choice. Homemade stains made from steel wool dissolved in vinegar can rapidly stain White Oak black yielding a wood that resembles the famous bog oaks of Europe.
The longitudinal cells of White Oak are plugged with structures called tyloses. This results in a wood that is renowned for cooperage and barrel making. Red Oak, which lacks tyloses, makes a barrel that would quickly leak its entire contents.
Shrinkage is relatively high, so movement must be accommodated, especially in flat-sawn boards. White Oak works well with all manner of power and hand tools. Being ring porous, it stains beautifully and glues and nails well. Supplies are plentiful and it is one of the few species that is sorted into flat-sawn and quarter-sawn parcels. All told, it is a common yet underutilized wood that more woodworkers should try, and for anyone undertaking mission style furniture it is irreplaceable. 

Facts To Know

Average Dried Weight47 lbs/ft3A measure of its weight at 12% moisture and an ambient temperature of 70°F.
Specific Gravity.75A measure of the ratio of its density compared to water (at 12% MC).
ShrinkageRadial: 5.6%,
Tangential: 10.5%,
Volumetric: 16%
Radial (the amount of crosswise shrinkage);
Tangential (the amount of lengthwise shrinkage);
Volumetric (the total amount of shrinkage.)
T/R Ratio1.9A measure of the uniformity of tangential to radial shrinkage.
Janka Hardness1,350 lbfA measure of resistance to denting and abrasion.
Crushing Strength7,370 lbf/in2A measure of compression strength parallel to the grain.
ColourHeartwood is a light to medium brown, commonly with an olive cast. Nearly white to light brown sapwood is not always sharply demarcated from the heartwood. Quartersawn sections display prominent ray fleck patterns.
TextureCoasse, uneven
WorkabilityProduces good results with hand and machine tools. Has moderately high shrinkage values, resulting in mediocre dimensional stability, especially in flatsawn boards. Can react with iron (particularly when wet) and cause staining and discoloration. Responds well to steam-bending. Glues, stains, and finishes well.
UsesFine furniture, boatbuilding, musical instruments, turning carving, interior trim.
Price$5.00/BF (4/4 stock)
$8.00/BF (8/4 stock)
Approximate Pricing
Photos and Specifications Courtesy of: The Wood Database