Oak is one of the most popular species of wood that is used in woodworking today. It’s abundance, low cost and appearance make it a strong consideration all projects for a woodworker. It’s estimated that more than 50% of all hardwoods in the United States are made up of some type of oak tree. Before starting a project using oak, it is important to understand the qualities and characteristics that make it a wood of choice, but it’s just as important to understand some of the challenges it presents as well.
At some point during our childhood, each of us probably played on a tire swing or built a tree house high above the ground. If so, there’s high probability that the tree that these items were attached to, was an oak tree. If you were to go back to the location of this tire swing or tree house, there is also a high probability that this tree is still standing (unless urban development has taken over the area).
Oak trees represent strength and resiliency. These trees can grow to be massive in size yet survive for centuries. It’s a slow growing tree and its roots run deep to help provide it with a firm foundation.
The average oak tree can grow up to 100 feet tall and have a limb span of 50-80 feet. Most oak trees can live to be a couple hundred years old; however, some have been reported to live more than 600 years old!
Oak is separated into two varieties. They are Red Oak and White Oak. Each of the varieties have their own unique characteristics.
White oak is excellent at repelling water and liquids. Due to this, it is common to use white oak lumber for flooring and other surfaces where water could be a problem. This species of wood is also common in the production of wine barrels and boats.
Some of the oak species that are considered a white oak are: Bur Oak and English Oak.
Opposite of its relative, red oak does not repel water very well. Due to this, it is recommended that the wood is not used on anything that will be outdoors. Though it does not repel water well, it is often used as a hardwood floor due to its beauty.
Red Oak species include Pin Oak, Black Oak and Willow Oaks.
The cutting characteristics of both types of oak are identical.
It’s very important to use sharp blades when cutting oak lumber. Due to its overall hardness, oak has a strong tendency to burn as it’s being cut. The best options to avoid this is to ensure the blades are sharp prior to sawing. Oak can also cause your bits and blades to dull quicker than you might be accustomed to with other woods. I recommend using carbide tipped blades to extend the life of your blades.
The steps for staining red or white oak is the same. We will cover the basic steps to applying stain to the wood, but I’ll also go into more detail for what to expect when staining red or white oak.
Prior to applying the stain, it is recommended that you do a few different levels of sanding. It’s recommended that you start with a lower grit sandpaper (80 – 100) and work your way up to a grit of 220. The higher-level sandpapers will remove the larger scratches left by the coarse sandpaper.
Next, it is recommended that you apply a wood sealer. The sealer works to even out the absorption of the stain by the wood producing a more consistent finished product. I highly recommend using a sealer when staining white oak. I explain why in the next section. Multiple coats of a sealer may be required. It’s recommended that you soak up any excess sealer that is still present after 20 minutes.
By the time you’ve applied a second or third coat of the sealer to your project, you should begin to notice that the sealer is not getting absorbed into the wood. If 10-15 minutes pass and there is still excess present on the surface of the wood, you have applied enough sealant to being your staining process.
Prior to applying a stain, it is recommended that you wait at least 24 hours to ensure the sealant has properly dried.
Since you’ve applied your sealant, the staining process should be very straightforward. Many people use a brush or cloth to apply their stain. Try to apply a level amount of stain to the entire surface and wipe an excess off the surface before allowing it to dry.
One of the best characteristics to using white oak also causes problems when it comes to applying a finish. Since this variety of wood is so good at repelling water, it can make it very difficult to stain because it absorbs the stain unevenly. This is why I highly recommend using a sealer before applying any stain to white oak. Sometimes wood sealers can end up leaving a faint brown tint to your wood when it dries. The best sealer that I have come across that does not impact the natural color of the wood is this sealer by Zinsser.
Please be aware that when you stain a piece of white oak, its color can vary from a light to deep brown. It also can have some tints of yellow present as well.
Due to the grain features of red oak and the ease at which it is to apply, it is commonly one of the more preferred woods to use. Once stain is applied to red oak, the colors tend to become dark in nature and depending upon the grain, can develop near black lines that add to its beauty.
Again, due to the large grain pores present in red oak, a frequent practice in the woodworking community is to apply a wood grain filler after applying your sealant. The purpose of using a grain filler is solely for appearance purposes. The filler is used to fill in the grain pores to make them less visible. It is suggested that you test a filler on a scrap piece of wood before using as it can create an additional level of contrast in the wood once you apply a stain.
When purchasing grain filler, MAKE SURE you are purchasing grain filler and not “wood filler.” There is a significant difference between the two. Wood filler is much thicker and will not fill in the grain properly. The grain filler that I use is here.
Sealing and Protecting
It’s recommended that any surface top made of oak is treated with a sealant. This is especially true when using red oak. Due to the large grain structure within red oak makes it highly susceptible to water damage. In fact, if you’ve ever been in an old house or barn that wasn’t protected from the weather, you’ve probably noticed black spots on the floor. This is what can happen when red oak has water sitting on it for extended periods of time. It tends to develop an almost black stain, that can be difficult to remove.
The two most common methods for a protective coatings on a surface piece is to use a coat of Shellac or Polyurethane.
Shellac is a resin that oddly enough is secreted from female lac bugs in India and Thailand. The resin is collected and then mixed with alcohol to produce the product that you find in stores to protect your woodwork. Shellac can be purchased in numerous different tints that can have an impact on the finish of your wood. It is available as a clear applicant to minimize the look to your work. Since it is a natural product, it is safe once it has dried. However, one complaint about the product is that it will create white circles if it comes into contact with hot surfaces.
Polyurethane was first developed in the late 1930’s and is made up of polymer that are joined together with urethane links. It it sometimes referred to as “liquid plastic.” Unlike Shellac, Polyurethane does very well with high heat contact. Polyurethane is typically applied using a brush, but it is available in a spray can which makes the application process much easier.
Oils such as Tung oil are available to apply to oak products, however it is usually only done so to pieces that will not get much use such as antiques. The level of protection with the oils just isn’t as strong as Shellac and Polyurethane.
Using stains and finishes that come into contact with food surfaces have additional precautions that should be considered. To find more information about this, please see my article here.