Introduction to Wood Species: Oak

White Oak, Alpine (from the Samuel Lee Collection)

Oak has been used as a hardwood timber for thousands of years and can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Today, oak wood is commonly used for furniture making and flooring, timber frame buildings, and for veneer production. Barrels in which wines, sherry, and spirits such as brandy, Irish whiskey, Scotch whiskey and Bourbon whiskey are aged are made from European and American oak. The use of oak in wine can add many different dimensions based on the type and style of the oak. Oak barrels, which may be charred before use, contribute to the color, taste, and aroma of the contents, imparting a desirable oaky vanillin flavor.

The Oak Species

Oak is the common name for many acorn-producing trees and shrubs that are members of the beech, or Fagaceae, family. Oak trees are classified as members of the genus Quercus, a Latin word said to be derived from the Celtic word for “fine tree.” There are approximately 600 different species of oak worldwide. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with approximately 90 occurring in the United States, while Mexico has 160 species of which 109 are the most common. The second greatest center of oak diversity is China, which contains approximately 100 species. Oak trees are also native to Japan, Europe, and the British Isles; however, they are very scarce in areas with short summer growing seasons and long winters, such as Canada, northern Europe, and Siberia. The leaves of the oak tree are characteristically lobed and, depending upon the variety, can have anywhere from five to eleven lobes.

Oak in World History

Many cultures, including Celtic and Jewish, consider the oak to be sacred. The Bible refers to the Oak of Mamre when Abraham is visited by the three angels who inform him of his wife Sarah’s future pregnancy. Jewish people, therefore, believe that anyone defacing this tree will lose their firstborn son.

“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.’” Genesis 18:1-3 

In the 9th and 10th centuries, oak planking was common on high-status Viking longships. The wood was hewn from green logs, by ax and wedge, to produce radial planks, similar to quarter-sawn timber. Wide, quarter-sawn boards of oak have been prized since the Middle Ages for use in interior paneling of prestigious buildings such as the debating chamber of the House of Commons in London and in the construction of fine furniture. Oakwood was used in Europe for the construction of ships, especially naval men of war, until the 19th century, and was the principal timber used in the construction of European timber-framed buildings.

Both the ancient Greeks and Romans also revered the oak, but its longest known association has been with the British Isles. The Druids considered the oak to have both medicinal and mystical significance. For centuries, an oak sprig was inscribed on English coins. Also according to legend, King Arthur’s round table was crafted from a gigantic slice of an ancient oak tree. Oak has also been used medicinally since the ancient Greek and Roman times. The famous Roman doctor, Galen, first used oak leaves to heal wounds.

Characteristics of Oak Wood as a Flooring Option

Oakwood is extremely dense, creating great strength and hardness. The wood is very resistant to insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. It also has very appealing grain markings, particularly when quarter-sawn, demonstrating a beautiful, light color and a prominent grain. 

The shades of oak wood used in flooring can vary from tree to tree and branch to branch, depending not only on the exact species of oak but also from the growing conditions. Oaks are divided into two basic categories: White and Red. Both are used extensively for hardwood flooring.  When a natural finish or oil is applied to either Red Oak or White Oak wood, the variations and contrasts of the material shine, creating a beautiful, natural feature without the need for heavy ornamentation.

Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is known for having moderate to heavy graining with moderate color variations. The coloring of Red Oak ranges from light, creamy, reddish pinks to shades of brown. Red Oak varies from White Oak due to the fact that it has pinkish undertones, whereas White Oak has golden/brownish gray undertones.

White Oak (Quercus alba) is a domestic wood species similar to Red Oak, but harder. The natural coloring of White Oak ranges from golden/browns to gray undertones. Because of the harder grain, White Oak flooring takes stain colors very evenly. White Oak hardwood flooring features generally moderate linear graining with moderate color variations and has exceptional stability. Because of the great durability and stability of White Oak, it has been used for flooring and in boat building and wine barrels for centuries. White Oak is a fantastic way to add a touch of traditional atmosphere to your home without introducing the hints of red found in a Red Oak.

White Oak, Tigers Eye (From the S&W; Collection)

White Oak, Castle Stone (From the S&W; Collection)

Shannon and Waterman is proud to offer White Oak in a wide range of finishes and cuts that are guaranteed to add beauty and warmth to any living space.

Every newly crafted Shannon & Waterman wide plank floor has its beginnings in our family-owned, old growth forests. For generations, we’ve masterfully managed our forests for true sustainability—ensuring that we always have the mature trees necessary to supply the densely grown, stable, and generously proportioned wood to create the floors of your dreams. In addition, many of our products are FSC® certified.

The Complete Shannon & Waterman White Oak Collection can be viewed here: S&W; Oak Floors