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Red Oak: a plentiful species.

The broad umbrella designation of oak can be daunting. Of the 80 species which grow in North America, only 60 are bona fide trees; the balance of which are shrubs.

In the United States, botanists have organized the species into two main groups -- red oaks and white oaks. This column is devoted to Quercus rubra, American red oak and its many members.

Red is ripe in popularity

Red oak is popular both in the United States and as an export product because of its wide use for a variety of items including kitchen cabinets and entertainment centers, said Connie Burton, sales manager at Amos-Hill Associates Inc., Edinburgh, Ind. "Because of availability and economic considerations, red oak is more in demand by the kitchen cabinet industry both in lumber and veneer. The light woods have great popularity and to consumers, oak is oak. The average person wants oak, but doesn't specify red or white. They look at the price and in today's market red oak is approximately 20 percent less than white oak."

"Red oak is a softer species than white oak, which is a more dense wood. However, the industry is now seeing more second generation white oak and with it, more interior defects," Burton added. "There is more abundance of red oak available for market demands that is sound and without defects. Our methods of splicing have greatly improved and some of the problems with red oak or any softer wood have been eliminated."

Larry Frye, executive director of the Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn., keeps tabs on the usage of various woods at the spring and fall furniture shows at High Point, N.C. For the last two years, oaks have had a respectable showing for case goods, bedroom and dining room furniture, three areas his group monitors.

Red vs. white

While oaks share many properties, there are also many differences. For one, red oaks transplant much easier than white oaks and grow faster than any other American oak. Young trees, for example, can add 2 inches to the diameter per year and a foot in height.

Botanists use the leaves and acorns to classify an oak as a particular species. Instead of the red/white oak categories, trees are divided according to their black/white affinities, leaf shape (lobed or unlobed), bark color and native habitat -- are they east or west of the Rocky Mountains? Also, oaks may be deciduous or evergreen. Under this method of delineation, oaks that fall into the so-called black oak category include Northern red oak, California black oak, scarlet oak and pin oak. Black oaks include all red oaks and all live oaks or evergreen species of oak.

White oaks include Burr oak, overcup oaks, post oak, swamp chestnut and chinkapin oak.

Oaks share a natural hardiness. Sizes vary, however. Some routinely grow to heights of 150 feet, while others like the California blue oak, stay at 50 feet and some, like the scrub oaks, remain shrubs.

Although outwardly similar to white oaks, the heartwood on red oaks is a pinkish-brown to reddish-brown. Red oaks are believed to be slightly inferior to white oaks because of the figure produced by the larger rays. Red oak is considered a more coarse wood than white; among red oaks, southern red oak is more coarse than northern red oak.

Northern red oak is a very porous wood, making it unsuitable for cooperage. It is a hard, heavy, stiff wood with high shock resistance. It is subject to shrinkage during seasoning. Red oak is not a durable wood and is moderately resistant to preservative treatments. It is not recommended for exterior applications. Its many uses include: domestic flooring, architectural interiors, wall paneling, furniture and components, interior joinery, millwork, boxes, crates, caskets, timbers, handles, pallets, agricultural implements, boats and woodenware.

A North American favorite

Although grown in many parts of the world, red oak thrives in Canada and the United States. The most important commercial species of the red oaks include Quercus rubra, commonly known as northern red oak, and Quercus falcata, otherwise known as southern red oak and Spanish oak. Other commercially important red oaks include Q. velutina or black oak; Q. shumardii or shumard oak; Q. falcata, var. pagodaeoflia, cherrybark oak; Q. coccinea or scarlet oak; Q. palustris or pin oak and Q. nuttallii or nuttall oak.

Canada boasts more red oaks than the United States. Red oaks range across mid-eastern, southern Canada and the eastern United States, south to Alabama and Arkansas. According to Burton, the prime growing areas for red oak include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and northern Indiana. Northern red oak is the state tree of New Jersey.

Red oak is also found in Iran, where it is called Persian oak. The oaks found in Europe, North Africa and Japan are most often white oaks.

Family names

Quercus rubra of the Family Fagaceae also Quercus falcata, Quercus velutina, Quercus borealis, Quercus shumardii, Quercus coccinea, Quercus nuttallii, Quercus palustris, Quercus laurifolia, and Quercus phellos.

Other names

Northern red oak, Canadian red oak, American red oak and gray oak. Related species known as southern red oak, Spanish oak, swamp red oak, cherrybark oak and shumard red oak.


48 pounds per cubic foot 70 to 145 feet with 3-foot diameters

Mechanical properties

Medium bending strength, stiffness, high shock resistance and crushing strenght. Moderate blunting on cutters. Finishes well. Care needed in drying to prevent degrade.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Previous Article:Making tracks for the Old West.
Next Article:Fresh looks in solid surfacing.

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