Embracing the Weed
Around the Popular Woodworking Magazine office we used to joke about how red oak (Quercus rubra) wasn’t really a wood. It was more like a weed. It’s stringy, kinda homely, cheap and – most of all – everywhere.
I have been in far too many kitchens around the world where every piece of wood that wasn’t painted was red oak. When my sister-in-law asked me how to improve the look of her red oak cabinets, I offered a two-word answer: paint or fire.
So this week I’m buying wood for my next project, a campaign-style folding bookcase. Even after building the massive Monticello bookcase for my library, I still have need for about 40’ more linear feet of shelving.
I’m a long-time fan of campaign furniture. It’s simple, strong and manly, like me. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.
Whenever I build a project such as this, I tend to do a bunch of research so that I have a basic understanding of the style and form. It’s like studying a language before you travel abroad. You might not be fluent and fool the locals, but at least you won’t end up eating monkey brains at a restaurant.
If you look only at auction catalogs, you might think that all campaign furniture was made from teak or mahogany. And to be sure, a lot of it was made using those exotic woods. But not all. Primary sources – such as advertisements and period catalogs – also indicate that oak was widely used in these pieces. And sometimes walnut.
So when I went to the lumberyard this morning to buy wood I took my cutting list, a tape measure and an open mind. I never calculate board footage and just order that amount – plus waste – from the yard. Every time I’ve done that, I’ve ended up with more waste.
I’d rather pay more for the wood and pick every stick myself than pay less and let someone else do it. The last time I let the lumberyard pick my stock, a fellow employee was in a spat with the yard. And when the yard’s employees brought out my 150-board-feet of cherry it was more sapwood than hardwood.
I asked for a refund. They refused.
“Sap,” the guy said, “is not a defect.”
So this morning I spent more than 90 minutes picking through the boards at the yard. The teak looked like crap. And at $11 a board foot, it had better be gold-plated poo. The mahogany wasn’t much better. There were some good wide boards in the racks, but not enough to make me pull the trigger.
So I started looking at the quartersawn white oak. Even though I can’t get English oak, I know that I can give American oaks a deep reddish-brown color thanks to experiments that David Thiel and I did with dye, glaze and stain in the 1990s.
The quartersawn oak was so narrow I was going to have to glue up a lot of panels to make the project work. And flatsawn oak is just ugly to my eye.
So I crossed the tracks, the Rubicon and myself as I headed over to the red oak rack. I was stunned. The rack was full of quartersawn red oak, including some 16”-wide boards with zero defects and arrow-straight grain. I grabbed the 16”s and snagged some 8”-wide boards that were also perfect. All were less than $4 a board foot.
I have never been so inspired by red oak. There must have been a crow in its branches.
So paint the crow and fire it up.
— Christopher Schwarz
If you like building things with quartersawn oak (like I do), then you’ll appreciate Robert W. Lang’s “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture” as well as the other books in his series. These books are for people who really build stuff – not for the coffee table. Highly recommended.