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Wood Types and Properties #3: Know your wood #3-Oak

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Blog entry by Paul Sellers posted 05-16-2011 12:19 AM 1681 reads 0 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 2: Know your wood #2-Beech Part 3 of Wood Types and Properties series Part 4: Know your wood #4-Oak (red) »


Oak leaves have a unique and distinctive leaf shape

Oak trees grow on each of the five continents and cultures at every level have relied on the wood and acorn, the tannic acid and the bark throughout the millennia. Great ships with oak bows and rudders crisscrossed the globe.


 


Massive barns and manorial homes came from the stems and crooks of full-grown oaks in every county. It would be impossible to catalogue the provision we have from the ancestry of the common oak.


 


Oak works well as both primary and secondary wood


 


I don’t know that I would describe oak so much as a lovely wood, as I might cherry or black walnut perhaps, but oak stands alone in its own identity as a strong, resilient, durable, stout wood. That done, I have made hundreds of pieces from red and white oak throughout the years. Both have similar characteristics and work as well with hand tools as they do with machines. Much furniture in the castle at Penrhyn is made from oak and so too the doors, casings and panelled walls.


 



 


 


 


 


With these oak stiles I will form new doors at Penrhyn Castle

Oak is quite stable when seasoned well and especially when using quartersawn oak where the grain exudes an unpredictable yet often spectacular array of grain configurations beyond the range of any other wood.


 


I first used oak in my mid teens when I learned to work with its rebellious, stubborn streaks to discover an inner beauty of structure only a craftsman working its fibres can. Machinists know nothing of what I speak for they merely lift the wood and feed the machine. They miss the medullary rays beneath the chisels edge and the planes levelling swipe. They have never traced their hands over the smoothed wood after the plane’s work.


 

 


Oak cutting boards, spoons and spatulas are some of my favorite things for the kitchen as are bookshelves and tables in the living room.


 


 


Here are the intersecting oak rails of a cabinet I made last year

The wood is densely heavy and ideal for a wide range of household projects as well as timber framed buildings. In the UK American-grown oak sells for three times its US price whereas European oak adds another 25% premium to the lesser quality US grades.


 

-- Paul Sellers, UK http://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-blog



10 comments so far

View peteg's profile

peteg

2890 posts in 1479 days


#1 posted 05-16-2011 09:49 AM

Paul, you have shown some lovely examples as to the versatility of this magnificent timber, we sometimes take for granted natures wonderful gifts available for our use.

-- Pete G: If you always do what you always did you'll always get what you always got

View Paul Sellers's profile

Paul Sellers

277 posts in 1226 days


#2 posted 05-16-2011 10:55 AM

I agree. Guilty! I think we undervalue many woods. I am currently working on pines, spruces and firs. I think we have high disregard for these incredible woods.

Here is an oak rocker I made from red oak and coloured with a spirit dye before topcoating with a satin waterborne finish. I think it makes a nice piece of furniture both historically and today as it follows aspects of the Craftsman-style furniture around the turn of the 18-19th century. The table in the above post is a Thomas Hopper design from the mid 1800’s. I see this piece often here in my Penrhyn Castle workshop and it’s part of the massive collection in the museum. The column legs correspond to reflect features of the castle itself.

-- Paul Sellers, UK http://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-blog

View Broglea's profile

Broglea

665 posts in 1746 days


#3 posted 05-16-2011 11:03 PM

Paul – I’m really enjoying this series. As a woodwrker and avid outdoor enthusiast I truely appreciate God’s give of trees to man. Thanks for sharing.

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Paul Sellers

277 posts in 1226 days


#4 posted 05-17-2011 12:00 AM

Here’s another piece from oak that I did the design on a few years ago. Whereas oak isn’t really a pretty wood, it does leave you in awe when you see it in raw woodland and then converted into a finished piece you know will last for a century or two doesn’t it. I’m making two big oak doors for the castle where I have my workshop right now. Nothing as elaborate as these, they are in the castle, but good work. Mine are nothing compared to these, but I love looking at what was made in the pre-machine era by working men like myself. Just honest handwork really. I have always worked with my hands. I was one of the fortunate ones that trained with men who did such things. I still love my work though I am in my 60s and have done it all my working life.

-- Paul Sellers, UK http://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-blog

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peteg

2890 posts in 1479 days


#5 posted 05-17-2011 01:05 AM

Paul, the mind boggles at the skill of our predecessors, their economical use of the labour & get it right first time. All we do now days is reach for the nearest / latest toy, not saying this is a bad thing but it is great you reminding us of “how it was”
This is a fabulous door set, how long do you think it would have taken to make the door & the surrounding joinery???
I love your rocker, what make of dye did you us & what strength did you cut it too, I have been playing with some Briwax spirit dyes but boy are they concentrated.
Do hope you keep your lesson going with this topic. I will add you to my buddies so I dont miss future posts

-- Pete G: If you always do what you always did you'll always get what you always got

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Paul Sellers

277 posts in 1226 days


#6 posted 05-17-2011 04:57 AM

I mix my own dyes to colour using leather dyes and alcohol or mix the dye with shellac. On my rockers this is generally what I do. I usually avoid stains because of opacity and muddied colour. My son is a violin maker and he uses hand made grounds and varnishes to get the vibrancy he needs for his violins and then top coats with multiple layers of the handmade varnish until the thickness allows for polishing out to a high, flawless gloss.

I think that I am often surprised how little time was allowed for work in the 1800s. The library door above is 48” wide, 3” thick and 12’ tall (it’s one of hundreds in the castle) . My door (the one I am currently making) is wider by 4” but only 2 1/2” thick and 7’ tall. Remember that today we allow a day for a drawer with handcut dovetails, but when these doors were made they had to dovetail six drawers in a day (front and back).

You can thin Briwax dyes and intermix them for colour. I do that from time to time. They are convenient for some projects. Ronseal, (UK available) and Minwax (US) do a similar dye that is like Briwax. They are all pretty much the same and they work well because they give evenness across wide or complicated surfaces. On some woods, especially crotch grain and fiddle grain like my rocker, it’s best to seal the surfaces first with a coat of shellac (often called sanding sealer but is a thinned cut of shellac) to prevent blotching. Wiping on with a cloth rag works fine. This also works best with all of the pines and other softwoods because it prevents end-grain intake-absorption from massing into the more receptive grain areas say around knotted swells and so on.

Whereas I think you are right that we tend to dumb down the innate desire and ability to work creatively to spheres considered by others ‘play’ with ‘toys’, woodworking is no less a vocational calling for those who never had the opportunity to work full time in craft. In training others for the past 20 years I have always continued to work first as a producing craftsman simply because that was my calling. I never had the luxury of play in that I have always made my craft my living. But I don’t believe that because I was privileged to do it full time for a living I am any different than those limited to weekends and evenings. In my heart I am an amateur that found a way of working at what he loved and got paid for it. Amateurs work with wood because they love it, (‘amateur’ from the word ‘amore’, love) not because they have to. Professionals only do it for money. My ambition nowadays is to continue passing on everything I know and have worked on to my fellow woodworking enthusiasts and that’s what I do. I believe that the word vocational has been dumbed down too. At one time it meant that you listened for the voice (vocational, from the word ‘vocare’ voice) that would lead you into the critical area of life work. I listened to that voice and found great fulfilment for almost 50 years now.

Sorry this is so long. Don’t want to be a bore.

-- Paul Sellers, UK http://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-blog

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BigTiny

1664 posts in 1544 days


#7 posted 05-17-2011 12:54 PM

Hi Paul

(good name you got)

“Twice blessed is he who earns his daily bread doing that which he would willingly pay to do.”

Have you ever used lye to colour oak? I’ve used it experimentally and it gives the effect of a century of aging in 30 minutes! If you haven’t tried it, you should. A teaspoon full in a pint of distilled water is all you need. Apply with a rag or sponge as you would water to raise grain for sanding. Use care as it is caustic. Rubber gloves at the very least. Don’t let the dust get in your eyes or inhale it when mixing, or you will be visiting the local hospital. Still, used with care it gives a wonderful colour to oak, cherry, or any other tannin rich wood.

Paul

-- The nicer the nice, the higher the price!

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Paul Sellers

277 posts in 1226 days


#8 posted 05-17-2011 08:28 PM

Hello Big Tiny,

Well, yes I have used lye and experimented with it quite a bit actually. I used it on oak and also on Mesquite. Both these woods are high in tannic acid, which reacts strongly with lye (caustic soda). One experience I had was that lye lifted the finish some time after the finish was applied and resulted in a blotchy uneven surface: Your dilution solution may take care of that. But I countered this by applying vinegar which readily neutralizes the lye. The effect on Mesquite is truly dynamic too and as with oak, mesquite turns to its aged colour in a matter of minutes.

I also like fumed oak using ammonia and a tent. I use point eighty eight ammonia, the kind you get for reproducing architectural blueprints. A couple of saucers in a plastic tent will transform an oak dining table over night, but you must experiment to determine the depth of colour you want.

-- Paul Sellers, UK http://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-blog

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BigTiny

1664 posts in 1544 days


#9 posted 05-19-2011 01:06 PM

Hi Paul

I’ve had no trouble with the finish lifting and all I do is wipe it down with a wet rag after the colour “develops” fully. I also let it sit in the open air a week or so before finishing to let things out-gas as much as it wants.

Cherry also reacts well with the lye, giving it the rich, deep colour of an antique in minutes. I’ve used it on cherry veneer with excellent results.

Another use for oak is the bark. The tannins in it are used in tanning leather and examples of such oak tanned leather were found in King Tut’s tomb. The leather sandals were still wearable!

Paul

-- The nicer the nice, the higher the price!

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Paul Sellers

277 posts in 1226 days


#10 posted 05-20-2011 12:08 AM

Saw the King Tut exhibition this time two years ago when I

visited Dallas with two of my sons. It was a remarkable exhibition I thought.

Thanks for everything.

Paul

-- Paul Sellers, UK http://paulsellers.com/paul-sellers-blog

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