When I was a callow youth of nine or ten, no substance was stronger in my mind than “solid oak.” My childhood friend, Jeff Brace, on the other hand, was a proponent of ironwood (he had discovered this species while reading a Tarzan comic book). Heated debate would ensue between us as we discussed which species would be better for, say, fixing a damaged submarine or propping open the Lost Dutchman mine — concepts of some import to young men of an age. As I grew older, my father would talk of the difference between red oak and white oak, and my once universal support of oak as a species was redirected to the red oak variety. When I was older still and working in my dad’s cabinet shop, I can’t even begin to estimate the thousands of board feet of red oak that went through our doors. To say that it was the most popular and common kitchen cabinet hardwood in our shop of the 1970s and ’80s would be an understatement.
Why Woodworkers Like It
Despite the opinion of my youth, red oak, while strong, is not so hard as to be difficult to work with. Properly cured red oak machines exceptionally well with hand or power tools. Its unique acrid smell is one that I experience fondly and is known in many thousands of shops across the country. One reason that red oak became so popular as a furniture and cabinetmaking species is that, in addition to its durability and universal availability, it stains quite well, while retaining its strong figure patterns. If you want a black walnut hue to your project, but want to avoid the premium price that actual walnut lumber carries with it, red oak is a great choice. In a similar manner, it can handle red hues or fruitwood stains with ease.
Those of you who have read my woodworking articles for any length of time will know that I prefer to finish most of my projects with a natural or clear finish — and red oak is the wood that helped form my personal prejudice in that regard. Red oak that is sanded to 220-grit and finished with a good sealer and an ambering top coat, like oil-based polyurethane, is simply beautiful to look at. I do prefer to use a quartersawn or riftsawn selection of the lumber, but even run-of-the-mill (literally in this case) plainsawn red oak is widely admired by myriad woodworkers.
Unlike some tight-grained species of wood that I have talked about, I do not advise that you apply a coat of linseed oil (or similar product) to red oak, to pop the grain, before you seal and top-coat. Its porous nature soaks up the oil, which will then weep for days — or even weeks after an enthusiastic application. (I tend to avoid oil-based stain with oak for that same reason.) With red oak — or any other species of oak, for that matter — I follow Michael Dresdner’s advice and seal it with a good coat of dewaxed shellac or a lacquer-based sanding sealer before I start my final finish coats. This is true regardless of whether it is raw wood or has been stained.
In my experience, there are few species of lumber that are more well-liked or more versatile than red oak. While its popularity may cause some folks to disparage it as common, that does the lumber a disservice. Beautiful, affordable, easy to work, stain and finish — red oak is a true “superstar.” So, for those reasons and others: it remains way better to me than ironwood.