Part of the 'Quercus' family of trees, the White Oak is just one of 600 different kinds of Oak and is the most common, and possibly most popular, kind in North America. In the same way that the American Ash which we covered in our previous product spotlight is also known as 'Fraxinus americana', the White Oak has a proper name that follows the pattern of genus – in this case Quercus – followed by a unique suffix that separates it from the other 599 types of Oak in the family.
The white oak's proper name, as it were, is 'Quercus alba' and it can be found throughout eastern North America. For a time, and in some ways even now, it is known simply as 'White Oak', even though it is not actually the only 'white' oak around, as there is also the Oriental white oak – Quercus aliena – the Arizona white oak – Quercus arizonica – and the Swamp white oak – Quercus bicolor – to name but a few. Because it is clear that it is far from being the only white oak around, as its original name would suggest; nowadays it is commonly referred to as 'American White Oak'.
The American white oak is a hardwood tree, but Oaks as a group are interesting in that there are a high number of both hardwood and softwood oak trees. Also despite what its name would suggest it is actually quite rare to find a white oak with actual white bark, as it is usually more of a light grey colour, which, ironically, resembles the colour of ash.It is considered remarkable when an American white oak reaches over 80 feet tall, as they normally doesn't reach much higher than 70 feet; though having said that the tallest one ever recorded was 144 feet tall, which is truly extraordinary. To compensate for their generally short stature, the girth of both the trunk and the branches grow to quite a considerable size; and this width has contributed to their popularity amongst woodworkers.
The wood that the white oak yields is rugged, weighty, durable and has a fine grain, making it a very desirable wood to make furniture and decorations out of . As if this were not enough to ensure its popularity, nature also chose to imbue American white oak timber with a natural resistance to water and rot, which explains why in the past it was seen as the material of choice to make barrels, ships and farming implements out of.
Despite the many benefits that woodworkers could gain from using American white oak, there is one pit-fall. White oak does not play well with iron, steel or any other metal that rusts, as should it be in contact with it for a prolonged period of time the metal will stain and eat away at the wood. Fortunately this is not too difficult to work around as there are other materials to chose from, such as non-ferrous metals (like brass or copper), stainless steel or one of the many plastics suitable for DIY.