Once you have worked with less expensive woods, a natural progression is to purchase more expensive woods and many people select Oak because it is readily available and of all the exotic woods, it is one of the better-priced woods ... and of course Oak projects look great when they are finished.

Watch it on Youtube: https://youtu.be/n1oRbHnJi6s

In North America, there are basically 2 kinds of Oak that you will be able to choose from Red Oak or White Oak. Most wood stores will have Red Oak, but not all will have White Oak as it is often a tiny bit more expensive, and most people who are choosing flooring or wood for furniture  choose Red Oak.

Selecting Oak Boards
So What's the difference between Red Oak and White Oak. Well, not a lot. Often Red Oak can have a slight pinkish color, but not always. There is also a difference in the grain structure which is easiest to see once you have the 2 species side by side. One of the big differences is that Red Oak has open cells which allow the wood to pass water and nutrients faster, White Oak can also pass water and nutrients but does in a closed-cell wood. This is why White Oak is used in the construction of Wine, Whiskey, and Scotch barrels for the Spirits Industries.  White Oak is a little bit heavier in weight and would be suitable for many outdoor projects where Red Oak is more of an indoor use kind of wood. One point you will want to know before you head home with your wood, is that it "MIGHT" be what we call rough wood, that is ... wood that has not been sized. It is often planed so that we can see the grain and color of the wood, but not planed to size, so if you do not have a jointer and or a planer, rough wood will mean you will need to take is someone and have it edged and thickness planed.

Woodworking with Oak

The best way to see the differences is for anyone who is going to do some work with Oak, go out and purchase both kinds, at least one or two boards of each and that way you will know first hand how the woods "work" in terms of tools and how they look. There is no better teacher than going on and doing things first hand, that is the quickest and best way of learning.

In the video I mentioned the book that I use for reference, it's called the Woodwork Book and it's 765 pages of excellent color pictures and descriptions of all the woods that are used in woodworking in North American.

It is available in soft and hardcover, and may be available from your local bookstore
Or you can see what is available at Amazon

One of the best ways for me to demonstrate how to work with Oak is to do a hands-on demonstration of a smaller project, I selected an oak footstool for this purpose.
To save time, I pre-cut all the wood to width and length.

Joinery With Oak
Oak is such a great wood to work with, it's hard and strong and is a woodworker's friend in many ways. In terms of joinery, Oak can be joined with something as simple as pocket hole Technology, with floating tenons like Festool or using a router and spiral bit, with mortise and Tenon joints and with dowels, which is my choice for speed, accuracy, and strength. One of the good things with Oak, no matter what joint you choose for whatever project you make, Oaks bond well with any of the carpenter's types of glues, in fact, they bond well with pretty much any glue and form very strong bonds. 

Good to Know
Moisture content in wood is critical when it comes to building and finishing. In most regions, 10% is considered an ideal moisture content for wood. When you are purchasing wood EVEN KILN DRIED WOOD it may NOT be in this range. It is common that even kiln-dried wood is only partially kiln dried and you may need to purchase the wood and leave it to sit in your workshop for a few months before the moisture content is low enough to safely wood with the wood so it will not split, curl or spoil the finish you put on it. Having and using a moisture meter is very, very important and there is a wide selection to choose from.

Moister Meter
My favorite is the American-made Wagner meters and you can check them out on the woodworkweb Amazon Store.


Before you get started cutting and trimming your wood, you will want to make sure you have good quality, sharp bits, and blades. Oak is a very hard wood that cuts nicely when you have sharp tools, if your blades are dull, they will tend to "shatter" the wood as it is being cut and leave something of a messy cut with noticeable wood tear-out.

The Freud Glue Line Rip is an excellent blade for cutting Oak and other natural woods
Check it out at the woodworkweb Amazon Store
glue line rip

Finishing Oak Projects
Once you have cut all your boards to length and width, the next step is to do a Dry Fit to make sure all the parts go together as they should. At this time you can choose to either assemble your project than finish it, or you can Pre-Finish and then assemble. I prefer the latter, for a few reasons, first it's much easier to finish wood pieces that are laying on your workbench than when they are assembled. You can coat all the pieces evenly and completely. You don't have to worry about getting glue on your pieces during assembling because glue wipes of easily on finished wood and it doesn't leave marks like can happen or unfinished wood. The only drawback to pre-finishing is that you have to be a bit more careful with the wood after the finish is applied, which is why I use a rubber mat on my workbench to prevent any minor bumps. 

Wood Coloring and Filling
In terms of coloring with stains or dyes, Oak will take either quite readily. My personal preference is toward dyes because they don't "mask" the wood features as stains can. My personal preference is to celebrate the texture and grain of the wood and not try to hide it.

Another point is the Filling of the open pours of Oak. Many people like to have a high gloss on Oak which is more difficult to achieve because of the grain structure of the wood. There are on the market, stains with filler, especially for oak, that will fill and color the wood that will then make the wood more susceptible to accepting a high gloss finish and will require another fine sanding in order to get the wood flat and hide the grain. 

For more information on Dyes and Stains, check out this woodworkweb article

Top Coat Finishes
Oak might be the most forgiving and accepting wood for pretty much any kind of finish you might want to use ... and it will still look great. There are basically 2 kinds of top finishes, those that soak into the wood like oils, and those that lay on top of the wood like varnishes. Which one you choose will partially depend on what kind of surface you want from Glossy to Satin to Matte. If you are looking for a High Gloss finish, probably the best choice would be a top coating finish like polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer. In order for these finishes to do their best work, you may also want to consider some of the stains that contain filler that is designed to fill the open pores of the oak and after a final top sanding, the wood will be flat enough to coat with a varnish or other top coating material. You will need more than one coat and may need up to 4 coats to get a true high gloss finish.

If you are happy with a sating or even a matte finish, then you could still go with a top coating finish like varnish, or you could also select from a number of what are called "hardening oils" like Osmo or Rubio Monocoat. You could also use things like Tung Oil, Boiled Linseed Oil, or Teak Oil, all of which will soak into the wood and help to highlight the grain and any features in the wood. These coatings will often also require 2 or 3 coats and will dry in 24 hours between coats. 

There are many options for top coatings and I don't think there is a bad one for oak. 

finishing oak wood

Colin's Final Assembly
After giving all my components 3 coats of Osmo, the pieces were finally ready for assembly. Because this piece wanted to be natural, ie, no coloring, I simply coated the bar wood with Osmo and that was all it took to make the grain and the wood come to life.  By pre-finishing I didn't have to worry about getting glue on any of my pieces or any of my joints. I could simply assemble the footstool with the dowels and glue and any squeeze out that occurred, I could simply wipe off without affecting any other parts of the stool or the finish. It's so easy this way. 

Oak Furniture

 ... and here is the finished project ... all ready to have an upholstered cushion added then ready for use. I looks great, will match other furniture in the room and is super strong and will support all the weight it needs to over time. Just a great, solid little piece of furniture.

Copyright Colin Knecht