Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hand tools and wood species

The other day I was listening to Bob Rozaieski talk about the best hardwood species for working with hand tools and he listed off the species favored historically, mahogany, walnut, cherry ...  He also talked about white oak being hard to work with hand tools.  I already knew this, but it resonated with me because I have been working with white oak a lot lately, mostly because I have that pickup load of white oak scraps that I bought a while back.  It's hard.

Here are some Janka hardness numbers to make this point quantitatively:

Mahogany       800
Cherry             950
Walnut           1010
Red Oak        1220
White Oak     1335

I am building a prototype of some tea boxes that I will be making as Christmas gifts and without thinking about it had grabbed some pieces of white oak.  I have gotten used to it so I wasn't really thinking about how difficult it is to work.  For some tools, like chisels, it's no big deal.  You just have to sharpen more frequently.  Some operations are really challenging, plowing grooves being one of them.  I was trying to plow 1/8" grooves 1/8" from the edge of thin boards.  Since I only have one plow plane, sometimes I was plowing with the grain and sometimes against.  The latter wasn't going well at all.  Even if your blade is sharp, the white oak tries very hard to leave a very ragged edge.  A knife line is the only way around it I know of.

I had some cherry, so, just for grins, I decided to try it for comparison.  What a difference.  I know this is obvious, but I had forgotten how dramatic it is.  The cherry seemed almost like paper.  It was a lot of fun to work with after the white oak.  Although I like to use up stock I have on hand, I think I am going to keep the white oak in reserve for projects that really need it.  There are a lot of projects where white oak's strengths are very valuable.  Tea boxes aren't one of them.   



  1. Yep white oak is really tough. I have been doing some stuff in Orange Wood lately. At 2620, it really chews up the tool edges. That being said, it's a wonderful wood.

  2. I've been working with a lot of white oak lately, too, using up scrap. I have the same experience with switching to another species. I chucked up some walnut in the vise and wow, the saw cut so smoothly. Wow, it planes so sweetly. I think everyone should go on a white oak jag, that way everything else seems so much more pleasant.

  3. Cherry could be my favorite wood, and more the way it looks, I love the way it works with hand tools.

  4. Yeah, dry oaks are not my favorites to work. I will when the situation calls for it, but if I can avoid working with dry oak, I will.