Thursday, February 22, 2018

More on working white oak

Bob Rozaieski has now followed up on his podcast response to my question with a detailed written post on techniques for working white oak with hand tools that I find very informative and useful.  Highly recommended.

I don't have a lot to add to his suggestions.  In addition to keeping your planes very sharp, I have found a cabinet scraper to be particularly useful on white oak as a way of avoiding tearout.  I find that even a sharp plane will tear white oak out sometimes.

One of the points he makes is absolutely true.  Quartersawn white oak is much much easier to work than flatsawn white oak, to the point that I consider the latter unworkable with hand tools.

Another reaction I had to his post is if I ever run across one of those machines he pictures I am going to buy it.  Not sure what I will do with them, but I would definitely like to have one of each.  I think I recall Roy Underhill using something like this on one of his shows and it looked fun.

Given all of the challenges in working with white oak, why bother?  It really is a very nice species with many desirable qualities.  It's strong and durable, finishes well and looks really nice.

As I'll describe later, I am currently working with sapele for the first time.  It has approximately the same hardness as white oak and yet it is much easier to work.  I don't understand this so, if you do, please explain in the comments.


  1. Hello OregonWoodworker,
    I’m not sure how I even stumbled across this post but I had to comment regarding white oak and hand tools. I built my wife a trestle style table ( she uses it as a desk) from 8/4 white oak with all hand tools. I’ll admit, if you don’t have sharp tools, you’ll get punished quickly by the species. The base of the desk is plainsawn but the top was quartersawn for obvious movement and decorative considerations. This project called for twin mortise and tenons for the joinery on the trestle legs and that was incredibly challenging to chop twin mortises in 8/4 white oak but again, the tools have to be sharp.
    I built this for my wife to celebrate her retirement from the Marine Corps and I understood that the USS Constitution (nicknamed ol’ iron sides) hull was made from white oak. Impossible might be a strong word to use regarding working with it. Don’t turn you’re back on it just yet because it’s a lovely wood. I’m coincidentally making a chair from green white oak currently and it’s a pleasure! Cheers from Temecula!

  2. Hi Andy,
    Regarding working sapele vs. white oak, it comes down to density. While the Janka hardness of sapele is actually higher than white oak, hardness is just one factor to consider. Density can actually be more telling for how hard a species is to work with. You can look at a wood's density (how much wood is actually contained in a volumetric sample) or it's specific gravity (a ratio of the density of the wood to the density of water) to get an idea. Higher numbers mean denser species.

    So consider the density of these tough to work species:
    White Oak - 47 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.60)
    Red Oak - 44 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.56)
    Hard Maple - 44 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.56)
    American Beech - 45 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.54)
    Hickory - 51 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.64)

    Now for generally more workable woods:
    Sapele - 42 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.50)
    Honduran Mahogany - 37 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.52)
    Black Walnut - 38 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.51)
    Black Cherry - 35 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.47)
    Eastern White Pine - 25 lbs/ft3 (specific gravity 0.34)

    So as you can see, we need to look at more than just the hardness.

  3. Andy,

    Thanks for the link.

    I just did a small Maple top and what a PITA, looks good but still a PITA.


  4. I forgot to add White Oak legs with a ton of mortises. I kinda hit the jackpot on that build.


  5. I have been woodworking with hand tools for about two and half years so very much a beginner. One piece that I like to build is a wall clock that Paul Sellers has shared on youtube. I build them every now and then to gauge my progress on my skill. The third one I build was out of quarter saw white oak. Oh my, it was much harder to work than the cherry and walnut and pine I had been using in other projects. At one point I felt despair but I kept at it. I got it done and used a lindseed oil and wax finish and it looks beautiful. I think it's worth the effort but I wouldn't want to do every project with it. I'm looking forward to listening to the podcast.

  6. This is really interesting. I have been using Janka hardness and it is clear from my experience with sapele that it doesn't tell the story. I am going to pay much more attention to specific gravity in the future. Sapele has the hardness of white oak and a specific gravity about the same as black walnut.

  7. My common sense tells me that there should be a strong correlation between hardness and density. But obviously it's not a perfect linear correlation. I realize that all wood species have different characteristics, but it's still surprising that sapele can have similar hardness, but lower density (and hence is more easily worked).