5 Sustainable Hardwoods

Oak (Quercus)

Strong, durable and naturally water-resistant, white oak (Quercus alba) is at home indoors and out. Light to dark brown, rich in tannins and straight-grained with long rays that contribute to figuring, it's the most popular choice for hardwood cabinets, high on the list for flooring and home furnishings, and valued in the construction of bridges, barrels and boats. Its close cousin, red oak, is pink to reddish-brown in color with mostly straight grains and very little figuring. Red oak (Quercus rubra) is more finicky and not recommended for outdoor use.

The large, open pores of oak give it a coarse texture that you can see and feel. The growth pattern results in uneven grains that make boards susceptible to splitting. Oak is dense and stiff and resists bending under weight, but if you want curves, you can get them without excessive risk of damage. Although hard, this wood takes well to machining and hand tools, and can be stained and sanded to a good surface. You'll need to drill pilot holes for nails and screws, and be sure to use only galvanized fasteners since the tannins in oak react chemically with iron. Water and earth are other sources of iron. Red oak doesn't repel water like white oak does, and traces of iron in water will stain the wood dark. Some people have an adverse reaction to oak dust particles, so wear a mask whenever your activity might raise dust.

White oak is prominent in the eastern half of the United States, with the exception of Florida and areas along the Gulf Coast. Varieties of white oak also grow in Oregon and California. Red oak species thrive throughout the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.

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