Oak (Quercus alba)

white-oak-965x330New York is also a tale of two woods – Oak and Pine. Hardwood and softwood, furnishings and structural applications, Higher and lower values. Pine and other softwoods for framing and Oak for floors. Though all this can seem turned around for good reason in these post-modern times. But the two woods can seem as close and distant in their vision of what a wood can and should be as a Blue State and a Red State, though they co-exist well.  

In ways that’s understandable, the two evolved as a species eras apart on the earths timeline, with Oak not arriving until after the dinosaurs, and developing a more complex cellular structure in relation to the more Classical model of Pine fibers. But the wide use of the two woods has been a material reality of New York since the earliest European settlers climbed out of holes they dug for winter shelter when first arriving.  

In Colonial times, Pine was as emblematic of statehood and the nation as the bald eagle and Apple pie. A pine tree is even featured on the earliest American flag. Their forests seemed so limitless, and carried the quiet dignity of most any tree, and found ubiquitous use in products of all description. It was a tree well suited to the growth of a young Democracy.

Oak was European, and though it was logged in massive quantities throughout all the New England states, it has deep cultural roots in European civilization, along with other hardwoods. It wasn’t a Pine cone that dropped on Newton’s head. It was most likely “The knights of the round Oak table”. And Oak vessels carried the guns that built an Empire. It’s the national symbol for at least six European countries.

Over time, Oak – Red and White – would make more inroads into the American imagination and home. Prosperity, cultivation of the species and advances in woodworking machinery all played a role. So that today, Oak can not only feel as “made in America” as any wood – it was declared by Congress in 2004 as the National Tree – even if the bulk of it comes out of Canada.

Oak is a dense wood, with great strength and hardness, and is very resistant to insect and fungus.  It has a very attractive grain to many people, including kings and queens of the Middle Ages, especially when quartersawn. But it can also be royal pain in woodworking, being prone to severe movement when not properly dried.

Of the 500 species of Oak in existence, over 75 now are threatened by extinction, and the numbers may be much greater, since limited information is available for many species. The U.S. is native soil for just one percent, or five, of the Oaks in existence.