reading oaks

I have been thinking lately about what makes a good oak log for joinery. I walk by a large pile of oak logs each day, and I decided I can show you what doesn’t make a good one. These logs are all in the parking lot at work, and will be used for one thing or another by the artisans’ department at the museum; house parts, fence pale, etc. If you haven’t been watching their blog, here is the link again. It’s well worth a visit, says me.

Learning to read the bark is an inexact science; but many things can be worked out…one problem is that experience with bad logs will teach you a lot about what’s going on there. I am reminded of the saying:

Good Judgement is the result of Experience

Experience is the result of Poor Judgement.

example # 1 – quite simple, clearly a loser for joinery. Knots, two hearts at the bottom nearest the camera, weird, mis-shapen bole.

red oak

Next, another red oak I think. Pith of the tree is way off-center. Usually a sign of a tree that has grown on uneven ground – a hillside most commonly. That results in tension within the log. Twisting and warping in boards made from this log. Rarely reliable stock inside.

off center

Now this one shows some promise. White oak this time. Nice tight furrows in the bark. No big lumpy bits, a kink near the far end, or that’s a short log lying right against this one. Joinery most often uses short sections. 4 or 5 feet is about the longest you need.

this one shows promise

Then I looked at the end grain. Off-center pith, wind shake (large tangential cracking) bole is oval not round. and an injury or buried metal near the bottom right hand segment of the end grain.

walk away

What next? The long scar in the bark of this white oak indicates some trouble inside. Might be lots of good wood in this log, but right along where the scar is will become waste.

scar in the bark

More? This one might be all right for a while. Not the roundest, and some knots after five feet or so. But a short log near the bottom of this trunk might be worthwhile.

semi OK red oak

This is more like the shape I want in the end of the log.

nice & roung

This one has some checking from sitting out a while. But these can help you when you’re shopping. Look for end grain checks that are flat. If they curve ,the wood inside curves also. Here’s a good end grain view.

good splits

Now the easily worst of all. Anybody could see this one’s a bummer.

weird growth rings

10 thoughts on “reading oaks

  1. Peter:
    Good information. Hey to move the logs to get better lighting is difficult. But you get the same problem anywhere you go. I had a wonderful log merchant who would drive up his log picke-upper and topple and spread out a huge triangular stack of logs. I paid a premium. I could not take an entire log with me so I took saw and splitting tools and at least one helperwith me. Don’t forget to take a cant hook. No tennis shoes. I would leave the merchant the off-cuts and knotties for sale as firewood. It is amzing how much of the wood is unusable. My rule: When opened, a tree is never as good as it looked. By the way don’t forget to look at both ends of the log. I always took a chair or stool with me to show the merchant what I was about and why I needed perfecto wood. He got with the program. Also if he asked $120 for a big one. I paid him $140. Don’t bargain, the Japanse will pay more. Life is short and oak is wonderful.

  2. I live un New Orleans and we just went through Isaac. Very minor storm other than power outage for most.

    I have seen a few old live oaks down and was wondering how to move them. A couple had trunks that were quite large – 4′ in diameter.

    Is there any easy way a few guys could move something like this? We don’t have a crane.

    • Talk to/enlist an old farmer. It’s amazing what someone who grew up on a farm knows about moving impossibly big objects. I watched a friend like that move a 2 to 3 thousand pound grave stone 4 feet with a big screwdriver, wooden dowels and a couple of 2X4’s.

  3. You give some fantastic assistance right here.
    I am currently qualifying myself in woodworking so know exactly how you feel.
    I am developing my very own bed from wood and
    I am certainly receiving far better on a daily basis!

  4. Peter-
    Really great info. Now this is a class that someone should teach! identifying and picking lumber. Both logs and at the lumber yard. Can I spend a day with you? ;)
    I have a question. I have a pile of 12 logs in my yard that I was hoping to get milled. They are mostly 18-24″. I spoke to a few guys with portable mills, but they showed little interest. Saying they were too small and have been sitting too long. Both don’t seem correct to me. I am only a hobbyist and do not need that much wood and 18 months does not seem very long to be sitting in the yard. True? How long can logs sit before being milled?

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