Why Is White Oak the Almighty Wood?

White Oak headboard detail

A deep dive into the country’s trendiest wood species.

Ask any interior designer or architect about the most popular wood species and they’ll point you to white oak. The light-colored material is used in homes across the U.S. for flooring, shelving, cabinetry, furniture, and more. It works with en-vogue styles like Scandinavian minimalism, California cool, and even modern traditional, making it undoubtedly the most sought-after wood species of the moment.

But why exactly is everyone so obsessed with white oak furniture? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? And where did it originate, anyway? We were curious, too, so we did our research and we’re here to share it. Everything you need to know about this wood species, from its history to its benefits and downfalls, is right here. Read on.

Where does it come from?

The white oak (or quercus alba in science-y Latin speak) is a hardwood species native to eastern and central North America. It can be found as far north as Minnesota and southern Canada and as far south as northern Florida and eastern Texas. The tree can grow up to 100 feet tall and live for centuries. The oldest documented white oak tree survived for over 450 years.

Photography by Douglas Friedman Image courtesy Architectural Digest

Identifiable for its short, stocky trunk and wide-spreading branches that reach out horizontally, the white oak tree is a broad-topped icon. Its leaves, which tend to be deep, glossy green in the summer, turn into dazzling orange-red and burgundy foliage when autumn rolls around. At around 50 years old, the white oak starts to produce acorns that are technically edible — but we don’t recommend their bitter taste.

Despite the “white” in its name, the white oak typically boasts a light gray bark that’s scaly, shallow, and furrowed. Once the wood is harvested and sanded down, however, it takes on the whiter hue we all know and love. But its pale aesthetic is far from the only reason white oak furniture is so adored.

Why is it so popular?

To put it simply, white oak is naturally beautiful. Unfinished, it has a warm, blonde tone that attracts designers and homeowners alike. Its grain is fairly straight when it’s plain sawn and quarter sawn, so it’s pleasing to the eye if you prefer a uniform look.

For designers, white oak is also compelling for its versatility. It’s incredibly easy to stain in just about any finish imaginable, from charcoal gray to chocolate brown to jet black. “Designers can make it look any way they want, really,” insists Buildlane founder Frank Eybsen. “White oak’s grain also does really well for wire-brushing, if you want a cerused piece of wood.”

Designers can make it look any way they want, really!

Frank Eybsen, Buildlane Founder

These perks are true, of course, for solid white oak, but for white oak veneer, as well. According to Eybsen, white oak veneer may even be more common than its solid wood counterpart. “There are a lot of solid white oak tables being made, but where this choice really has had the most popularity is as a veneer for nightstands, consoles, and other similar case goods,” he explains.

Durability is another factor that makes white oak furniture an attractive choice. White oak has tyloses (a cellular growth and damage repair system) that clog up its pores and create a closed cellular structure that’s resistant to water, decay, and rot. That doesn’t mean it’s waterproof, so make sure to wipe up spills immediately, but feel confident that white oak is less likely to warp than other woods. It stands up well against dents and scratches, too.

If you’re concerned with the environment, rest assured: white oak is a good choice for sustainability. Though the white oak tree is a slow grower, there is a generous growing stock of white oaks in North America and lumber companies can continue harvesting their wood without harming the forests. Since the species is native to the U.S. lumber won’t have to travel as far as foreign wood species would.

What’s bad about it?

Truth be told, there’s nothing not to love about white oak as a material. Its only downfall is more of an ephemeral one: its current high price tag. “It is really expensive, but it wasn’t always really expensive,” Eybsen reveals, “Right now, lumber in general prices are insane because of supply chain issues. In the last four or five years, though, the price of white oak has exceeded walnut.” For a similar color and grain at a lower cost, look to ash.

What’s next?

Now that walnut is cheaper than white oak, Eybsen predicts it’ll rise in popularity once again. “I’ve heard that walnut is coming back as the dominant wood to use for a lot of furniture — mainly because of the price,” he says. Walnut’s rich color and wider grain make it a clear winner for midcentury modern style, which is going nowhere fast. But will walnut surpass white oak furniture in the popularity contest? We’ll just have to wait and see.

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