The Weed Stick Chair

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I have accused the red oak species, Quercus rubra, of being a weed. It is overused in kitchen construction here in North America, it has a barfy pink cast when finished with modern film finishes and it is usually flat sawn to show off its least-attractive grain orientation.

For this chair, and for many of the projects in “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I embraced red oak because it has three other characteristics that trump the ones listed above. It is cheap. It is widely available. And it is strong.

So the real trick with red oak is how to con it into looking like something other than a full-overlay bathroom cabinet door at Desperation Acres Phase II.

Here’s how I gave the species a makeover for this chair.

Don’t Settle for Flat Sawn
The seat of the chair is a combination of rift and flat-sawn woods. The more-attractive rift material is at the front of the seat, which is more noticeable. The wide cathedrals of the flat-sawn stuff is at the rear where your farts will make it smell better.

The legs have their quartersawn faces facing the viewer. The armbow is 100-percent quartersawn so it shows off its medullary rays.

The spindles have dead-straight grain, so you aren’t going to see many (if any) ugly cathedrals. Just straight grain lines and some medullary rays. The crest is flat-sawn but the bevel on the front pulls the grain into a smile shape. That’s distracting (in a good way).

Also, there’s just not a lot of wood in this chair, so its form is somewhat dominant compared to the wood’s figure.

Select for Color
Red oak has a lot of color variation. That can be caused by where the tree grew or if it is a subspecies in the red oak family. So with the exception of the sticks, all the wood for this chair came from a single tree. And all the sticks were selected carefully for color.

Avoid the Modern Film Finishes
About a decade ago I had to build some cabinets for a customer’s suburban home. And I had to match the finish on the home’s existing red oak cabinets. I found that by using modern waterborne finishes or some modern lacquers that were more water-white, I could mimic that depressing pink cast in many kitchens.

Avoiding this color is easy. Use old-fashioned finishes that add a red or orange cast. This chair is finished with organic linseed oil and beeswax. While this finish will require maintenance, the low sheen also helps obscure its Quercus rubra roots.

And if all else fails, paint the stuff and tell everyone it’s rare English brown oak.

— Christopher Schwarz

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About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to The Weed Stick Chair

  1. mcutler88 says:

    Wow! I think you’re the only one that I know that can totally berate a lumber species, and then create something beautiful and outstanding with it!!!! Excellent work! Keep up the great job!

  2. One Big Marine says:

    I never considered Red Oak to be a weed. I do consider Live Oak to be an over grown bush though!

  3. Jason says:

    I agree entirely with your opinion of red oak and have been say as much for years. One thing I’m curious about is where you said “So with the exception of the sticks, all the wood for this chair came from a single board.”

    How did you get both rift and flat sawn pieces for the seat from a single board?

  4. Jim O. says:

    I agree with you. Red oak is used so much it makes me want to puke. Occasionally, I see something made with red oak that looks great. This chair is one of those things and the pantry face frame and doors my grandfather made are another. Another wood that makes me sick is aromatic red cedar (mainly because of how they aged). I’ve seen so many people make pure crap out of that stuff and try to sell it for ridiculous prices like it’s made out of rosewood. With that said, I think done right nice things could be made with it. I don’t think I’m up for the challenge but I think you could pull it off. I would like to see what you could do. Maybe I’m just too stuck up when it comes to wood. I’m getting more and more into chairs lately thanks to you and Brendan. I like this chair a lot but I currently have a love affair with the Jennie Alexander chairs like the ones Brendan has done recently. I see more books in my future.

    • Jim O'Dell says:

      I meant to say I like the pantry face frame and doors (mainly due to how they aged). Not the cedar. I just realize I put the parentheses in the wrong spot.

  5. jonfiant says:

    Great post, and a really nice chair Chris. Yeah, red oak is so over used. I used to work in a stair factory and the way they glued up tread panels made me never want to use the stuff again. Then, years later, I came across two planks of 8/4 quartesawn red oak and my opinion changed for the better. Wish I still had them.

  6. Patrick Harrington says:

    I have to confess that I am totally clueless about this animosity toward red oak. Perhaps my aesthetic sensibilities are not refined enough, but I just don’t get it. I’ve also heard a lot of aspersions cast about white pine, southern yellow pine, poplar, and a couple of other species, but I just can’t relate. I like wood, I like making things with wood. I will pick and choose among the species I have access to at any particular time and select one based on its physical and visual properties as they relate to the particular project I’m starting on. I’ve used and appreciated all the species that are commonly denigrated and I can’t help but scratch my head in confusion. The only wood species I refuse to work with are ones that are endangered, and generally speaking I only use wood that I can source locally, which means I use a lot of red oak, southern yellow pine, and poplar, along with some walnut and cherry when I can afford to.

    • I agree with your sentiments. An item made of almost any species of wood by a competent craftsman communicates to me in a way that is perhaps telepathic. The message I usually receive is: “Touch me. Feel me. Run your hands all over me.”
      I recently built a couple of Adirondack chairs out of Southern Yellow Pine, and those chairs gave me the same message. Perhaps I am a wood slut, but I don’t care. I love wood.

  7. Bill Truitt says:

    beautiful work! comfy?

  8. T-bone hags says:

    The chair is nice.
    ‘Desperation Acres Phase II’ is the best work you’ve done in a while.

  9. Barry MacDonald says:

    Red oak enhanced with Minwax Provincial stain is a good look too…

    The chair is nice. It will age well and only look better with time.

  10. Steve Newman says:

    “at the rear where your farts will make it smell better”, would that be considered a “fumed” finish to offset the barfy pink?

  11. dgfir says:

    “at the rear where your farts will make it smell better”. would that be considered a “fumed” finish to offset the barfy pink hue?

  12. natedog907 says:

    Does red oak darken or redden with age (i.e. cherry)? It does have a lot of tannins and turns a nice black with iron acetate.

  13. Jeremy says:

    Perhaps the best finish is to just burn it…
    Some sort of char finish, or just for the BTU’s is often the best finish. Red oak is mostly terrible, though ironically all of my most recent favorite work has used it. (after a fairly large tree came down and provided a near endless supply a few years ago.)

  14. David Oehrke says:

    It is lovely ammonia fumed

  15. edfurlong says:

    I have used Watco Danish Oil in fruitwood with red oak to great effect. Camouflages any pink cast and seems to darken a bit with time to a richer tone. It is a theme in our house, although I am looking to work more with cherry.

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