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