Why we mustn’t ignore red oak

22 May 2018

It’s the most prolific US hardwood and consumers like it, so isn’t it time European buyers gave red oak another look, asks American Hardwood Export Council European director David Venables

When an old AHEC friend, designer/maker Philip Koomen, called us recently about doing a project with degree students at Rycotewood College in Oxford, where he’s a visiting tutor, we jumped at the chance. How about making it a red oak project, I said nonchalantly. Are you still pushing that one, came the reply.

It was Philip who designed the stunning chairs and lecterns in red oak for the Hay Literary Festival back in 2008, which they still use. But it was an even older collaboration with him that I was reminded of on a recent visit to the College, when he produced a beautifully bound album documenting the 1999 AHEC bookcase project.

TTJ readers of a certain vintage may recall we produced a series of identical solid wood bookcases in different grades of red oak lumber and took them to the BBC Good Home exhibition in Birmingham, where we asked nearly 1,000 consumers which they liked best. Two key findings emerged from that research: the fi rst was that everyone asked liked the look; and the other was that the vast majority picked out the pieces made in lower grades with the most character.

Nearly 20 years later the natural character (or rustic) look is widely sought after in hardwood products, but European acceptance of red oak remains an enigma. We still get an extremely positive reaction to it from designers, architects and consumers. Yet traders and manufacturers remain reluctant to invest in its potential and market it. “We tried it once, but customers didn’t like the colour”, or “it’s not as easy to work with as European oak” seem to be their default position.

While it’s true that red oak lumber exports to Europe are increasing, including in the UK, volumes are very small compared to white oak. Despite some high-profile applications, including Fosters’ new HQ for Bloomberg, take-up remains limited and it tends to be stained or used where colour is not a critical factor.

But other parts of the world see things differently. Red oak has been the cornerstone of hardwood consumption in the US for over 100 years. China is using huge quantities for its home market and its consumers love it and ask for it. Mexico’s furniture industries also process major volumes for export to the US, or sale at home.

So clearly it works elsewhere, but could red oak sustain a significant increase in demand from Europe? The answer is yes. Nearly one in every five hardwood trees standing in US forests is a red oak. The net annual growth after harvest is over 21 million m3, which means it takes 0.57 seconds for 1m3 of sawn lumber to be replaced by new growing stock. Check out the numbers for yourself at www.americanhardwood.org.

At a time when oak is the most fashionable and requested hardwood in Europe, and current white oak supplies from within Europe and North America are increasingly under pressure, it remains to be seen how much longer European markets can ignore such an important resource.

American Hardwood Export Council European director David Venables