• Oaks make up around 40% of the hardwood resource of the eastern US.
• Red oak takes finishes easily.
• White oak makes up the majority of US hardwood exports to the UK.
AHEC has established a Responsible Procurement Policy for Exporters for its members.

Oaks represent around 40% of the massive hardwood resource of the eastern US where many commercial red and white oaks grow, as well as many less frequently occurring sub-species. Emotive American names such as scarlet and chestnut oak, Shumard’s oak and chinkapin oak are often sold simply as red oak or white oak, occasionally with the prefix southern or northern to indicate provenance. And provenance is significant given the vast geographical spread of the forests, which leads to fine differences in physical characteristics and working properties.

American red oak is a great species for flooring, furniture, doors, joinery and panelling but with little natural durability, treatment is recommended for exterior applications. White oak is also widely used for flooring, furniture and joinery and, as the heartwood is classified as durable, it can be used externally without treatment. Both red and white oak are strong, hard and work well in heavy and light structural applications.

The American red oak (principally Quercus rubra) tree gets its name from the colour of its pointed leaves in autumn and it is distinguished from white oak in a number of ways. While the wood is similar in appearance to white oak, it has a slightly less pronounced figure due to the smaller rays. A key structural difference from other oaks, because of a lack of tyloses (bubble-like structures in the cell cavities), means that red oak offers a number of specific advantages to users, including easier drying, fewer defects, consistent colour and it takes finishes very effectively and easily.

This attractive-looking oak is widely available and is increasingly being chosen by designers and architects for furniture, joinery and flooring in global export markets. While some red oak can have a distinct pink or red colour, other supplies can appear very similar to white oak, especially once a finish is applied, and this is resulting in more mixed oak products. The sheer volume of production helps lumber availability so that a good proportion of long and wide boards with uniform grain can be obtained. For the same reasons red oak is increasingly available sorted to width and length for specific applications.

American white oak (principally Quercus alba) accounts for around 13.5% of the national hardwood forest resource of the US, making it one of the most available species. It is also one of the most important export species – it is consistently the most imported US hardwood to the UK market, for example, where it fulfills a wide range of applications. White oak is very similar to European oak in colour, with a straight grain and a medium to coarse texture and more pronounced figure.

Its versatility, strength and density give oak its long-held position as the first choice species for many global hardwood markets. Price comparison is always difficult. The yield for European oak, much of which is traditionally waney edged and cut through and through, is hard to compare with its American counterpart, which is always square edged and easier to predict. And because American oak grows over such a vast area, comparing southern oak prices with those of northern oak may not be appropriate as the characteristics are so different, sometimes further complicated by the altitude at which it is grown. And when it comes to specification, the long clear lengths available from the US, compared with the wider shorter character grade oak from Europe, are very attractive for buyers.

The American hardwood industry continues to demonstrate its firm commitment to sustainability. The findings of the Assessment of Lawful Harvesting and Sustainability of US Hardwood Exports study commissioned by the industry last year, confirmed that US hardwoods derive from legal and well-managed forests.

As a direct result of the study, AHEC has put together a Responsible Procurement Policy for Exporters (RPP) for adoption by members who want to communicate their commitment to specific environmental objectives and to increase the volume of American hardwoods which can be tracked to forest of origin. Members have responded positively to the RPP, with 25 members already signed up.

Between 1953 and 2007, the volume of US hardwood growing stock more than doubled from 5,210 million m³ to 11,326 million m³ (RPA Assessment 2000). And US Forest Service forecasts indicate that further increases of 15-20% are expected in the hardwood growing stock inventory in the period to 2030. Longer-term projections of hardwood growth and removals nationwide indicate that growth will continue to exceed removals between now and 2050.