Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be doing about wood. Yep, you read that right. This post will be wood-tastic. Wood-a-licious. Really, really woody. For all you wood-lovers out there, this is for you. And, for you non-wood peeps, read on to see I can turn you. Like turning wood…(see what I did there?!)...
Anyway. This post is about a superstar amongst wood, and that is the mighty oak. It’s been used for building and making furniture for literally thousands of years, and quite frankly, that’s because it’s ace in many ways.
Firstly, let’s go back to the Vikings, who used oak to make their longships. Mostly because it’s really water-resistant, and as such, makes perfect sea-faring vessels. It’s also less likely than other woods to warp when exposed to sunlight, so even if they were lucky enough to get a few warm days on their adventures, the ships would still be in tip-top condition.
In fact, it was so good that it was used in ship building until the mid-19th century. Great Britain's Royal Navy loved a wooden ship - HMS Victory was made from over 6,000 oak trees, and (one assumes) to counteract this massive forest chopping, one naval officer called Colonel Thomas Jones planted almost a hundred thousand oak trees. Or perhaps he just loved a shady coppice. Regardless, nice work Colonel.
So, why else is oak great? Well, it’s also super hard-wearing and durable, which is why lots of house frames were built out of it in ye olden days. Even its Latin name, Quercus robur, means strength. It was also used to decorate houses. There are some fantastic examples of carved wooden paneling in many old country houses and it was even used in the House of Commons debating chamber.
It takes up to 150 years before an oak is ready to use in construction, so it’s been around for quite a while, just getting better and better prior to use. It also likes to keep in tip-top condition across those 150 years of growing, and does it’s best to see off any nasties. Many oaks have high tannin content, which means that it’s highly resistant to insects and fungus - just another reason why it’s so awesome. Although that’s not to say it’s totally immune - the non-native and rather evil oak processionary moth not only damages the tree’s foliage and increases the oak’s susceptibility to other diseases, it is actually a risk to human health. The moth's hairs are toxic and can lead to itching and respiratory problems if inhaled.
However, yet again, oak comes to the rescue. OK, so not against the moth-guy, but traditionally the leaves, bark and acorns were believed to heal many medical ailments including diarrhoea, inflammation and kidney stones. We even used to grind acorns up and turn them into flour for bread making. Yummy.
These days, oak has moved onto wine and whisky. Oak barrels add flavour and texture to both drinks, with different kinds of oak associated with different flavours. You can also use oak chips to smoke all sorts of food - perfect for the BBQ season. It’s really just a wood that keeps on giving...
One last thing to mention - oak is also really rather pretty. When it’s quartersawn the grain often displays a pattern of medullary rays, which are kind of like subtle wavy ribbon-like patterns across the straight grain. Gorgeous. Although even when it’s not chopped down and still in tree form, there are some glorious examples of this king amongst woods. Just take the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, or the rather marvellous Bowthorpe Oak in Linconshire. In the Guiness Book of Records, it has a 12.5m girth, is over 1,000 years old, has had it’s hollow trunk fitted with seats and has been used as a dining room.
Shelter, food, warmth.
Like I said. Oak’s just a wood that keeps on giving...