Why Not Mill Pin Oak?
On a regular basis, probably at least once a week, someone contacts me looking to have a pin oak milled into lumber. They are excited because they finally got their hands on a truly giant specimen of a tree, and even though it is just a red oak, they are excited to get to work with a hardwood at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of not-so-good news and try to get them to reconsider.
As I mentioned, pin oak is in the red oak family, but that is about the only relationship it has to any decent red oak lumber. Pin oak is not milled and sold commercially under the name red oak, and as far as I know, is only used for low-grade products like pallets and blocking, where the only requirement is that it be made of wood that will stay together. And funny enough, pin oak often falls short of even that low requirement.
The problem is that many pin oak trees suffer from ring shake, which is where the rings of the tree peel apart like an onion, making that section of lumber nearly unusable. The beauty of ring shake is that it can’t be seen from the outside of the log and it won’t always be visible even early in the milling process. Sometimes, it won’t be until the lumber has been fully processed and dried for it to start falling apart. Needless to say this is frustrating, especially if you are counting on that lumber for a project and then end up with no wood to work. Even if the ring shake isn’t bad enough to make the lumber actually break, it very often leaves at least one fancy break line somewhere in a board where you would rather not have it. Again, super frustrating.
So, let’s say you find a pin oak that is solid, with no ring shake, then it is all clear sailing, right? Far from it. You may have lumber, but you probably don’t have great lumber. One of the main attractions for pin oak is the giant size and the promise of a never-ending bunk of lumber comprised of super-wide boards. This, you may indeed have, but it comes at a cost. The cost is that all of the super-wide lumber will have super-wide growth rings, rings that may be up to 1/2″ or more in width. Because the tree grows so fast, putting on up to 1″ in diameter per year, the logs get big in a hurry too. It isn’t uncommon for a 36″ diameter log to have only started growing 45 years ago. It was planted because the trees grow to a large, stately appearance quickly, and that means big, wide growth rings.
Big growth rings mean a coarse textured wood, no matter how you cut it. Whether flatsawn or quartersawn, red oak is already known for its open, in-your-face, grain, and pin oak is ten times worse. Imagine an 8″ wide flat sawn board that may only show a couple of annual rings on the face. It looks more like the cheapest of spiral cut plywood for sheathing the side of your house, instead of quality hardwood lumber for building fine furniture. That same 8″ wide board, if quartersawn, will probably show about 20-25 rings, where a high quality white oak board will show 60-80 rings. The difference is night and day, with the higher growth ring count looking much more refined and not so clunky.
Even if the wood stayed together and for some reason the growth rings weren’t so wide, pin oak would still be far from a great hardwood. The lumber typically also sports bad color, bad smell (commonly referred to as “piss” oak by local tree guys), and many more knots than are outwardly apparent. Since the trees are usually open grown and well pruned, the always straight, always perfectly upright trunks appear to contain up to 30′-40′ of clear lumber. The truth is that the trunks typically contain only 8′ of clear lumber near the ground, with the remainder being full of knots from previously trimmed branches.
Overall, I have nothing good to say about pin oaks, except that they grow big, tall and straight. And, while it may be possible to mill pin oak lumber that meets some minimum requirements (like staying together), the best pin oak is still easily surpassed in quality by almost any other reputable wood. Just know, if you are thinking about paying someone to mill a pin oak tree for you, that I wouldn’t even mill a pin oak if it magically fell on my sawmill. I would take the extra time to get it out of the way, so I could mill something better. It’s just not worth it. Move on.
Pin oak has much the same reputation here (near KC). I don’t see very many with ring shake, but your description of knots and odor is spot on. Since I custom mill, I do get to mill pin oak several times per year, even after advising clients of the potentials.
It can display some stunning grain and they are usually enthused with the boards they get. I do recommend adding a quarter inch of thickness due to the erratic shrinkage around knots when it dries.
There were several species planted around here after the demise of the American elms in the 50s. Pin oak, silver maple, white ash, and Siberian elms… most of those are how reaching their maturity and coming down. The pin oaks and elms are often at a size too large for my bandsaw mill unless broken down with a chainsaw.
I have warned my tree guys that I don’t buy pin oak but I usually end up with a couple of them around here anyway. No one has ever called me looking for pin oak lumber.
Thank you for your interesting article on Pin Oak. I have always wondered about it’s absence from any commercial use, and now I know. So at least it still makes good fire wood, right?
Wow Scott, you really hate Pin Oaks.
Hey Scott, I guess I’m the odd man out because I love my Pin Oak lumber. I made an island for the kitchen, plenty of picture frames, bowls, and a variety of other misc. stuff. I will concede I had to cut around a lot of knots that drop out after the lumber is dry but it was worth it to me since I didn’t pay for the log (harvested out of my own woods) and only paid 12 cents per board foot to have it milled. I love the grain and whether stained or natural its a beautiful finish.
Pin oak can be acceptable and even sometimes be quite cool, but on average, and way more than I prefer to deal with, it isn’t so great. If I didn’t have other species to choose from on a regular basis, I would probably mill it an hope for the best. Since I have plenty of other species available, pin oak is at the very bottom of my list. This past weekend at an art show, I ran into a very nice bowl made of spalted pin oak. The growth rings were tight and there was almost no way to distinguish it from another red oak. Decent, even exceptional pin oak does exist, but it just isn’t the norm.