This summer we took an overnight camping trip to Hannibal, MO to visit Mark Twain cave, Casano’s pizza and a Liberty Tree. We picked the cave because it is within a two-hour drive of St. Louis and it’s open for visitors, we picked Casano’s pizza for the same reasons (plus we like it), and we picked the Liberty Tree mostly because we had to walk around it to get to the cave.
On the way past the tree, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a pretty big Burr oak.” Apparently, I was right because there is a plaque in front of the tree (looks like someone else thought it was noteworthy too).
The plaque reads, “As part of our Nations Bicentennial, the Missouri Department of Conservation recognized certain trees throughout Missouri as Liberty Trees. This Burr Oak started as a seedling in 1721 and is included in Famous and Historic Trees of the United States by the Department of Agriculture.”
I don’t know if this tree got special consideration because of its ties to Mark Twain, its age, or both, but either way, it is still an impressive tree. Just look at how small my head is next to the tree (Mira’s head is naturally smaller and is not affected by adjacent trees).
If you decide to look for this tree, you won’t have to look very hard. It is right in front of, and looms over, the building that serves as the entrance to Mark Twain cave. And, in case you are wondering, the cave is worth visiting. A 45-minute walking tour gives a detailed history of the cave, its visitors and, of course, Samuel Clemens.
Since I started milling lumber, determining the difference between red oak and white oak has been a challenge. I’ve got a good handle on it now, but there are plenty of times (at least once a week) when a customer has a piece of wood that they want to identify. It is usually some old barn lumber and usually some sort of oak.
I have had a lot of practice trying to figure out what kind of oak I am dealing with since many of the logs I cut are salvaged. Often they are old, without leaves or even bark, and a challenge to identify. Even just raw, newly planed oak lumber can sometimes be tricky. The secrets lie within the structure of the wood itself.
What about color? Color can help, but it can also be misleading. While white oak is less red in color, red oak can range from very red/pink to the exact same color as white oak. I use color as an indicator only if the board is very red, which most likely makes it red oak. Anything in the tan range needs to be investigated further. Note that newly cut white oak lumber turns a bright pink when exposed to the air and then goes back to tan after drying (read more about that by clicking here).
How about the grain? The grain or texture of oaks is very similar. Even when finished, both just look like oak. There are subtle differences, but if you only have one oak in front of you and you aren’t sure what it is, it still just looks like oak. White oak is, on average, a finer texture, with tighter growth rings and a more refined appearance, but there are plenty of red oaks out there with tight growth rings that look similar. Red oak as a family has several members that are fast growing like shingle oaks, willow oaks, laurel oaks and pin oaks, while all white oaks are usually slower growing. If you find an oak board with wide growth rings and a coarse appearance there is a good chance it is a red oak.
Isn’t white oak water tight? Now, we are on to something. White oak, as compared to red oak, is water tight and is used to make wine and whiskey barrels. White oak can hold water because the “open” pores are filled with tyloses, which looks like foam – red oak is not. If you look closely at the pores on an oak board (and your vision is good) you will be able to see grain that either has open pores or pores that are filled with tyloses. On a very small level, especially with a magnifying glass, you can see the difference, and it is usually very clear.
How about the rays? Finally, we’ve got it. The big difference is in the rays. White oak has long, showy rays, which are especially visible in quarter sawn lumber and give quarter sawn white oak it’s one-of-a-kind appearance. However, the rays are also visible on flat sawn lumber, which is the main way that I discern between red and white oak. On the face of flatsawn red oak lumber the rays look like little short tick marks, usually no longer than 1/2″ long. The marks are very visible and strongly contrast with the surrounding wood. White oak has long rays, and on flat sawn lumber the rays look more like straw. The rays are so long that they blend together and are often hard to tell apart. There may be a few shorter ones here and there, but on average the rays are well over 1/2″ long.
The main reason it is necessary to discern between red and white oak, besides general appearance, is to determine its durability. White oak is water-tight and great to use both indoors and outdoors. Red oak is more like a sponge. It will tend to soak up water when it can and quickly rot. Red oak can be used outdoors in vertical applications, like barn siding, and last for quite a long time, but in horizontal applications, especially where the wood will dry out slowly or not at all, it wouldn’t be uncommon for red oak to decay in just a season or two. My unofficial testing of both species used in my own garden for tomato stakes showed a major difference between the two species with red oak rotting and breaking off at ground level in just one summer/fall season, while the white oak showed no symptoms.
The good news is that while it may be difficult at first to tell the difference between red and white oak, it isn’t impossible and actually pretty simple if you look in the right places. Remember you can check out the color, gawk at the grain and peek at the pores. And, if all that doesn’t work, you can always just rely on the rays.
It feels like Deja Vu all over again. After spending weeks cleaning up from the last tornado that hit North County in 2010 and still milling logs from it, I felt right at home when I went to visit our last house in Hazelwood, MO. On April 10 a tornado rolled through town and right across our old street, Woodcrest Lane.
I didn’t know anything about it until later that night because our power was out in our new house in St. Charles. I called my ex-neighbor (Alan Orban) after I heard it hit Hazelwood and asked if there was any damage around him. When I asked, I didn’t realize it went through his yard. He told me about the damage ant that trees were down, but it still wasn’t clear that the tornado went right through our yards.
It became very clear the next morning when I saw the TV news reports and aerial photos that included our houses. It became even more clear when I went by in person and could see the very obvious path that the tornado took right down our driveway and across the street. Most of the big trees that were in the path are down or need to come down, leaving a clear view of the sky that we have never seen. Woodcrest Lane has a nice country lane kind of feel with large trees and, in some cases, lots of trees. It still does, but a section about 5 lots wide (one acre each) is now a lot more wide-open-prairie like.
The damage on the street seems to mostly involve trees and trees that fell on structures, compared to houses being ripped apart from the winds themselves. In a few spots further down the line some roofs were blown off, but no structures where leveled. The tornado was officially classed as an F2 and stayed on the ground for a couple of miles. Amazingly, there were no serious injuries.
After we found out it was a tornado, I was specifically instructed by my boss not to go and get trees. I was told that I have more than enough paying work to keep me busy, and I don’t need to be chasing trees. I agreed, but mostly because I know every tree in the path of the tornado, and there isn’t anything I couldn’t live without.
Here is the channel 5 video:
Here are the photos that I took during my visit:
Almost a year ago, a tornado swept through the St. Louis area. After seeing the destruction, I was surprised no one was killed, and at the same time excited to start salvaging trees. I drove around the first day to get a feel for things, following the trail of downed trees and using bright blue tarps that covered damaged roofs as beacons when I started to stray from the path. The first job was to procure trees before they were cut up, so I had to hustle. It didn’t take long to realize that I was going to have a tough time efficiently covering a 10-mile path.
I went home that night and decided to look at Google maps in satellite view. I love to look at the satellite view normally, but now I had a reason. I imagined I could generally chart the path and pick out spots with the best trees. What I didn’t imagine is how well it helped me out in identifying specific trees. I was very lucky to find that the satellite photos for the area I was most interested in were taken in the early fall. In the early fall the trees are starting to change and they don’t just look like green blobs in the photos.
The ones that stood out the most were walnuts. They lose their leaves early, so in the photos they were bare. The cottonwoods were bare too, but that was it. I could scan the satellite images and find the bare trees, then go see if they were down. All but two that were down were walnuts. I got some walnuts out of the deal, but walnuts didn’t seem to be the most abundant species. As a matter of fact, I only found one block with a heavy concentration of walnuts, but it got me looking.
After closer examination, I realized that I could see the shape of the tree by its shadow on the ground. It told me if it had a long trunk (good for milling) or a short, bushy shape. The shape really helped me identify cherry. Cherry tends to have a wispy top, without much foliage and very little spread. They also tend to have stems with multiple leads. If they were alone in the photos, I could pick out cherry trees from the top. But, if not, and this is totally cool, I could jump down to street view and see the tree like I was driving down the road. This helped me verify that trees were worth looking at when I got calls from friends.
As I was going back to pick the images for this post, I realized that the photos had been updated and that the path of the tornado is visible from distant views. When I realized that, I took a look at Joplin. Wow! In Google, just type in Joplin, MO and click on the map. It looks like they took the photo within weeks of the tornado and the width of the path and the complete destruction is incredible. For contrast, type in Ferguson, MO and realize how much smaller this tornado was, and it was not small. I could have picked up trees all summer.