Red Oak is on the rebound after a lull

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What a difference a few months can make. For several years, there has been a glut of red oak on the market, causing wholesale prices to drop below $1/bf. When prices fell below $.90/bf, loggers stopped cutting red oak because there was no money to be made. It's taken about three years, but because of mill closures and reduced logging, the old supply-and-demand theory has kicked in and red oak has finally emerged from its doldrums. Within the last four months, prices have increased between 10 and 15 percent.

Northern Red Oak’s specific gravity: .56 to .63.

Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water.

Northern Red Oak’s radial shrinkage: 4 percent.

Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces.

Northern Red Oak’s tangential shrinkage: 8.6 percent.

Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces.

Example: A 12" wide flatsawn Northern Red Oak board will shrink .217" (about 7/32") from 12 percent moisture content to 6 percent and a quartersawn board will shrink .083" (about 3/32").

"The glut is over and it seems like it is in short supply," says Jerry Anton, a wholesaler with O'Shea Lumber in Glen Rock, Pa. "It's tough to find a lot of it and the price has gone up. It's pretty heavy price-wise. I think the biggest shortage is in 4/4 because that is where the biggest demand is. I don't know if there is a real resurgence on oak or it is just because it's not around. I think part of it is due to mills shutting down and the weather. There wasn't a lot being produced because it wasn't quite an in-demand species and it was really cheap. For quite awhile, it really has been on the downside, three years anyway. There is a little bit more of a demand now but what is driving it - the lack of it or the demand?"

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), also known as eastern oak, is plentiful and grows in the eastern half of the United States and Canada. Trees are smaller than white oak (Quercus alba), reaching heights up to 70' with tree diameters around 3', depending on growing conditions. The tree's fruit is an acorn and mature trees can produce up to 1,000 acorns a year.

"Basically the red oak that we cut is usually exported to Italy or Germany. What we do sell domestically is side lumber, which is a pretty small volume because we are cutting pretty nice logs," says Pete Terbovich of Horizon Wood Products in Kersey, Pa. "Overall, we just got through a pretty large cutting here; we hadn't had a red oak order for quite some time. So, definitely, demand is on the increase. Talking with the loggers and people who are sawing more logs for the domestic market, they've also seen a pickup. So it's not just what we've seen in our orders, but also through our contacts with the guys in the woods."

Red oak is used primarily for cabinetry, interior trim, furniture and decorative veneer and plywood. Lower grades of red oak are used extensively for flooring because of its high crushing strength and resistance to shock. It is a good steam-bending wood and, once red oak's open pores are filled, it sands to a clean surface and takes finish applications very well. The wood works fine with hand and machine tools although, when planing, it may chip when the grain curves toward the edge. Red oak is heavy (specific gravity of .60) and pre-boring is recommended.

"I've been told a lot of the markets are pretty tight on it and the way I see it is a lot of the loggers can't get into the woods, especially in our area, and the mills have shortages," says Steve Wall of Wall Lumber Co. in Mayodan, N.C. "I know one of the major mills in our area that we do a lot of business with has done three- or four-week shutdowns because they don't have the logs. The weather has been a real hardship, even as far south as we are, to deal with. We're probably paying 15 percent more than last year at this time and I think some of that started showing up even last fall."

Red oak's heartwood is pink with a reddish tinge and the color can vary depending on climate and soil. The sapwood is white. Red oak has a medium to coarse texture and is straight-grained. The wood produces prominent rays when quartersawn, so flat-sawn and quartersawn stock should be separated and not used for the same project. Red oak's figure is not as attractive as the figure of white oak.

"The price has been going up considerably and I think you are going to see more of it because, now with the weather, the loggers aren't going to be able to get in," Anton says. "The snow is going to keep them from getting in and logging and when that melts, it is going to be the mud, so I think it is going to be tough for most species; it will even be tough to find poplar. It's not just oak."

"Our supply has definitely been the hardest part about the downturn in the economy," Terbovich says. "Those guys out in the woods have a skidder and a payment and, all of a sudden, the value of their product drops so much they just can't survive. We've seen our supplier list drop close to 50 percent - the guys cutting trees and those in the concentration yards - and that is, for us, the biggest hurdle, trying to find good suppliers of logs. A lot of sawmills have closed down, but I think the small guys out in the woods supplying the logs to the mills are the area of the industry that got hurt the worst."

Retail prices are 100 bf of kiln-dried, 4/4 FAS red oak, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $3.10 to $3.53/bf in the Northeast; $2.80 to $3.50/bf in the South; $3.10 to $3.34/bf in the Midwest; and $3.40 to $3.85/bf in the West.

Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS red oak ranged from $2,950 to $3,200/mbf in the Northeast; $2,600 to $2,900/mbf in the Southeast; $2,800 to $3,050/mbf in the Midwest; and $3,150 to $3,500/mbf in the West.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.