Oak hardwood is a timeless natural product of Mother Nature revered across the centuries!
An introduction to Oak
There are over 600 individual species of the beech family, ‘Fagaceae’, of which the Oak tree and shrub, of the Genus ‘Quercus’, is a member.
The genus is a native to the northern hemisphere of the world and includes both deciduous and evergreen species from as far afield as Asia and the American continent.
There are around 90 species in the United States alone and 160 species of Oak in Mexico, which can be seen in its popularity over the pond. China, perhaps surprisingly to some, has around 100 species of Oak too!
Native European Oak
Around 25 species of Oak are native to Europe, with many being abundant in Eastern Europe too.
Oak trees and shrubs have spirally arranged individual leaves with serrated leaves in some cases or entirely smooth margins in others. During the spring, a single Oak tree will produce both male and female flowers. The male flowers will be in the form of catkins and the female flowers will be somewhat smaller. The Oak tree produces a nut which is called an acorn, a great favourite amongst squirrels! An acorn takes anything from 6 to 18 months to mature.
Curiously, there are both evergreen and deciduous examples of the genus, which may be news to you! The wide variety of different species of Oak is one of the things that truly sets the wood apart from all the rest. It also has a rich history of use in different applications by us all across the ages which we will now go into.
The history of the use of Oak by humans
Oak has been with humanity since the very beginning of our time on Earth, it has great inherent strength and hardness with an average density of around 0.75 grams per cubic centimetre. This is what made Oak one of the favourite woods for use by early humans in various different ways including construction.
In fact, it was a favourite of most of the great early human civilisations from the Greeks through to the Romans and beyond.
This wood was also used by the Vikings in the manufacture of their Viking Long-ships during the 9th and 10th centuries some of which still survive to the present day at least in part in one form or another. These can be found proudly displayed as fabulous museum exhibits across the globe.
Oak in Musical Instruments
The wood has also been used in the manufacture of many varied musical instruments such as Drums, Violins and Guitars, due to the high density and strength that it has and the resonant sound frequencies that it can produce too.
Usage in Construction
Oak planks were used in the construction of the first and then the subsequent European Galleons, which went on to conquer the world. It has been used heavily in housing construction where it acts as a structural support for walls and in Oak flooring, where the natural beauty of the wood can really be made to shine through. Over the years it can develop a fabulously rich patina which is highly desirable to many aficionados of the finer things in life!
The hardwood has been important for the storage and maturation of Wines, Sherry and various spirits such as Brandy and Whisky over the ages too.
The Oak Barrels that are used to store such alcoholic drinks can impart a particularly deep and robust flavour. The Oak Barrels may also be charred before use which can also contribute to the colour, aroma and taste of the barrels liquid contents. It is the desirable oaky vanillin flavour that many famous manufacturers of Wine, in particular, have come to rely upon to provide their products with distinctive after-notes, helping to set them apart from their competitors in the Wine producing industry.
Many fine pieces of furniture have been manufactured using this wood too, a remarkable number of which – from mediaeval times – still survive to the present day in prized furniture collections all across the world.
Hip Hip Hooray to Oak!
So hold a glass up to Oak we say, the most long lived, hard-wearing and generally useful (in our humble opinion) of all hardwoods. It has been with human civilisation across the ages and let’s all hope that it always is. Cheers!