English Oak

English Oak

It’s nearly 4.30 in the afternoon. I have in my hand a small bronze plane. Around my feet and bench are scattered about the floor, in places two or three inches deep,  fine shavings from the English Oak table that I’m working on. My hands are blackened by the tannin of the oak I’ve been working and I cannot escape a reccuring thought of ‘Why am I doing this’. I’m 58 years old and hard physical work is not something I relish every day, yet having said that it does have it’s attraction. Like a good workout in the gym a session with a decent Oak table will get the endorphins to run and, at the end one can step back and look at the surface created rather than mopping up the puddle of sweat around the rowing machine. 

But really  shouldn’t I be doing this with a machine? There are magazine loads of articles about sanders and polishers. Surfaces are created for us these days by machine, BRRRRPPP….. through the planer thicknesser, BUZZZZZ… through the thickness sander, wuss wuss through the curtain coater – perfect finish. Perfectly flat. Like a kitchen worktop. Our world is full of this mechanised perfection, plastic surfaces, flatness created by machines to a degree of intimidating perfection, and for me this is an issue. I find these objects intimidating, for I am a simple human being and have not got that certainty of achievement. We humans are frail and foolish and generally insignificant and this perfection stuff gets up my  crease.

I have in my workshop a granite engineer’s surfacing plate. A slab about 2’ square with a surface of guaranteed flatness to so many dozens of decimal points. This is an object of unquestionable presence, almost beauty and it’s attraction is it’s unattainable qualities. However skilful a craftsman I may be I could never make a surface that flat. I could come pretty close to it with a machine, but that’s not the same. Or, I could take a hand plane and do something else.

With this little bronze plane I can create a track about 1/2” wide across that Oak surface. That track can be smooth and burnished and shimmery, and in itself quite perfect. I can lay another track alongside it, parallel, or parrallel’ish about 1/2” wide, or thereabouts. Because the blade of my plane is slightly curved the shaving I take from this oak table top is thick in the centre and tapers out to nothing at either edge. It gives me a slightly scolloped surface to the tabletop. Then I run my fingers across the table, I can feel and sometimes I can see the parallel tracks of this little plane. By and large my surface is flat, yet there is a variance. Like the leaves of the tree. All oak leaves have the same shape yet each leaf is slightly different from it’s neighbour. Within nature we always experience variance, difference. Similarity but lack of exactness, a kind of precise warm but slightly fuzzy feeling. However try taking aphotograph of that warm fuzzy variance  and you will see the or not see the problem, this is about touch and that is hard to see.

English Oak was described to me once as the “King of English Hardwoods”, yet I would suggest that it has decidedly feminine qualities. You can have a board of oak with a tiny crack that looks like a surface check perhaps caused by hot summer sunshine. In any other timber this will plane out leaving good clear wood, but not with English Oak. With English Oak that crack can go 3” deep and you’ll never be allowed to forget it. Oak can also spin on a dime. You can be planing happily from left to right taking clean whispery shavings and suddenly she’ll rear up and bite your head off. You don’t know what you’ve done wrong and it’s no use asking. Where you had been planing from left to right you now have to plane from right to left. It’s as if you have cut through to another strata of oak that works in a completely different direction, and watch out for those medullary rays, they shimmer and shine in the sun so beautifully but they’ll take the edge of your plane faster than a block of concrete.

I’m not going to tell you all the usual stuff about English Oak. Lots of reference books will tell you about how big it is, what it’s nailing and bending properties are. I’m going to tell you about what it feels like to work. On a good day oak will work really beautifully. Keep that edge sharp (no, I’m not going to tell you how to do that either, you should know by now! ) Keep that edge sharp, put your back into it and work it. Oak demands energy, you have to push that plane down, keep it in close contact and take off the tiniest, most shimmery of shavings, then you’ll get it to a shine straight from the tool. Don’t muck around with lacquers or oils or varnishes. English Oak is best when waxed. The wax brings out the shine and shows the true character of the timber. It also mercilessly exposes your workmanship to close examination, so you’d better do a good job. Perhaps it is worth all that effort after all.

David Savage



David established Rowden Atelier in 1995, a now world renowned fine woodworking school. Discover Rowden, the woodworking courses, and the work that students go on to do.

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