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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.
When customers visit my shop we usually start by talking about their wood needs. If it is someone’s first time to visit I also try to get to know them, what they are looking for and what they are expecting from me. Half of them are just looking for rough cut wood, while the others are looking for wood that is processed a little bit more, perhaps jointed or planed, or even sanded. During our time together I get to understand their needs and abilities, and our discussion usually turns to the tools they have in their shop.
I am often surprised at what tools woodworkers don’t use or own, especially when they are some of the few that I find essential. Sometimes it’s just the difference between hand tool and power tool guys, but sometimes it’s just from lack of experience or the fact that they haven’t given it too much thought. Most likely they just buy tools as they need them and never really considered what tools would give them the most bang for the buck.
Since this is a common conversation, I decided to compile the following list of what I think are the most useful power tools and should be the building blocks of any woodworking shop:
Table saw. Of all of the tools in the shop, the table saw is the most useful and versatile. It excels at making straight cuts, and with the addition of any of a million jigs, can be made to perform an amazing number of tasks with repeatability and precision. I use the table saw for roughing out smaller parts from larger pieces, all the way through trimming parts to final size. The only limit to the table saw is that the piece needs to be small enough to be pushed through it. Above a certain size, the table saw becomes less useful and even impossible to use as the saw needs to be brought to the piece, instead of the piece being brought to the saw.
The table saw is best suited for making rip cuts, which are cuts along the length of the board, but with a crosscutting jig, the table saw can do just as well on crosscuts, which are cuts across the board. I even use the table saw for resawing thick lumber into thinner boards. The bandsaw is usually the tool for resawing, but any lumber under 6″ wide can be resawn on a 10″ table saw by cutting from both sides of the board.
Besides just making through cuts, the table saw can also cut dados, rabbets and other grooves with just a few adjustments. And, with the addition of profiled cutters and a creative mind, the table saw can be used to make all kinds of mouldings, including large crown mouldings.
The table saw also works amazingly well as a table. Mine is big enough to not only hold stuff, but serve as an assembly table when necessary. The table of the table saw is set apart from other tables because it is commonly the only one open and available in the shop. I try to keep it clear enough to actually use, which means that at least part of the top is usually available and ready to be used as a table or maybe even a saw.
Thickness Planer. Running a rough board through the planer is always fun. Even after sending billions of board feet through a planer, it never gets old. The amazing thing is that beyond making the wood look good, the planer can size lumber in ways other tools can’t.
I have met a lot of customers that don’t have a planer. And, while it is possible to operate without one, I believe that once you own one, you will find it hard to believe that you ever ran a shop without it. For me, it is along the same line of thinking for spray guns, where I say, “Stop thinking about buying a spray gun.”
Even if you buy your lumber already planed, you will still encounter many circumstances that require the use of a planer. For example, you might want to build a simple and delicate jewelry box out of small scrap pieces lying around the shop, and you will end up making a small and clunky jewelry box because all of your lumber is 3/4″ thick, and that’s how it is going to stay. That is just the first example. Think about all of the other times that you will pick up a piece of lumber in the shop and it will be the wrong thickness, either just slightly wrong or in an entirely different size category. A planer is a real problem solver and can fix all of that.
If you work with rough lumber, a planer will be absolutely necessary, except for the most rustic of projects. Every piece of rough cut lumber ends up somewhat not straight, not flat and not consistent in thickness, either from variations during the sawing or from stresses which occur while the wood dries. The planer, combined with the jointer, is a one-two punch to remove these variations and produce straight, flat and consistently thick lumber. The reason the planer is ahead of the jointer on this list is that some lumber is straight enough and flat enough to plane without jointing if the job is a little less finicky, thereby skipping the jointer.
Jointer. I use my jointer a lot. When preparing rough lumber it sees as much action as the planer. As a matter of fact, almost every piece of lumber in my shop gets surfaced on the wide face to straighten things out before it even heads to the planer. Without the jointer, my life would just be a crooked, twisty mess of painful attempts to make things seem straight.
One of the misconceptions about planers is that they make lumber straight. They do some straightening, but they don’t make lumber straight. That is what jointers do. Many lumber mills just send rough lumber through the planer allowing the board to exit the machine with the same ups and downs and whoops that is entered with, only now to a consistent thickness. This is especially apparent when gluing up a couple of these roller coaster type of boards and trying to get them to line up. After a couple of those glue-ups, you will swear by lumber that has seen the jointer before the planer, and never skip the jointer.
Besides flattening lumber, the jointer also puts a straight edge on lumber for joining two boards together and for running through other machines. I also use the jointer for making small adjustments during the final fitting of parts like drawer fronts, where small changes can make a big difference.
With these three power tools (and a few hand tools), I feel like I could make about 80% of the jobs that come through my shop on a daily basis. Obviously, some jobs will require more specialized power tools to complete, but these three probably find their way into almost all of my work. With that said, there are a few other tools that I couldn’t imagine being without and I feel need to be added to the list.
Spray gun. Not every woodworking job gets a film finish, but most of mine do. And of those, every one will meet a spray gun. For a million reasons, including making finishing fast and fun, I recommend using a spray gun whenever possible. It will raise your game and make you n0t hate finishing. (Click here to read my thoughts on purchasing a spray gun).
Chop saw (compound miter saw). I do a mix of woodworking from furniture to built-ins and even finish carpentry, and I find myself regularly using the chop saw. Even if used for nothing more than roughly cutting a long board into two shorter ones to fit in a car, this tool earns its keep. It is especially useful (with the help of an outfeed table) on long pieces that are precarious to push through a table saw. But, since a table saw with a jig can perform many of the same functions, this tool doesn’t make it to the essential list. With that said, I expect to have a chop saw wherever I am working, whether it be in the shop or at an install. If this was a post about on-site woodworking and trim carpentry, the chop saw might be the #1 tool.
Impact driver. I am a giant fan of impact drivers. I have been using them for a while now and can’t really remember my life before them (Click here to read more about my introduction to impact drivers). This is the one tool that I always have with me, and I expect to be within easy reach. So much so, that I own three of them and could imagine myself with a couple more. Like the chop saw, if this was a list of on-site or installation tools, the impact driver would be near the top.
Tape measure. I know this isn’t a power tool, but it is the one tool that you should always have with you. It is a pet peeve of mine – if you are planning on building something, or you are actually building it, have a tape measure with you. If you are in the shop, on the job site, or even at Home Depot make sure you have a tape measure with you or at least one very handy (Home Depot probably isn’t the best example, since they have them widely available, but you get the point). Without a tape measure, not much beyond rough work can get done. (Click here to read about my favorite tape measure).