American red oak

Time to change

by David Venables


A few weeks ago, I visited Benchmark Furniture, an amazing wood joinery and furniture workshop that AHEC has collaborated with many times over the years. Our relationship has been focused on experimental creative projects often with unfamiliar U.S. species. For example, red oak, a species they were introduced to for our Legacy project for the London Design Festival back in 2019. 

Before the project started, we ran a series of experiments to test the performance of red oak against white oak and the European oak they were most used to working with, undertaking over 40 different tests covering machining, finishing, staining, and joint strength. The results showed conclusively that in most cases red oak performed as well as the other oaks and better in joint strength, staining and bending due to its porosity. But most importantly it gave the workshop and its experienced craftsmen the confidence to work with the species to produce the desired results. 

Once the project finished, they returned to working with European oak. So, imagine my surprise when I entered the workshop this time to find virtually every station and bench working with red oak. Much of the product destined for a new 11-storey office fit out in London, but in one corner was a protype of a new flexible office storage and desk system to be launched at Clerkenwell Design Week in May in English ash and American red oak. Both species have been chosen for their environmental credentials. Lots of ash has had to be felled in the UK because of ash die back, it is important to utilise it now and turn it into well-made long-life products; whereas red oak is readily available and will be around for the long term, accounting for 18% of the vast U.S. hardwood resource. It’s a species that is growing in volume year on year and could and should be more widely used. As well as its performance, it has one extra advantage: unlike its white oak cousins it can’t be used for barrel staves due to its open pores, which probably contributes to more price stability. 

This change in attitude towards red oak at Benchmark is not just an isolated case. Recent conversations with leading furniture brands in Scandinavia and Germany have led to prototype development of new ranges in red oak. Manufacturers in Italy and Spain are also embracing the species, so the revolution has begun! Last year red oak exports from the U.S. to Europe were 42,500m3, the third most imported hardwood behind white oak and tulipwood. 

The market focus on a narrow species range for hardwood products is not in the interest of sustainability and we must expand the offer, and this also provides more choice for consumers. Our promotion work in recent years has shown that designers and architects are willing to embrace new options. The reaction from the media and the international design community assembled in Milan to our maple projects for the Class of ‘24 exhibition was testament to this. I firmly believe there is an opportunity to grow the trade in hardwood in Europe and collectively we need to do more to inform, educate and promote to the market a wider range of species.


David Venables
AHEC Director