Oak has historically been recognised as a natural, renewable source of timber. However, the global supply of oak is becoming scarce due to high demand, and costs can be high, especially when designing with solid oak. In contrast, intricate design aesthetics can still be achieved with the use of wooden veneers. In our latest blog, we’ve taken a look at what some of the most cost-effective yet resilient oak alternatives are.
What is a wood veneer?
A wood veneer is made up of a thin layer of natural wood. This is generally bonded to a stable composite base material to form a usable panel/board. The purpose of a veneer is that it’s more affordable than solid wood because less actual wood is used, but once glued to particle board or plywood, it makes a more stable building material than the wood itself.
What are the benefits of wood veneer?
- Better for the environment – As it’s made from solid wood sliced into multiple pieces, this means more can be made out of one piece of wood. It helps conserve natural resources while still maintaining the natural aesthetic found in solid wood. Clients can choose rare or exotic wood without breaking the bank or endangering the species.
- Very durable – Just because the veneer isn’t completely made up of solid wood, doesn’t mean it’s not durable. The veneer is glued to a stable substrate meaning the surface isn’t prone to warping or splitting like solid wood.
- Lots of design possibilities – Since veneer is far thinner, it allows designs and arrangements of the natural wood pattern that solid wood just can’t achieve. The slices of real wood make it easy to locate beautiful patterns in the wood’s grain and incorporate them into the aesthetic of the design, which is great for bespoke joinery projects.
- Cheap – Compared to solid oak, veneers can be considerably cheaper than solid counterparts, but still have the look and feel of the desired wood.
Why is ash veneer a popular oak alternative?
Ash is strong and flexible, it accepts stains well and if desired can be stained to closely resemble oak. The smooth dense grain naturally rivals maple in its beauty. Light in tone, ash’s fine grain is perfect for satin and high-gloss finishes. The blond, open grain of ash is attractive in itself, and can be stained in any colour with good results; it accepts stain evenly and doesn’t blotch.
The resilience of ash has made it the wood of choice for craftsmen and artisans throughout the centuries. Perhaps most famously used for crafting major league baseball bats that are able to endure 100mph baseballs and hit them over 400ft.
What is the difference between hardwood and softwood?
Timber is classed as either softwood or hardwood, depending on the type of tree. Softwood comes from coniferous (having usually needle-shaped or scale-like leaves) trees such as pine, fir and spruce, and usually remains evergreen. These trees take around 40 years to grow before they are ready to harvest.
In comparison, hardwoods come from broadleaved trees such as oak, ash and beech, which lose their leaves annually. These trees take much longer to grow – some up to 150 years before they are ready to harvest.
Softwood is typically less expensive compared to hardwood, as hardwood trees grow at a much slower rate and require longer drying times. When it comes to ash and oak, ash is slightly firmer, and in terms of their appearance, the grain of ash is not as obvious as that of oak.
If we add poplar wood into the mix, it’s considered hardwood, but is just as easy to work with as pine boards or other softwoods.
Why does poplar wood work well for bespoke joinery?
Poplar wood is straight-grained and uniform in texture and has a medium-density which allows paints and glues to adhere well. These characteristics lead to it being one of the leaders in utility hardwoods.
In comparison with oak, the hardness is about half that of oak, but they are among the fastest-growing trees in Europe and can be harvested after 10 to 20 years. Also, during their growth cycle, poplars capture carbon thus aiding in the task of tackling climate change.
Oak trees take an immense amount of time to grow to full maturity, up to 100 years and require longer drying times, these factors drive up the cost of the wood. This does however aid in the density of the wood, making it harder, stronger, and more durable.
In contrast, poplar is light, easy to transport, and easy to work with. It grows abundantly and the wood is sustainably harvested. Oak is a wood with a history of overharvesting that resulted in it getting on the list of endangered wood species.
What are other oak alternatives?
Fortunately, the benefits of oak aren’t unique and many other kinds of wood have the same qualities. Ash is a great alternative to white oak in nearly every application.
Elm, similar to Ash, takes beautifully to colour thanks to its natural neutral tone. If the hardness and durability of oak is what you’re after, hickory is a great option, if you’re interested in luxe, consider its rich-toned and sophisticated cousin, walnut.
Depending on what you’re looking for, there are so many other woods that have characteristics specific to your needs – aesthetic or practical. It doesn’t always have to be oak! Whether you use an alternative wood, a veneer, or another, there are so many different beautiful woods to try, so why limit yourself to one of the most expensive?
If you’re considering a wooden alternative in your next bespoke joinery design, but aren’t sure where to start, please get in touch with a member of our team.