The aesthetic of oak in dining room tables and furniture

A buyer’s guide to the different types of Oak and the aesthetic these bring to handmade tables and dining furniture

At Orpago we make our bespoke dining tables and furniture in various different timbers, depending on the aesthetic that we’re trying to give to a particular piece. In this article I’m going to focus on Oak. Where it comes from, the different grades that we use and its appearance. 

Oak has been hugely popular as a raw material in British construction, furniture and ship building for centuries. Perhaps because as a tree it is so ubiquitous, and as such so intertwined in our culture. Even though it is slow growing, there are more Oaks in Britain than any other tree. The mighty Oak shapes our rural landscapes and can live for up to a thousand years. As a timber it is exceptionally dense, strong and durable. 

It’s remarkable that the oak we use in the furniture we make, would have stood proud on our lands for a good 150 to 200 years before us. 

Through and through sawn oak

Where the boards originate from in the log and how the log has been sawn will have an effect on both stability and aesthetic. 

Imagine a log that’s been sliced down its length into boards that are say 2” thick. This would be a through and through sawn log. Most the boards that we select have either been through and through sawn or plain sawn. 



This sawing method (through and through) is the least wasteful and results in lovely wide boards. The boards towards the outside of the log are the crown cut boards. They will have a more figurative grain. 

The boards towards the middle of the log are known as quarter sawn boards. These will be the widest boards in the pack but will be split down the middle. Although they've not actually been quarter sawn, they will be as stable as the boards that would have been sawn this way. Quarter sawn boards will have a straighter grain and will boast stunning medullary rays like in the image of this coffee table we recently made. 


The different grades of Oak that we use in our dining room tables and furniture. 

Prime Oak. 

Prime oak is the grading given to oak that is of premium quality. This usually means that the boards from a prime oak pack or log are mostly knot free. It is relatively straight grained and fairly consistent in colour. At Orpago we use both French and British prime oak.

British prime oak has a slightly more figurative, or characterful grain and there is more variation in colour across the board due to the higher tannin content in British oak. The species is actually mostly the same; it’s more the growing climate that seems to result in the higher tannin content and the more characterful grain. 

French prime oak feels ‘cleaner’ in its overall aesthetic with a slightly straighter grain and better colour consistency. In my experience it feels as though there’s more tension in French oak (it tends to pinch / bite / move more when working with it), which I think may be due to the slightly more aggressive kilning methods that are employed.

Both this dining table and chair were handmade in Prime oak. 


Pippy Oak

British pippy oak boards will be scattered with clusters of small knots and have a more characterful, slightly ‘swirlier’ grain than British prime oak. The ‘pip’ is caused by exposure to sunlight towards the lower part of tree. This causes epicormic growth in the trunk, the effect being the pippy knots that run through the log. Pippy oak used to be called cat’s paw oak; as the small clusters of knots can look as though a cat has walked over a piece of oak with muddy paws! We tend to buy this in as a log, meaning we can ensure a reasonable consistency of colour and pippy level across a single table top. 

Below are a couple of photos of a table that we recently made in British Pippy Oak. It was finished with a clear satin oil. 



Brown Oak

Brown Oak is graded as such because of its colouring. It is the same species of oak. Only when it was alive, it would have had the beef steak fungus growing on it. This reacts with the tannins in the Oak meaning that the oak develops streaks of a richer brown like colour towards the base of the tree. Brown oak can make for stunning aesthetic with it’s naturally flowing two tone appearance from a natural oak colour to rich brown. 

Character Oak

Character oak is a more rustic grade of oak and covers a broad range of timber which will have knots, surface splits and colour variation. At most of the sawmills we use, character grading is for any oak that cannot fall into the Prime, Pippy or Brown categories. 

The oak choices available in our collection of bespoke dining tables are Prime and Pippy. If you would like to have any of the table designs in this collection made in either Character Oak or Brown Oak, then we can certainly do this. Just drop us a line and let us know your specifications so that we can work out a quote for you. 

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