Oak is one of the most revered and appreciated species of stock used in fine woodworking projects. It is hard, strong, and when finished properly, absolutely beautiful. Oak can also be a royal pain to work with. However, there are some things that you can keep in mind when working with oak that will help ensure the results you desire with a minimum of additional effort.
There are a lot of differences between oak species. European oak is held in much higher regard than American oak. For instance, a considerable number of the churches and wooden ships that remain today from centuries ago were constructed primarily of English Oak. This remarkably beautiful and strong species is very difficult to come by today, but many other varieties of oak of varying strengths and properties are readily available throughout Europe.
By comparison, American varieties of oak are not as revered. American White Oak is a bit more preferable to Red Oak, as red oak is more liable to shrink and with its open grains, is very porous. White Oak is more close-grained and is nearly impervious to water.
The first rule for working with oak is to exercise a lot of patience. Oak responds to finesse rather than brute strength. For instance, when routing an edge on a piece of oak, rather than routing the entire profile in one pass, it is much more preferable to cut the profile in two or three passes. Because of its heavy graining, oak can chip or split easily when routing edges on the stock, removing chunks of material rather than small chips. The result is often far less than desirable.
A second tip for working with oak is to make sure that your tools are extremely sharp. Oak is a hardwood that can dull tools more than many other common types of material, so keeping your woodworking tools finely honed becomes more important when working with oak.
Oak is also quite susceptible to burning. This can wreak havoc on your bits and blades, and in some cases, causing the cutting tool's metal to lose it's temper, meaning that it won't be able to hold a sharp edge for nearly as long. Keeping your woodworking tools sharp, as well as operating tools, such as router bits, at appropriate speeds will help prevent this problem. Removing the burn marks from the wood can often be done with a lot of sanding, but it's better to avoid burning in the first place.
Many woodworkers prefer to finish oak as minimally as possible, as they feel this shows off the wood's character. Woodworkers who choose to use a minimalist approach to finishing their oak projects would be wise to take some extra time in sanding in many steps, using progressively finer grits of sandpaper in each step to help eliminate sanding lines.
Shellac is widely used for sealing oak. One increasingly popular method for finishing oak is to apply an oil stain followed by a coat of shellac to seal the stain. Then fill any blemishes with a grain filler paste, followed by a gel stain. The final finish is a few coats of polyurethane.