The oak tree as a building material – history and properties
There are records of oak being used as a building material in the British Isles from as long as 8000 years ago. There are several oak trees in Britain that are over 1000 years old. They form a living link to the past and are protected and venerated.
There are over 600 varieties of oak tree both deciduous and evergreen.
Oak trees can take up to 150 years to produce wood that provides the optimum building material. All the numbers relating to hardwoods like oak are larger than their softwood counterparts, they are denser, heavier and stronger.
Oak needs to cure for longer than a softwood before it is useable as a building or flooring material. The characteristics of hardwoods are that they are denser and heavier than softwoods and so last longer and are more durable than other woods.
The quality of the grain and this durability lends itself very well to flooring applications. It performs well in its raw form or with oils and varnishes applied and can withstand a great deal of punishment.
Originally oak floors were functional, cut from massive old trees creating wide planks sawn using huge pit saws. It was only in the 19th century that the material began to be desirable, primarily through laying parquet floors, arranging pieces of wood in patterns such as herringbone or octagonal arrangements. This was expensive and a way of displaying one’s wealth to one’s peers. The industrial revolution allowed saw mills to become automated to the extent that oak flooring was accessible to the masses and it was towards the end of the 19th century before oak flooring in homes became commonplace.
Fast forward anther hundred or so years and we have the advanced flooring systems of today. Engineered oak employs plywood backing to increase durability and decrease heat contraction and expansion of the planks. Holes are cut into the backing to aid the convection of heat from underfloor heating systems. Oak is an ancient building material with a bright future in Britain’s homes.