Is Pin Oak Useful?

Widely planted as a yard landscaping tree, Pin Oak has some drawbacks as a source of lumber. June 18, 2009

I receive quite a bit of pin oak from a tree service here in KY. It seems like someone somewhere along the line decided this would be a good species to plant in everyone's front lawn. Most logs are quite large and it would be a pity to turn into firewood, however I have heard some folks say that it doesn't make good lumber. What is the consensus on this species? What is the problem with the wood, just the large number of knots, or is there something else?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor B:
Some people are put off by the wide growth rings in pin oak. Since these are yard trees, it's possible they received fertilizer on an annual basis, making the growth rings that much wider.

Pin oak often suffers from ring shake. Look at the butt end of the butt log. If you see a dark ring that follows one ring part way, or all the way around, then it has ring shake. This will cause the boards to either separate as they're milled, or fail under load. Any log with ring shake in it should be turned into firewood. This problem is most often found in trees that were in pasture fields.

On the firewood front, note that pin oak often smells strongly of piss. I'm sure you've heard of piss oak - this is it. Stack it down wind and expect the smell to linger for about 3 months. I've cut few pin oaks that didn't have this smell - mostly yard trees. But it makes the best red oak firewood you've seen in these parts. (I'm also in KY.)

They remind me of pine trees in the number of knots they have. Unless they were trimmed when young or crowded, they are typically loaded with knots. But most are small and careful milling will still yield usable lumber.

That said, I've made good lumber and firewood from it. There happens to be two pin oak logs on deck now from a yard that have no smell or shake and few knots. We'll mill them as soon as the weather breaks.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Very many yard trees that are well-watered develop the anaerobic bacterial infection that has been discussed here many times. The bacteria cause ring shake (also called wind shake), a foul odor (the odor returns in dry wood if the humidity is high), more checking during drying, and some discoloration. It is usually confined to the butt log, oftentimes to the lower 4 feet.

From contributor B:
I have seen ring shake in pin oaks grown in wet areas of pastures. Sometimes it went 30' up the trunk. The theory I've heard in the past is that the roots were damaged by the animal's hooves allowing an entry point for bacteria. From there, it migrated slowly over the years up the trunk.

I can imagine it doing the same thing in a yard tree, but with some form of mechanical damage to stimulate it such as a tracked vehicle, or digging a basement or utility/lateral lines, damaging the roots.

I normally associate a natural stand of pin oaks with a wet area. But they have also been popular locally as a yard tree because of their upright form and quick growth. After cleaning up the brush from a number of these over the years, I have noticed that they are often covered in galls. I loath the clean up as they usually have an excessive number of small branches that seem to have a talent for snagging on everything, poking you, and giving you some good sized scratches to show off. Maybe that's how they came up with the pin oak name.

I see the causes and definitions of ring and star shake as being separate. As I understand it, ring shake runs parallel to the growth rings while star shake runs perpendicular. The former is caused by disease, while the latter being caused by mechanical causes such as wind/frost or possibly even lightning.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Sometimes my answers are too short to be complete, but contributor B has done a great job of explaining.

From contributor B:
Out here on the west coast, I have had a number of opportunities to saw this tree. The folks in this area use the tree as a yard tree as well. I was fortunate to acquire a whole log truck load and sold it all for flooring in a home for a dance floor. The people were vey excited about all the knots and such in the finished product.