You can tell that a ship is special when your navy maintains a whole forest for it. The US Navy has its own forest full of towering white oak trees: the trusty, sturdy building material used in the past for the construction of wooden-hulled ships. The question, however, is why do they spend a huge amount of budget on maintaining a forest when wood-hulled warships were phased out at the end of the 1800s?

The Wood of War

The white oak (Quercus alba) is a strong, large, heavy, straight, and decay-resistant tree. Its trunk is short and stocky with huge horizontal limbs. The branches of the tree are wide-spreading, upright, with a broad-rounded crown. The bark of white oak is light ashy gray, scaly or shallow furrowed, and often broke into narrow, rectangular blocks, although the appearance could vary. Its leaves are dark green to slightly blue-green during summer, while they turn to brown and wine-red to orange-red during fall.

Ancient White Oak in Bronte, Oakville, Ontario, dating to 1750. (Bay & GablesCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The white oak became the young United States’ fundamental building block used by the early Americans to build their shelter and railroads. It’s basically what they used when they built the country and started the industrial revolution.

Compared to short and gnarled live oak, white oak could grow up to 150′ tall, making it a perfect material for creating long, clear planks. In the early 1800s, white oak was abundant throughout the 13 states of the Union. The decay-resistant wood was usually used for ships’ horizontal exterior-hull planking, bent inside planking, planking near the keel, and well as keel timbers. It became a primary material in building what was deemed the most formidable ship of its time: The USS Constitution.