When we think of oak, we think of solidity. But if you look closer, you will see that you can find several different species of oak which differ widely in their properties. The most prominent oaks widely used in the United States are red oak and white oak. There are intrinsic differences that are worthwhile to know if you work with wood.
Red oak vs white oak is a common topic of discussion among construction workers and woodworkers. These two oak species constitute the most widely used in the United States. While both species are readily available, knowing how to distinguish one type from the other can enable you to get the best leverage out of red oak and white oak.
Red Oak vs. White Oak
Although they both belong to the Quercus family, notable differences exist between red oak and white oak. The most significant difference between these two species is that red oak is less durable than white oak. It is important to consider this factor in exterior construction projects or boatbuilding.
You might find it challenging to distinguish red oak from white oak through its appearance. However, one distinct difference white oak exhibits is the fleck patterns that give it the name “tiger oak.” This term is regularly used in furniture maker circles. Red oak exhibits a similar but less prominent pattern.
The main challenge of distinguishing red oak from white oak is that each category has several sub-categories (that we’ll elaborate on further down). The result is that there is much difference in the appearance of the wood. It makes it difficult to make out the difference between the two types of wood.
Due to the limitation of identifying red oak from white oak from their appearance alone, you need to consider other parameters. Here, we highlight each parameter, making it easier to distinguish one from the other.
Red Oak: Background
Red oak (Quercus Rubra) grows commonly in the northeastern regions of the United States and southeastern Canada. The trees, not perhaps as tall as redwood trees, grow up to heights of 115 feet with tree trunk diameters as much as 6 feet.
The main advantage of using oak is the strength of the wood. With Janka hardness ratings between 1,220 lbf. to 1,350 lbf. both red and white oak are hard and strong types of wood.
Red oak is the commonest form of oak you will find growing in the United States. The straight grain pattern with a pinkish hue makes it a popular choice for a strong but attractive-looking wood. It is an excellent choice for making cabinets, furniture, shelves, and various wooden items.
But you need to know the different sub-categories of red oak as follows:
- Laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia)
- Southern red oak (Quercus falcata)
- Black oak (Quercus velutina)
- Pin oak (Quercus palustris)
- Water oak (Quercus nigra)
- California black oak (Quercus kelloggii)
- Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
- Willow oak (Quercus phellos)
- Cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda)
- Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii)
White Oak: Background
Here is another type of wood you can easily procure throughout the United States. White oak (Quercus alba) trees grow in the eastern region of the United States. The trees are shorter than red oak and grow to a maximum of 85 feet with tree trunk diameters up to 4 feet.
It has a coarse wood grain like red oak with a straight wood grain pattern. The grain rays of this wood are longer than that of red oak. It helps to keep out moisture more efficiently. With a Janka hardness rating of 1,350 lbf. white oak is harder than red oak and harder than many other types of hardwood.
We use white oak in construction projects and for flooring. We also use it in Cabinetry, furniture, interior trim, flooring, boatbuilding, barrels, and veneer. Like red oak, white oak also has several sub-categories such as:
- Holm oak (Quercus ilex)
- Sessile oak (Quercus petraea)
- Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
- White oak (Quercus garryana)
- Swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii)
- Chestnut oak (Quercus prinus)
- Overcup oak (Quercus lyrata)
- Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor)
- English oak (Quercus robur)
- Post oak (Quercus stellata)
As we mentioned earlier, you can’t identify the type of oak based on its appearance alone due to so many wood species under each type (white or red) of oak. So, let’s consider the various characteristics that identify each type.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Appearance
Red oak has a light or medium brown heartwood with a reddish hue. The sapwood is lighter and may not show a clear demarcation from the heartwood. You will see prominent ray flecks in the quartersawn sections.
White oak, on the other hand, has a similar coloration but with an olive hue rather than the reddish or pinkish hue of red oak. You will also see ray fleck patterns in white oak. The wood displays a straight grain pattern with a slightly coarse texture for both red and white oak varieties.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Durability
We consider red oak to be non-durable to perishable. It resists insect attack poorly and water can cause stains and discoloration, especially in the region of the growth rings. Red oak decays and rots much more readily than white oak.
The tendency of white oak to rot and decay largely depends on the type of species. But generally speaking, white oak is significantly more durable than red oak. This property of white oak makes it the preferred choice between the two types of oak. Because of its better water resistance, we use white oak for cooperage (wooden barrel making) and boatbuilding.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Maintenance
Careful maintenance of your red or white oak furniture can enhance the life of the wood. Whether indoors or outdoors, oak is a high-maintenance type of wood. You need to clean it regularly and re-apply the finish every few years. Stripping down the wood and applying a varnish followed by polishing and waxing can produce highly satisfying results, especially for oak paneling and tabletops.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Workability and Uses
You can get satisfactory results while working on red and white oak using both hand and machine tools. Redwood has higher shrinkage values, making for mediocre dimensional stability.
Red oak tends to react with iron, so you need to avoid exposure to moisture in the vicinity of iron and steel inserts like nails, screws, and hinges. Red oak takes nails, screws, and glues and finishes well also. It also responds favorably to steam bending processes. We use red oak to make veneer, interior trim, furniture, cabinets, and for flooring.
White oak is one of the best choices for planing, shaping, boring, and cutting. Being a hard type of wood, it will not cause fuzz while cutting or sanding it – you will get a crisp, clean cut.
It exhibits a high degree of dimensional stability, particularly while dealing with flatsawn lumber. Like red oak, white oak also reacts with iron and can become stained. You can nail and screw white oak easily. It takes finishes, stains, and glues well, and you can also get satisfactory results from steam bending it.
We use white oak to make veneer, barrels, interior trim, furniture, cabinets, and for building boats and flooring.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Price
Red oak is easily available in various dimensions in the form of both flatsawn and quartersawn lumber. It is slightly cheaper than white oak and moderately priced compared to regular hardwood. However, the thicker the lumber, the more expensive it tends to be.
White oak costs a bit more than red oak. It is similar to white oak in all other aspects except the quality being far superior to red oak.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Sustainability
Neither red oak nor white oak is on any list of endangered wood species. So, we can conclude that both types of wood are sufficiently sustainable.
Red Oak vs. White Oak: Comparison Table
|Botanical name||Quercus rubra||Quercus alba|
|Color||Light to medium brown with a pinkish hue||Light to medium brown with an olive-green hue|
|Durability||Non-durable to perishable||Highly durable|
|Hardness (Janka Scale)||1,220 lbf.||1,350 lbf.|
|Strength||Extremely strong||Extremely strong|
|Maintenance||Needs regular maintenance||Needs regular maintenance|
|Price||Moderately priced and slightly cheaper than red oak||Moderately priced but slightly more expensive than red oak|
|Suitability for outdoors||Yes, if suitably treated||Yes, if suitably treated|
|Suitability for wood carving||Yes||Yes|
|Workability||Easy to work with||Easy to work with|
|Smell||Has a distinct “oak” smell||Has a distinct “oak” smell|
|Availability||Easily available||Easily available|
|Special features if any||None||None|
Apart from the United States, white and red oak are both used in the United Kingdom and across Europe. If you want to use wood that can last a lifetime, then it is oak you need to use. From the discussion and comparison of red oak vs white oak, it is obvious that white oak comes out on top.