Red Oak vs White Oak – What Are the Differences?

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Oak tree

Wood is a versatile construction material that is ideal to produce a variety of things – from furniture to floorboards and buildings to artistic objects. There are lots of different types of wood to choose from, with Oak being one of the most popular choices. There are different types of oak though, and deciding between Red Oak vs White Oak can be tricky. This article will be comparing and explaining the differences between white and red oak to help you decide which one is best for your needs.

Introduction to White Oak and Red Oak

Oak is one of the most popular woods for use in construction in the US and many other countries and regions. This is because of the hardwood properties that make it strong and resilient. Thus, oak is particularly suited for floorboards or furniture – besides being one of the hardest woods (not the strongest type of wood though), it is also perceived as a valuable material with a classy appearance.

There are more c. 600 different species of Oak (according to Wikipedia). Red oak is a type common in the Americas that is often used for furniture or hardwood floors. This is also a typical use of White Oak which grows in North America, Europe and some parts of Asia. There are also numerous species grouped under these two classes.

What Are the Differences Between Red Oak and White Oak?

The distinction of both types of oak It is not as simple as just comparing the colors. You might have expected that the one is red while the other is white. It is true that the red oak timber usually has a reddish tone and white oak often comes in a light-brown or even sand color look.

However, this is not an accurate distinction and you will have a hard time trying to tell the class of oak wood by the color only. The species under both classes come in a variety of shades and might look too similar to be distinguished with their appearance. Read on to find out how you can identify the type of wood.

Apart from the color, the different characteristics can be summarized under 3 main criteria:

  • Texture
  • Hardness
  • Resilience

Do Read Oak and White Oak Have the Same Texture?

No, their textures are different although the exact look varies among the species of both groups.  

In general, the grain of most Read Oak species tends to have a more textured and complex grain. White Oak, on the other hand, has a finer grain.

Thus, surfaces made of the latter type are sometimes perceived as more harmonic. However, some people also appreciate the more distinct and individual grain pattern of the red type, in particular for artistic objects or furniture.

Is White Oak or Red Oak the Harder Type of Wood?

In terms of hardness, White Oak is slightly harder than Red Oak but it is the other way around for stiffness. If the density of the timber is taken into account, it is again the White Oak being ahead of the Red one with a specific gravity of 0.68 (beaten only by Hickory) and 0.63, respectively. Learn more about these measures in our comparison of the strength of woods.

Are White and Red Oak Equally Resilient?

As both are among the hardest types of wood in North America, they are both very resilient choices.

However, White Oak timber has a higher density and smaller pores which leads to better water-resistance but requires more time for an oil finish to soak in. In its natural form, it is less prone to rod.

White Oak is also slightly harder than Red Oak, so it is more resilient against tear and wear. While this difference might not be too relevant for furniture or household flooring, it can make a difference if the wood is subject and frequent use, such as floors in commercial buildings.

How to Find Out Whether a Wood is White Oak or Red Oak?

As mentioned before, looking only at the color of the wood might not be sufficient to determine whether it is Red Oak or White Oak. There are a number of more accurate ways to identify this, of which we will introduce 3 options (source: wood-database.com)

Different Textures of the Grain

This works only if the surface or the end of the board has not yet been painted or sealed. If you look closely at the pores of the wood you will find that the pores of Red Oak are more open and porous, while the pores of White Oak are clogged up.

Different Size of the Rays

The Rays are the brown streaks that you see with the grain on the surface of the wood. The shape and the size of them indicate what type of oak you are looking at.

If you look closely at these streaks or even measure them, you can identify the type by the size of the rays:

  • if they are smaller than ¾ inches, it is likely Red Oak,
  • if they are larger than  ¾ inches, it is likely White Oak.

Color Change as a Reaction to Sodium Nitrate

Woodworking professionals use Sodium Nitrate as a reliable method to determine the type of oak.

If a little Sodium Nitrate is applied, there is only a slight color change with Red Oak. If it is White Oak, there is a noticeable darkening within a few minutes. This process irreversibly changes the appearance of the part of the wood it is applied to. Thus, the part tested cannot be used anymore. Watch this video for further guidance:

Should You Choose Red Oak or White Oak?

As a hardwood, Oak can be used for a broad range of cases. Typically, it is used for flooring or furniture. Both types of oak are available for similar prices and are of similar hardness. Therefore, Deciding between Red Oak vs White Oak mainly comes down to the look, the intended use and the treatment.

Oak Furniture

For furniture like desks, chairs or cabinets, the White Oak’s advantages in hardness and resilience may not be too relevant, so you can decide based on their looks. Some people find Red Oak furniture more appealing and classy.

If you consider getting an oak dining table, White Oak might be a better choice due to its water-resistance. The same holds true for damp areas and uses outside the house.

However, you can also use Red Oak and achieve a better resilience by applying an oil finish, clear lacquer or other protective coatings.

Oak Floors

Many people prefer White Oak for flooring. This is due to the better natural resilience but also the less complex grain texture which is often perceived as leading to a more harmonic surface. This being said, Red Oak can be a valid alternative if its texture is desired and the wood is thoroughly treated and the floor regularly refinished.

Conclusion

Oak is an excellent wood for furniture and flooring as it is resilient and looks classy and valuable. However, there are a few differences you need to be aware of when deciding between Red Oak vs White Oak.

Red Oak typically has a warmer color and shorter rays whereas White Oak has a lighter, more brownish color. In addition, the size of the rays and the texture of the grain varies between (and even within) these groups.

While some might prefer Red Oak for furniture due to its tone and texture, White Oak is harder and more water-resistant. For heavily used floors as well as for damp areas, it might therefore be the better choice.

Read more about wood and woodworking in our blog.

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