Presently, more than 1.8 million new white oak barrels are each filled with 53 US gallons of Kentucky bourbon a year. Millions more are also used for wines and other liquor across the continent. White oak is the preeminent oak for outdoor and cooperage use. When building floors, furniture or cabinets though, it’s the debate of red oak vs white oak that rages on.
Red and white oak are strong, durable, beautiful woods. White is more resistant to moisture, rot, and fungus, while red absorbs stains and finishes more evenly and easily. White oak has a less busy grain pattern than red but can make a room seem darker. The answer may rest on personal preference.
In this article, we’ll examine red and white oak, where they grow, and look at the similarities and differences. We’ll explore how to tell the difference between the two groups of oak, and which is better for different uses. By the end of the article, you should have a better understanding of which oak is better for your project.
Contents (Jump to Topic)
- Where Do Red and White Oak Trees Grow?
- Red Oak vs White Oak: Key Differences
- How to Distinguish Between Red Oak and White Oak
- Red Oak vs White Oak Uses
- Red Oak vs White Oak Staining
- Which Is Better Red Oak or White Oak?
Where Do Red and White Oak Trees Grow?
Oaks, known by their Latin name Quercus, are part of the Beech family of trees. There are more than 90 species of oaks in the US and Canada which are divided into two groups: red and white. Telling the difference within a group as well as between red and white divisions can be complicated as many are hybridized.
The bark, leaves, and acorns need to be examined to identify tree species, while the wood color and other characteristics separate the lumber. Most oaks in the white division have leaves with rounded lobes or ends and serrations, while reds are more pointed or spiny. The bark is lighter or grayish with deep furrows and ridges for whites and the bark of reds are smoother and darker with shallow ridges and a hint of red in the furrows.
Northern red oaks, commonly known as red oaks, are considered mature when they reach heights between 60’ and 75’ with upward and outward growth slowing with age. Reds grow faster than whites and can live for centuries and reach over 140 feet in height with diameters over 3’. The Chase Creek Red Oak in Maryland is over 136’ tall and has a diameter of 7’ at chest height.
Red oaks are found from Nova Scotia to Ontario in Canada, and throughout the eastern US from the Atlantic Ocean west to Minnesota and Oklahoma and as far south as Arkansas. Other oaks in the red family include the Texas red, the southern or Spanish red, black, myrtle, blue, turkey, and bear to name some. The northern red oak is primarily harvested for its quality timber, although other species like the Cherrybark oak provide excellent timber too.
White oaks, also known as American Oaks, are called white due to the color of their freshly sawn lumber. They can live for centuries and reach heights of 150’ and diameters of 4’ or more. At maturity, they are commonly 80’ to 100’ and nearing 3’ in diameter. The Basking Ridge, NJ, Great White Oak died in 2016 and was estimated to be over 600 years old, had a diameter measured four feet off the ground greater than 5’.
White oaks traditionally range from the east coast of Canada and the US westward to Minnesota and the Mississippi River, and from southern Ontario and Quebec to Florida and eastern Texas. Other oaks in the white oak group such as Bur and Overcup grow in the eastern part of the continent while Oregon and California whites along with Gambel are found in pockets of the far west.
Red Oak vs White Oak: Key Differences
With more than 60 varieties of oak in North America, it’s helpful to know how to tell them apart. However, once their sawn and turned into other uses and often stained, that may be more difficult. Oaks are divided into red or white divisions due to the color of their freshly sawn or sanded wood. Each oak in the division has similar characteristics such as end grain, strength, hardness, resistance to rot, and of course color.
Fresh sawn or sanded white oak appears light tan to white, while red oak has pinkish or salmon undertones. Aged white oak planks turn darker with beige to brownish or grayish hues, and red oak boards retain their reddish tone but vary from creamy to amber in color. Once stained and sealed, it is still possible to tell the difference by the surface grain.
The surface of the board often has dark brown dashes or streaks throughout running with the grain called rays. White oak frequently has rays longer than 3/4″ and red oak shorter and more uniform 1/8” to 1/2″ rays.
The end grain of heartwood is another way to differentiate between red and white oak. The end needs to be fresh or sanded and clear of dust, not sealed, painted, or rough cut to view the grain. End grain will also identify if the wood is flat sawn (cut 0° to 45° to the growth rings) or quarter sawn (cut 45° to 90° to the growth rings).
Red oak growth rings will have open pores while the growth ring pores of white oak appear plugged, which they are. White oak pores are plugged with tylose which forms as the sapwood changes into heartwood, sealing the xylem vessels so they look closed. Tylose doesn’t form in red oak species.
The surface grain may help distinguish between the two divisions of oak. White oak has a long tight straight grain with few swirl patterns while red oak has more wavy or wild patterns formed by its shorter and wider grains. Quartersawn white oak will often also have ray flecks across the grain direction.
Both white and red oak are strong wood and while often used for furniture and flooring, they are also used structurally in buildings. White oak, however, withstands slightly greater flexing forces than red. Red oak has a bending strength of 14,300 psi and white 15,200 psi. White oak is also denser with a density of 769 KG/m³ compared to red oaks 700 KG/m³.
The Janka hardness test is used to determine the hardness of wood by measuring the force required to drive a 0.44” steel ball halfway into a wood sample. The ball is similar in size to the heel on many high-heeled shoes. The test helps determine a wood species resistance to wear and denting. All samples must be at 12% moisture, have no knots, and be from the trunk of the tree.
A force of 1360 lbf is required to drive the ball halfway into white oak flooring and 1290 lbf into red oak. For comparison, both eastern white and southern yellow pine score 870 lbf on the Janka scale, while red maple and American cherry score 950 lbf. White oak is harder and denser than red oak but both have long-term durability. Dried red oak averages 44 lbs/ft³ and white about 47 lbs/ft³
White oak is more resistant to rot and fungi than red oak. Tylose forms in the xylem of white oak as the sapwood becomes heartwood, effectively plugging the vessels through the wood making it watertight. The plugged xylems greatly increase white oaks’ resistance to rot and fungal penetration by decreasing water penetration.
White oak is one of a handful of woods that can hold water and still breathe through its pores. The closed cellular structure makes it ideal for shipbuilding, outdoor furniture, plus whiskey and wine barrels, as well as interior uses.
The bark of different trees varies with species and subspecies, and oaks are no different. Red oak bark is usually darker and smoother with shallower ridges and furrows than white oaks which are deeper and more triangular in shape. The telling difference, however, is the reddish tint in the furrows of red oaks.
Price and Availability
The price of oak, like everything, varies from location to location. Red oak trees are more common in the US than white, increasing their availability to the markets. White oak is used for wine and whiskey casks and barrels as well as ships so isn’t as available to other markets. White oak makes up about 15% of the American hardwood resources and red 35%.
Scarcity drives the market, so expect to pay between $3 and $5 more a square foot for top-grade solid white oak compared to similar red oak. Engineered hardwood flooring is available in both red and white oak options as is laminate flooring, both at lower price points than solid flooring. Solid oak flooring in red and white, in my area, is $3 to $5 per square foot for 3-3/4” wide and $7 to $10 a square foot for 5” wide boards.
The sustainability of any forestry product depends on the soil, climate, reforestation, urban sprawl, and time. Oaks typically begin to produce acorns after 20 years and peak between 50 and 80 years. The harvesting and replanting or farming of oaks make for a greener and more sustainable use of natural resources, plus it helps lowers the carbon footprint.
Red oaks grow more quickly than white oaks, so meet harvestable size sooner. The growth rate of red oaks is medium to fast. The Northern red adds about 24” every year in the first ten and then slows to 12” annually after that to reach 60’ to 90’ and 18” to 24” in diameter in 60 years.
The Southern or Spanish red grows about 25 feet in height every 20 years and adds 3/4” to 1” in diameter a year. The red oak commonly reaches harvestable sizes between 30 and 40 years.
White oak reforestation programs across the US and Canada have almost doubled the number of harvestable trees in the past 40 years. Whites have a slow to medium growth rate of 12” to 14” a year and are considered mature when they reach 50’ to 80’ in height. White oaks usually aren’t harvested until they reach diameters of 18” or more at chest height, which can take between 60 and 90 years.
How to Distinguish Between Red Oak and White Oak
White oak tree leaves have rounded lobes and rough bark with deeper ridges and furrows. Red oaks have leaves with pointed lobes and smoother bark with shallow ridges and furrows. The furrows of reds also commonly have a reddish tinge.
If the timber is already harvested, the easiest way is to look at the cleanly cut end grain. If there are open vessels or holes, the wood is probably red oak. White oak xylems fill with tylose as the sapwood changes to heartwood, so there won’t be holes.
The surface grain of oak often has brown dashes called rays running through it. Red oak rays are 1/8” to 1/2″ more uniform while white oak rays are usually 3/4″ or longer. The grain of red oak is also wider and shorter than that of white oak. Additionally, red oak frequently has wavy patterns visible, and white has few swirl patterns.
Freshly cut or sanded white oak is light brown or gray to white in color and red has a pinkish or salmon tint. Clear finished red oak also often has a reddish glow to it. Clear coated white oak is a tan or light brown color.
There are several other ways to distinguish between red and white oak. Use a small piece of oak (3/4” x 3/4″x 6” to 12”), stick one end in some water, and blow through the other end. If you blow bubbles, it’s red oak. Another way is to spay or paint a 10% solution of sodium nitrite on a piece of end wood. Red oak will absorb it and turn brown whereas white oak will turn dark purplish-blue to black in minutes.
Red Oak vs White Oak Uses
Oak has been used for centuries for lumber, flooring, shipbuilding, railroad ties, mine timbers, furniture, barrels, crates, pallets, and much more. White oak is used for interior and exterior uses while red oak is primarily for interior use and more commonly available. Both red and white oaks expand and contract due to moisture and humidity.
Oak, like most woods, needs to be acclimatized to the moisture and climate conditions. Using dry oak with humidity of 4% or less and sealing the pores provides the best results for flooring and furniture.
Both red and white oak are good options for flooring, although red oak is more commonly used as it is more readily available. White oak is harder and won’t dent, mark, or absorb moisture as easily as red oak flooring.
Clear coated red oak flooring is light golden or amber to red or pinkish with a busier grain pattern. White oak has a quieter grain pattern but is tan or brownish in tone, which can make a room seem darker.
Red oak resists warping and makes strong hard stair treads. White oak treads are slightly harder and won’t shrink or mark as easily as red oak treads. However, both oaks are much harder and more durable than pine and will withstand years of use and abuse.
Both red and white oak are used for furniture manufacture due to their strength, durability, color, and workability. Red oak is more susceptible to moisture expansion and contraction than white due to its greater porosity. White is also slightly stronger than red.
The cut of the wood – flat, riff, or quarter sawn – exposes different features like rays and flecks in both red and white oak. Red oak accepts stains more evenly and easily than white oak making it the commonly chosen oak.
Red oak stains more easily and evenly than white oak and is frequently used for cabinets. Both types of oak make beautiful strong cabinets with lines, arches, and points being more noticeable with darker stains or finishes. Red oak has a busier grain pattern than white, so for large cabinet panels, the quieter white oak may be preferable. It is not recommended to mix red and white oak as they won’t stain the same.
Oak is hard and resistant to dents and dings and has a deep textured grain and makes beautiful tabletops. Flat sawn oak has a different appearance than quarter sawn oak, and white oak has visual differences from red oak. The more uniform color of red oak and its ease of staining makes it the more often used for tables.
Red oak is more susceptible to moisture and fungal damage than white oak. The tylose blocking the xylem in white oak makes for a closed cellular structure and more resistance to rot and fungal growth. As a result, white oak is preferred for outdoor use.
Red Oak vs White Oak Staining
Northern red oak is readily available and has a more uniform wheat coloring compared to white oak which is more varied in browns and even yellows. The cut of the wood also affects the grain pattern which is often enhanced with staining and sealing, especially in white oak. Darker stains also make grain patterns stand out more than light stains.
Mixing red and white oak into a project can cause issues when staining and with the look of the finished product as they don’t accept stain the same and the wood tones are different. Red oak absorbs stain more easily and evenly due to its open grain.
White oak takes more effort to work the stain in to prevent blotching as the closed grain makes it almost impervious to moisture. Once stained, the wood should be sealed to prevent moisture penetration.
Which Is Better Red Oak or White Oak?
Both red and white oak are strong durable woods that make beautiful floors, furniture, and cabinets. White oak is harder and denser than red and has straighter more tightly packed grains with fewer swirls. Red oak has a reddish tinge and white oak more browns and yellows.
If purchasing wood for projects, know that red oak accepts stain more easily and evenly than white, which takes more effort. However, both kinds of wood finish up well and show off their grain patterns with staining and sealing. The cut and grade of the wood also impact grain pattern, so check the end grain for riff, flat, or quarter sawn wood.
White oak is resistant to moisture, rot, and fungal damage making it ideal for outdoor furniture. It also costs several dollars more a square foot than red oak. Some suggest red for inside and white for outside, but the less varied grain pattern of flat sawn white makes for a less busy looking floor, tabletop, or cabinet face.
As to which is better, for indoor use it depends on the desired look and personal preference. For outdoor use, white oak is definitely better for outdoor use or anything that will be exposed to moisture.
Oak floors, cabinets, and furniture will last for centuries, so the choice of red oak vs white oak is one for the long term. Red oak has a busier grain pattern with a warmer reddish tint than the brownish or yellow of white oak when a clear coat or light stains are applied. However, there is much less difference when dark stains are used. Red oak also has a lower price point and is more readily available but the choice comes down to personal preference.
I hope you have a better understanding of which oak is better for your project. If you found this article helpful, please share it. As always, your comments and suggestions are appreciated.