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How to distinguish the difference: Red Oak vs White Oak

We’ve been building with wood for millennia. Both because of its abundance in nature, and because of the natural beauty it provides. Natural wood delivers a warm, homey feeling to homes and businesses alike, and can last a lifetime. If you’re going to keep it around that long, you’d better pick a species that you really like.

Oak is one of the most prominent hardwoods in North America, making it an incredibly popular choice among designers and builders. When you choose oak, you’ve still got one more decision to make.

Red oak vs. white oak? What are their similarities and differences? Even though the oak at your local lumber retailer will be labeled as either red oak or white oak, each of these two types is a group containing many different species of oak. It’s possible to end up with one of many species in that group, depending on the supplier.

White oak vs red oak tree in nature

White oak and red oak tree delineation in nature are quite simple. Red oak varieties usually have pointed tips on their jagged leaves, as well as a smoother appearance to their bark.

In contrast, a white oak’s more bulbous leaf will be rounded at the tips, and the bark will have deep grooves, giving it a much more textured appearance. There are advantages to building with each. Your choice will be dependent upon which characteristics you want out of it.

Red oak vs. white oak: Which is better?

As with most things, one species of wood may be better than others, mostly due to application and personal preference. Red oak and white oak are similar in appearance, but there are differences that give one an advantage over the other for individual projects.

For instance, white oak is slightly harder and is denser, so it works better for projects that require watertight wood, like building a boat. It also holds up a little better to the elements when left outside untreated. But, when you are working indoors, you’ve usually got a different set of criteria.

Differences and similarities

If you think oak is oak, you’re a little right and a little wrong. While the two types of oak look pretty similar at first glance, some differences may impact your choice. First, there are color variations between the two.

Depending on your design goals, one may be better than the other. They also have slightly different hardnesses and porousness, so that may play a role in your decision. Let’s take a look at what makes each unique.

Red oak vs. white oak: Color

Based on the names, one might assume that red oak is red, and white oak is white. That’s not exactly true. In reality, white oak is often darker in color than red oak.

White oak usually has more yellows and browns in its coloration, while red oak has pink undertones. Also, red and. white oak staining may yield different results. If you plan on using stains on the darker end of the spectrum, you might not notice any real difference at all.

On the other hand, if you want to brighten the space with a lighter stain, the color difference will become much more cause for consideration. If you like the warmth of the red coloration, red oak is going to come through beautifully. If the other colors you are designing with are going to clash with shades of red, you should probably opt for white oak.

Red oak vs white oak: Strength

When comparing red oak and white oak strength and durability, they are very similar. The industry standard for rating the hardness of wood is the Janka test.

It measures a wood species’ ability to resist denting and wear and is commonly used to determine whether or not wood is suitable for use in flooring.

The scale assigns each species a standard rating in pounds-force. At 70 Balsa wood is the softest, and at 5060 the hardest commercially available wood is Australian Buloke.

The ratings for red oak and white oak are 1290 and 1360, respectively. This means white oak is slightly more impact and scratch-resistant, but not enough so that it would make or break your decision.

Pattern

One of the main reasons we love wood so much is the beautiful patterns unique to each species. Oak species are similar enough in a pattern that they are undeniably oak but different enough that you have a range to work with when designing your space.

When making the decision red vs. white oak, you want to know how prominent you want the grains to be. 

The grains are more pronounced in red oak than in white oak. They are wild and wavy, and very interesting to look at. Red oak also has shorter rays, which are the small brown streaks you see in the wood.

The busyness of all those beautiful, wide grains are great at hiding nicks and dings, but may not work if you’re going for simplicity. 

White oak has narrower, tighter grains that elongate the wood and contribute to a feeling of simplicity. The fact that white oak has longer rays also adds visual length to the boards.

Resistance

As touched upon above, there is a very real difference in how each type of oak responds to the elements. This has to do with the structure of the lumber.

Red oak is more porous than white oak. Red oak is what is known as an open grain wood. It absorbs moisture easily, so it is especially important to not allow water to pool on it for any extended periods. Red oak will stain black if water gets below the surface. 

Alternately, white oak is a closed-grain wood and is almost completely impervious to water. This is due to its pores being filled with a natural membranous growth called tyloses. White oak may be a better choice if the area is exposed to water or high moisture with any regularity.

 White oak vs. red oak: Price

If the price is a major concern, keep in mind that the prices of red oak vs. white oak will be slightly different. The white oak and red oak price differential is mainly due to supply and demand.

While the price of each fluctuates based on the current supply, white oak is generally a little more expensive due to the fact that they are less abundant in nature. However, unless your budget is extremely tight, price shouldn’t be your deciding factor, as the difference is likely to be minimal.

What type of wood is used for ceilings?

If you’re interested in a wood ceiling, you have some options. You can buy veneers, plain-sliced wood, and quarter-sliced wood in a number of different wood species. Oak is one of the more popular choices. In fact, it’s the most popular quarter-sliced wood people use in ceilings.

The choice will largely depend on the pattern and color you want, as well as how much you are looking to spend. No matter what your budget, there are wood ceiling options that won’t break your bank.

Can I use wood flooring on a ceiling?

You can use wood flooring on a ceiling, but you might run into some logistical issues if you choose to go that route. Sanding and finishing a ceiling is tough and time-consuming.

If you want to use wood flooring on the ceiling, you may want to finish the wood prior to installation. You’ve also got the option of choosing wood that is made specifically for ceilings.

Taking the plunge: Red oak vs white oak

Now that we’ve covered the similarities and differences between oak species, it’s time to decide which route you want to go. At the end of the day, deciding on red oak or white oak is entirely personal.

How busy do you want it to be? What colors are you working with? Are you matching existing woodwork in the house, or completely revamping your decor? No matter which wood you ultimately choose, you can feel good about the fact that you’ve added a rustic warmth to your space that will last longer than you will.