How to choose between Red Oak and White Oak, and what are the differences?

By Jim Hill Feb 25, 2014

This post will examine some of the differences in the properties of these Oak species, and the common uses of both Oak types.

     
unstained Red Oak Unstained White Oak

The pictures above show the typical coloring of unfinished Red and White Oak. Color variations between the growing regions can be significant in both Red and White Oaks. When used for furniture applications color sorting and color matching are necessary.

     

Red Oak endgrain White Oak endgrain

The above endgrin pictures show the pores that extend through the wood. In Red Oaks these pores are open while in White Oaks these pores are filled, contributing to the White Oaks moisture resistance.
As a visible demonstration a short length of Red Oak can be stood in a can of water and bubbles can be blown through the wood sample. This cannot be done with White Oak.

Red Oak
The usual purposes for red oak are often quite different than those for white oak. Red oak, available at most home centers, is well suited for furniture, flooring, cabinets and cabinet doors, paneling.

Red oak is porous and has open grains. It’s more prone to shrink than white oak. Compared to birch or maple, red oak finishes and stains easily and doesn’t have blotching problems. Because the open pores in red oak absorb stain, the grain patterns become very evident when a dark stain is used as a finish.

White Oak.
White Oak is particularly suited for use in the boat industry. Because of its resistance to moisture, white oak is also widely used to construct outdoor furniture, whisky barrels, and cargo truck flooring.

White oak is fairly straight-grained and is a favorite material that is usually available quarter sawn. The grain in quarter sawn white oak has a striking ray flake pattern.

The coloring in white oak is varied. Separate boards of white oak lumber may be dark brown, light brown, or brown with yellow tones. Stain and wood sealer tend to enhance the appearance of white oak.

A closed-grain hardwood, white oak is almost impervious to water. The pores of the heartwood of white oaks are typically plugged with tyloses, which is a membranous growth. The USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), launched in 1797, was built of White Oak.

Stain and Finishing
Red Oak, being a porous wood tends to take stain evenly without blotching. White Oak being closed grained tends to be more challenging to stain evenly.

Red Oak, especially Glacial Northern Red Oak, is a very uniform “Wheat color” and will stain evenly without significant color variation. Southern and Appalachian Red Oaks will have much more color variation than northern grown red oaks.

White Oak colors tend to range from light brown through dark brown and even into the dark yellows. Most applications that use White Oaks are less critical of color variations that applications using Red Oaks, as the whiskey barrel and cargo-truck flooring applications don’t consider color inconsistency to be objectionable.