How to Tell Red Oak From White Oak Lumber

Sometimes the answers to questions are pretty obvious in the asking.  This might be one of them:  “What is the difference between red oak and white oak?”

That obvious answer is in the color, of course.  But it’s a bit more subtle than that, and we’ll tell you why.  It’s also important to know that the names (red, white) refer to the trees, not necessarily the lumber.  Even at that, though, there are color and grain differences in the wood.

Red Oak vs White Oak

  • Yes, color in the name, and color in the application, distinguish these oaks. However, white oak also tends to have a smoother grain than red oak.  White oak grains are more moderate, while red oak grains are more dramatic and stronger. 
  • Both are suitable for and widely used in flooring. They are both hardwoods (see an earlier discussion about hardwoods here) and make excellent choices for floors.  While white oak is slightly harder than red oak, dents and scratches may hide better in the more dramatic grains of red oak.
  • White oak remains the best all-purpose hardwood (furniture, floors, even outdoor use), and although more often chosen and in higher demand, it remains in decent supply. In the contest of white oak vs. red oak pricing, white oak is generally more expensive than red oak, as red oak is a bit more abundant and in lesser demand.
  • White oak is also tight against water and repels it well. This makes white oak an excellent choice for outdoor furniture, boats, and barrels for wines and whiskey/whisky.

The Trees

Have you ever heard of tyloses?  It’s today’s new word as it relates to oaks.

They are outgrowths, balloon-like swelling, that form on white oaks and other trees.  They collect resins in the trees and are responsible for the wood’s odor. 

When a tree is stressed by environmental conditions – drought – or infection, these outgrowths will drop off and act as a dam to prevent the introduction of further harm.  They contribute to the development of stronger wood because they slow down the pace of potential rot.

In short, they are a part of the oak tree that makes its hardwood hard, if you will.  In our case, they pertain to white oaks, and aid in distinguishing between the two is a simple test we’ll get to in a moment.

The Lumber

A quick way to determine whether a board or a piece of a tree is white oak or red oak is to look at the end grains. 

Pores in the growth rings of red oak will be open and porous, while the pores in white oak will be tight, plugged by the tyloses we discussed above.  It is that aspect of white oak that makes it the best choice for projects where water will be present – – outdoor furniture, hand-made boats, or barrels.  With tight, closed pores, white oak repels water and is resistant to rot.

Another test of the two that clearly identifies and distinguishes between them is with the use of sodium nitrite.  It can be purchased at many hardware stores and large DIY stores, and online, and the test is easy to conduct.

Just a few drops of sodium nitrite on an oak board will tell you it is white oak if the board turns dark.  It is a 100% accurate test, too.  While there may be a slight bit of discoloration in red oak, the change in white oak is a rather pronounced dark. 

In general appearance, white oak lumber will be darker, more brown/tan, than red oak.  It will appear more rugged, too, able to withstand a bit more use and abuse – think well-used areas in your house for hardwood flooring.  On the other hand, red oak will appear to be more wheat color, including a slight pink tinge in some cases.

Both take stains very well, making them well suited for flooring and furniture.  They are hard, tough, and very durable.  White oak is harder than red oak, but for that piece of furniture you have in mind, either will work well for you.

With a cheaper price, a grain that takes stains and dyes well and hides dents and scratches better than white oak, a red oak floor is a good and economical choice.  You can save the white oak, with its higher cost, for that outdoor table for your patio, taking advantage of its water-repelling qualities and resistance to rot.

Of the two, though, white oak remains the more common choice for new floors, even at a higher price point, and it is certainly a good choice.  At the time of writing, lumber prices have risen sharply, and inventory is down.  However, sawmills have resumed their work, inventory is increasing, and prices have begun to fall.

So if you have been waiting to take on that next woodworking project in your home shop, it’s time once again to consider oak.  Hopefully, this piece will help you make a good decision on which of the two oaks – red or white) to use. 

Other than for outdoor pieces, though, there really is no wrong decision when it comes to oak.

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