Is There Much of a Difference Between Red and White Oak?
You might be hard pushed to identify red oak from white oak flooring just from looking, but there are some important differences between these two species of oak when it comes to wood flooring. Probably the biggest difference for consumers is in price and availability. The majority of oak planks used for residential use is red oak.
Last Updated: July 10, 2023, by: Jamie Sandford
Following on from our post about oak flooring, one of our readers Asked the Home Flooring Pros a very pertinent question; what exactly are the differences between white oak flooring and red oak flooring? Well, both of them are good options for residential flooring, but they do have different properties that might make you opt for one over the other. Read on for our complete red oak vs white oak guide.
7 MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RED AND WHITE OAK
There are seven major difference between white and red oak:
The fact the two types of oak are distinguished by color is the most obvious difference between the two. Even the untrained eye will see that red oak flooring has a pinkish undertone to it, and often a red oak plank will have a variation of colors from light cream to deeper amber. Meanwhile white oak has a more brown-yellowish undertone, and the planks have more even, less varied colors.
Because of its denser structure, white oak will accept stains more evenly. Having said that, most oak flooring manufacturers offer pre-stained planks which have been quality controlled for even staining in both red and white oak. If you want to custom stain unfinished oak flooring of either type, then we always recommend using an experienced pro for even results.
It’s also worth pointing out that because of the different undertones of red and white oak certain hardwood floor stain colors will suit better than others. For example, if you want a gray stain then you’re best using white oak as the yellowish undertones work better with gray than the pink undertone of red oak.
3: GRAIN AND RAYS
To an untrained eye, red oak and white oak might look quite similar, but if you look closely you’ll see that the grains are different. The grains in white oak are longer, more straight and tightly packed, with fewer swirly patterns; red oak has a shorter, wider grain formation that often forms wavy patterns. If you want a more unified, less busy floor, then white oak is the better option as there is less variation in the grain.
Where you will see more variation in white oak is when it has been quarter sawn, as that will show up the large ray flecks in white oak that run counter to the grain; however, this is not a very common type of white oak flooring on the market.
White oak has a slightly higher Janka hardness rating at 1360 compared to 1290 for red oak. This means that white oak is a bit more more durable and bit less prone to denting than red oak, but there’s really not that much in it.
It is true that the hardness of white oak does make it harder to saw, and so if you’re looking to do a DIY installation of white oak flooring then you’ll get the best results if you have top quality tools and carbon blades (here’s a handy guide for choosing a good blade).
5: STABILITY AND DENSITY
As mentioned above, along with being harder than red oak, white oak is also more stable and denser than red oak. However, like with all hardwood flooring, for best results in terms of stability, both red oak and white oak planks should be allowed to fully acclimatize to the local environment before being installed.
6: ROT RESISTANCE
White oak is more resistant to rot, which is why – as well as interior flooring – it can be used outside for outdoor furniture for example; red oak is only suitable for interior flooring and furnishings.
7: COST AND AVAILABILITY
Red oak is the industry standard, and because red oak trees grow more rapidly and are more common across the USA, red oak flooring tends to be cheaper and more readily available than white oak flooring. For example, top end solid white oak flooring can cost as much as $10 per square foot, compared to $7 per square foot for the top grade sold red oak planks.
However, with so much competition in the market, you’ll likely find similarly priced red oak flooring and white oak flooring options that will work for your home. For example, you can find both solid red oak and white oak flooring ranging from $3 to $5 per square foot.
Both red oak and white oak are also available in engineered hardwood planks, which are often cheaper than solid; and, of course, budget-friendly laminate oak flooring is also an option.
HOW THE PROS TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RED OAK AND WHITE OAK
There are in fact several different oak tree species that fall under each of the red oak and white oak categories, so if you’re still not sure what kind of oak you’ve got, then there are two other useful tests to tell them apart.
These tests are, perhaps, of primary use for woodworkers. But it’s also useful to know about these in case you’re trying to match new flooring to an existing oak flooring, and need to ensure that you’re fitting the same type for a unified color.
If you are able to get a clean cut sample of the oak showing the endgrain, then a close inspection will show the pores of the wood (be sure to blow off any dust from the endgrain).
With red oak the pores are open; whilst with white oak the pores will be filled with tyloses, the outgrowth in the xylem vessels of the tree. By the way, it’s the tyloses that makes white oak more rot resistant.
But note that the endgrain test only works if you have a heartwood section, as the pores in sapwood in both red and white oak tend to be open.
CHEMICAL IDENTIFICATION TEST
If you can’t get an endgrain sample, or you want to double check, you can also perform a patch test on an area of untreated, raw oak wood using a solution of 10% sodium nitrate (1 cup of water to 4 teaspoons sodium nitrate).
After about 25 minutes, the patch on white oak will appear dark greenish- purple color whilst on red oak the patch will just have a slightly darker tone than the rest of the piece of wood see here for examples). You can also purchase oak testing kits where you just add some wood shavings to the solution and then check of changes in color.
So, now you know the exact differences between red oak vs white oak flooring and how to tell them apart. Ultimately, the one you choose for your home will depend on which one suits your personal tastes and your home environment.
About the Author: Jamie Sandford
Jamie Sandford is the Owner and Chief Editor of Home Flooring Pros (find out more). After 12 years’ experience in screen and stage set construction, followed by a further 15 years working in the home renovation/remodeling business, he now writes and curates online home improvement advice.
“Buying and installing home flooring should be a fairly straightforward process, but often it isn’t. After more than 15 years experience in home flooring and remodeling, I started Home Flooring Pros in 2013 to help homeowners navigate the often-over complicated process of choosing, buying and installing a home floor. The aim is to save you time and money by helping you to make better floor buying decisions.”