In our most recent newsletter we touched on the characteristics of a variety wood used for crafting fine furniture and cabinetry. In this post we offer a more in-depth look at the difference between red and white oak.
Species and Groups
There are two trees that are known specifically as red oak and white oak by their common names. Quercus rubra and Quercus alba are the scientific names for these two specific species. However, red oak and white oak can also refer to groups of trees that are different species but have similar characteristics.
It can be tempting to assume that you could tell the difference between red oak and white oak by color. However, white oak can appear more reddish than some red oak. This distinction becomes even less visible when the oak is stained.
When you are in a stand of living oak trees, the leaves are the simplest way to distinguish between the two groups. Species of white oaks will have rounded, lobed leaves, while red oaks have pointier, lobed leaves that usually have a sort of needle-shaped point protruding from the end of a lobe.
If you have cut wood, there are several ways to determine the difference. The end grain of the wood displays a pronounced difference. The heartwood of red oak is extremely porous, while in white oak these pores are blocked by tyloses. It is these blockages that make white oak particularly resistant to rot and decay caused by moisture. Red oak will absorb water through its pores much faster than white oak.
This video offers an excellent demonstration of how capillary action draws moisture through the pores in red oak in a matter of seconds.
You can also look at the distance between growth rings. Red oak tends to grow faster than white oak, so there will be fewer growth rings. White oak will have more densely packed growth rings in the same amount of space.
Quarter sawing is a method of producing boards from logs that is especially significant for oak. Oak has prominent medullary rays that look like brown flecks. These medullary rays are more visible when oak is cut so that the growth rings are at a 60-90 degree angle to the face of the board. In white oak these rays are longer than in red oak. In addition to the desired look of the rays, the perpendicular grain is sturdier and less likely to cup than grain that curves through the end grain, which occurs when the log is plain sawn. Quarter sawing achieves this desired look and function. This video from Frank Miller Lumber illustrates how quarter sawing works:
Both woods can make stunning pieces and have a significant place in crafting custom kitchens and fine furniture. Sturdy, dense white oak is ideal for bar tops, outdoor furniture and other applications where the piece may be exposed to moisture. Red oak works well for cabinet doors, and indoor furniture. White oak tends to be a bit more expensive than red oak.
Choosing the Right Material
At T. Scholl Fine Woodworks, we carefully match the right material with the right piece. We will work with you so that you understand key differences in wooden materials and choose the best pieces for your project.