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What Is The Difference Between Red Oak And White Oak?
White oak and red oak are two different types of oak. Although the name implies that they are different colours, you can’t tell them apart by using this method, particularly if they have had stain applied to them.
Red oak is also known as Quercus rubra. Although this is the true red oak, others such as Water Oak (Quercus Nigra) and Black Oak (Quercus velutina) are broadly grouped as red oak.
Quercus alba is the Latin name for White Oak. It is the true white oak but others such as English Oak and Bur Oak are also known under the umbrella term ‘white oaks’.
This means that you are not always buying an exact species – more the characteristics of the white or red oak group.
The two groups are not the same and if you competent with your timber identification you can easily tell them apart.
It’s easy if you have the luxury of seeing the leaves still on the wood because they will help you identify which wood you have. The leaves of White Oak usually have rounded lobes, but those of the Red Oak are pointed. This isn’t true in every single case though.
In many cases you won’t have the leaves to help you so one way to tell the timbers apart is to look at the rays (the dark brown lines in the wood). Red oak usually has short rays. White oak usually has longer rays – often longer than three quarters of an inch.
You can also look at the endgrain (if the timber has not been painted, rough-sawn or sealed). Make sure that the wood is free from dust then take a closer look. If you are looking at heartwood, the endgrain of red oak will show open pores. White oak heartwood pores are filled with what are known as tyloses – a bubble-like formation. An exception to this is Chestnut Oak, a white oak that has large and open pores.
The quickest and perhaps best method of working out if timber is red or white oak is to use a 10% solution of sodium nitrite on the heartwood. Brush it onto the wood and wait for a colour change. Red oak will only change slightly (sometimes with a greenish hue) but white oak will change colour very noticeably in only a few minute, showing a dark reddish brown and then finally almost a black.
Of course if you are looking at timber in furniture stores it is probably easier just to ask what type of oak the furniture is made from.
When you can tell the timbers apart you can make sure that you use them for the right things. White oak is good for outdoor furniture and boat building because it is resistant to water (due to the tyloses). It is also more resistant to rot and therefore costs a bit more.
Red oak is ideal for indoor furniture and has the benefit of being a bit lighter than its white cousin. Oak furniture looks beautiful in the home so is a great choice.
Both are wonderful timbers that will look beautiful for years.