Red Oak, White Oak: Where to Use It and How to Choose It

They're both oak - why does it matter?

Pennsylvania is well known for growing and distributing high quality hardwoods, particularly Pennsylvania Black Cherry, known for its rich color and beautiful appearance. But the kings of trim and timber are red and white oak. Those local to the region will recognize immediately that red oak is by far the most common natural hardwood used for trim grade products. From baseboards to door casing, even to church pews, red oak is such a common sight on interior work that the average person might not even notice its presence. 

White oak however, is not nearly as common indoors. Instead, it is typically seen as an outdoor product - excellent for barn structures, entryway thresholds and framing. Its incredible strength, durability and moisture resistance make it well suited for cases where longevity is key. in fact, the framing of the Notre Dame cathedral are made from a very similar material. 

So what sets them apart?

Though both of these trees belong to the same oak genus ("quercus"), red oak (quercus rubra) and white oak (quercus alba) have a difference on a cellular level which sets them each apart. 

This cellular difference is the presence of a cellular structure called tylosis. Tyloses act as natural plugs in certain trees such as oak and cedar. They seal off the tubes within the wood, preventing harmful pathogens like fungi and bacteria from spreading. This protective mechanism helps maintain the tree's strength and health.

While this structure is present in white oak, providing its signature durability, it is not present in red oak whatsoever. This means that red oak lumber is far more permeable than white, and essentially behaves as a bunch of straws - the lumber will simply soak up any moisture it can, distributing it throughout the board and holding it within the wood. Thus an exterior door made from red oak will absorb far more moisture than a door made of white, and will begin to rot from the inside out far faster than its counterpart would. 


The final disparity between these species is also everyone's least favorite: the price. Red oak tends to be far cheaper than white oak - sometimes, half to two-thirds the cost! Why such a difference? The factors involved in price point boil down to the work it takes to get the lumber from the tree growing in the lumber concession to your hands as the consumer. For these specific trees, a particular point of interest is in the drying process. 

The trees must be logged, bucked, cut and dried before they are ready for the millwork and furniture that the end user typically sees. There are very specific details in the drying process which must be observed, not only to preserve the quality of the material, but also to adhere to government guidelines for the safe harvest and distribution of those natural resources. Part of those details are items such as the moisture levels, temperature and time spent in the kiln. For instance, one inch ("four quarter") red oak might dry for only four to six weeks, while white oak might require six to eight weeks! Additionally, red oak is far more agreeable in the drying process - it will bake like a loaf of bread, going from an ooey gooey freshly sawn wood to a nice, hard, dry board with relative ease. But drying white oak is far more difficult, with exponentially more opportunity for the temperamental lumber to defect, warp, crack or split during the process. 

Lumber is a natural resource, and takes a lot of work to get it from the landowner's stand to the consumer's possession. The increased time, labor and expense to get it into a retail setting will vary greatly by species and location. 

Context is Key

All of this information is helpful in allowing you, the consumer, to be an informed buyer. 

If you are a woodworker looking for material but don't understand why white oak is so darned expensive - now you do. 

If you are a homeowner but don't understand why the solid oak threshold on your back porch rotted away much faster than it should have - now you do. 

If you are a trim carpenter and don't understand why you shouldn't patch a white oak repair with red oak supplementary material - now you do. 

Buying and using hardwoods is very different from buying and using softwoods, like pine. Prices and availability will vary dramatically across species and regions. Your task as the buyer starts with making the best decisions you can, with information available. A process which we are able to assist you in completing. If you have questions about lumber, its uses, or other information - please reach out! We would love to hear from you. 

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