Q. What is the difference between red oak and white oak?

A. The difference is primarily in appearance. Of the 20 commercial red oak species, many have a slight reddish tinge to the color, while the 20 white oaks are paler or browner. It is impossible to separate the red and white oaks by color alone.

The ray cells in white oak are larger and more distinct, creating more character (in the eyes of some people). For this reason, quartersawn white has a distinctive, heavy appearance that many people love.

Also, most of the pores (the large cells that characterize oak) are plugged in white oak (so most white oaks can be used for whiskey and wine barrels) while the red oak pores are open. This difference in pores openness creates a slight difference in surface smoothness and can affect finishing.

White oaks tend to be slightly heavier and slightly stronger, but this is not an important difference in furniture and cabinets.

Basically, sawing, drying, grading, machining and gluing are identical for the oaks. Quality issues are essentially man-made. However, there are a few species among the 40 that create special issues.

Swamp chestnut white oak is very hard to dry properly. Live oak is in the white oak group, but it is really different from all the others, it is very difficult to process. A lot of people avoid pin red oak because of its appearance. Overall, it is best to work with the wood supplier to make sure you get a consistent product that looks like what you want or need.

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 35 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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