If you’re looking for hardwood flooring, you will come across a lot of oak. This type of hardwood is plentiful, durable and versatile. While oak has been used in traditional homes for centuries, it complements many styles of decor. White oak has the neutral honey tones that most people think of when it comes to this type of flooring. But red oak is another option with distinctive characteristics.
The Basics of Red and White Oak
Red and white oak trees grow abundantly throughout most of the eastern U.S. These trees develop quickly, growing more than two feet every year until they reach maturity. Each subspecies has special characteristics, adding variety and interest to the hardwood planks that are available for flooring.
Oak is a particularly hard and durable wood. It resists scratching and stands up to heavy traffic. It also has moisture-resistant properties, which help it last long indoors and outside. Red and white oak both showcase the beneficial characteristics of this hardwood. However, they have some distinct differences when it comes to appearance, durability and price.
White oak has tones that fall into the brown colorway. While it can have a rich, warm, appearance, its shades favor the yellow family. White oak is often preferable in rooms that have other cool tones, such as grays and blues.
Red oak is not as dark as white oak. It also has honey and brown tones, but those are pervaded by a rosy hue.
Both types of hardwood flooring take stain well. Therefore, you can adjust the color depending on your preferences and decor. If you’re using a light or cool-toned stain, you will likely have better results by applying it to white oak. However, medium and dark stains make white and red oak look almost identical.
Because white oak is lighter in color, its patterns don’t stand out as much as they do in red oak. Therefore, red oak flooring may look livelier and attracts more attention than white oak.
Regardless of the type of wood that you use, you can vary the appearance by choosing one of the following cut styles. These influence the grain pattern along the surface of the plank:
- Rift sawn – The plank is cut diagonally across the rings, creating a uniform pattern of mottled striping along the surface.
- Quarter sawn – The plank is cut perpendicular to the growth rings, creating long, straight grain patterns that span the length of the board and flecks that interrupt the striped graining.
- Flat sawn – The rings lie parallel to the face of the board, creating wavy grain patterns.
- Live sawn – The log is cut through the heartwood, preserving the full strength of the wood and showcasing organic, undulating graining.
Red and white oak have different tendencies when they’re cut using specific methods. Quarter-sawn white oak planks often deliver the most consistent look. However, whereas the markings on quarter-sawn white oak are subtle, they stand out more in red oak. In fact, red oak generally showcases variations in the wood more dramatically than white oak.
Both types of oak hardwood have tight rings and a strong structure. They have stood the test of time as construction materials for home. But white oak is slightly more durable than red oak. According to the Janka scale, which identifies the hardness of lumber, white oak has a rating of 1360, and red oak has a rating of 1290.
Because it’s harder, white oak resists scratches, scuffs, gouges and dents. It is also more appropriate for outdoor use, such as on a deck or patio. However, the intricate and obvious grain patterns in red oak disguise scratches well. Red and white oak are both popular choices for indoor flooring, stair treads and handrails.
Again, the cut style influences the durability of the wood. Narrower, rift or quarter-sawn planks are the least susceptible to cracking and breaking. Wider pieces with variable grain patterns respond inconsistently to force. Rift-sawn wood also resists twisting and warping more than planks that have wavy grain markings.
Oak is a porous, organic material that’s more prone to moisture damage than inorganic materials, such as vinyl flooring. Water damage from a flood or burst pipe could cause it to swell and buckle. However, if the hardwood isn’t sitting under a puddle, it can resist moisture relatively well. Because it’s so hard, it doesn’t soak up water quickly. Therefore, you can protect it by wiping up spills quickly and keeping wet towels off of the floor.
But if you’re particularly concerned about moisture, you might prefer white oak to red oak. White oak contains tylose, a plant material that obstructs the open channels within the wood and makes it less porous. This property makes it ideal for making barrels and boats as well as indoor and outdoor flooring. Because red oak doesn’t contain tylose, it’s more absorbent.
The cut style also influences the wood’s water resistance. Flat-sawn pieces are more susceptible to the effects of moisture than quarter-sawn planks. Live-sawn boards tend to be wide and have an inconsistent grain pattern, which absorbs moisture more in some places than others.
Floorboards shift as they absorb moisture. Therefore, they can warp, bend, lift and crack. It’s often best to use boards with consistent grain markings to prevent uneven deterioration. Sealing the wood properly also protects it against water damage.
White oak and red oak flooring tend to be comparable in cost. However, white oak may be slightly more expensive because these trees take longer to grow to a harvestable size than red oak trees.
The grade of the flooring has a lot to do with the price. Experts use the following rating system to identify the grade of the wood:
- Select – The most expensive grade of oak hardwood, it has few imperfections. This grade offers the most consistent grain pattern, with only small knots permitted.
- #1 common – This grade features more variation among the color and grain pattern.
- #2 common – This wood is more rustic and less expensive than the other grades. It features dramatic variations, knots, wormholes and shorter planks. Sometimes, this is called cabin grade flooring.
Research the availability and cost of different types of flooring with various manufacturers. The prices fluctuate, and some manufacturers may have styles that aren’t available from other companies.
Matching Your Red or White Oak Flooring
If you’re repairing a section of your flooring or want to match the hardwood to the rest of the home, it helps to identify whether you have red or white oak flooring. If you can get your hands on a plank that shows the cross-section, look at the end of the wood. Seeing plenty of open vessels indicates that it’s probably red oak. Coating the wood with a clear sealer also brings out the undertones. Boards with a salmon glow are red oak, and pieces with a tan hue are likely white oak.
Although they have similar characteristics, the different types of wood won’t match when they’re installed next to each other. However, you can blend the different types of flooring using a medium or dark stain.
If you’re trying to pair your hardwood flooring with other elements, such as cabinets and countertops, consider complementing the tones instead of matching them exactly. In most cases, you can combine red oak cabinets with white oak flooring and vice versa. The neutral undertones of white oak make it appropriate for almost every situation.