Choosing Between Red Oak and White Oak

      Furnituremakers consider the choice between Red Oak and White Oak for a display cabinet. August 17, 2009

I am ready to start a small display cabinet made from oak. I am uncertain about white oak vs. red oak. The floor is a Mannington Chesapeake Hickory Plank, a warm medium red-brown. Also, I have been advised to use quarter sawn oak for a superior figure. A local supplier has rift sawn red oak and quarter sawn white oak. Another supplier, further away has quarter sawn red and white oak. I'm looking for feedback. Can I fill and stain the white oak to a nice color and finish? Or should I use the red oak? Is the rift sawn oak a suitable alternative?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor V:
I would use rift sawn red oak. The rift sawn will give a look of being taller than it is with straight grain. Rift sawn will be more stable to resist twisting of the narrow rails a stiles. Being that the rails a stiles are narrow, the quarter sawn figure would not be as dramatic as if it were a larger area like a solid top or paneled sides.

From contributor K:
As a rule, white oak rays in quarter sawn lumber are larger and more plentiful than red oak. If I had a choice I prefer white oak. It stains beautifully and even.

From contributor A:
Quarter sawn white oak gets my vote. I actually dislike the look of rift sawn red oak. The white oak is superior in most respects. Often by accident a couple of sticks of red will get thrown in with the white. The only way to really tell the difference is the end grain. I usually take as thin a cut on the end grain with the chop saw. We are talking about 1/16" (don't bother to cut it totally off the board, you can snap it off). The difference is you can see straight through the tubes of the white oak. The red oak tubes are plugged. It's very obvious.

From contributor D:
I disagree with the distinction between red and white oak just above. Red oak is porous, and white is plugged. In fact, a test for red oak is to take a 12" long piece of 3/4 x 3/4 and put one end in water and blow. The bubbles are a fair proof of red oak. White oak also has a taste of whiskey about it (or actually, the whiskey gets a lot of its flavor from the white oak barrels it is aged in) if you chew on a piece. As any cooper knows, red oak will leak for wet cooperage.

From contributor R:
I happen to like riff sawn red oak over white for looks, but riff sawn white is pleasant to work with. It can be very tough sometimes to tell the difference between the two by eye alone. Once you cut it, the white oak (as stated above) has a distinctive smell. The other problem with riff sawn white, is that any load of it will certainly have a good percentage that shows quarter sawn rays and flecks, which will be out of place in a riff sawn build.

From contributor K:
I think you misread the original question because the questioner indicated they were interested in quartered lumber for the character.

From contributor R:
Thank you contributor K, I did miss that. The discussion of red verses white kind of took over. While I prefer the look of quarter sawn red over white (just my preference) they really are not interchangeable. Red will never have the rays and flecks that QS white is valued for.

From contributor A:
I apologize for my typing mistake in my prior post. White oak is plugged. Red oak is open. You can actually blow smoke or bubbles through a stick of red oak. The plugged pores also makes white oak more rot resistant.

From contributor V:
Contributor R - I have to disagree with you red oak can have the rays similar to white. This chest I built is a prime example. It is made from red oak. The picture doesn't do it justice.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor R:
Very nice work. I do know that QS red oak will show flecks and rays, and I like the effect better than white, but I don't think the two are interchangeable.

From contributor W:
That is one beautiful chest! I like both red and white! Oak is so nice to work with if it is dried right.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Almost all oak is sold as "quarter and rift" together. Some people will call this combination just quartersawn. Technically, quartersawn is 75 to 90 degrees and rift from 45 to 75 degrees angle of the rings to the face. However, the second definition of quartersawn is 45 to 90 degrees. Rift or quarter both have a lot of figure, with rift having more interesting figure to many. The rays in red oak are no longer than 3/4" long. In white oak, many are 1-1/2" long. White oak has "heavier" fleck. Red oak is porous as stated, but so is some white oak, including chestnut oak. Chestnut oak is not used for barrels for that reason.

The smell of non-bacterially infected oak, red or white, is the same to most people. However, white oak is often bacterially infected, giving it another smell. For whiskey, the barrels are heavily charred on the inside and this gives the dark color to the alcohol. I am not aware that this charcoal imparts flavor.

However, for wine barrels the oak does give flavor as the barrels are usually not charred heavily but are charred lightly. In fact, white oak is air dried for two years and the wood then emits a vanilla odor and gives this flavor to wine.

From contributor F:
Gene, I really enjoyed this post, thanks. I really like good white oak to work with. Itís a nice stable wood to rip and glue and sand. Itís very stable for doors and structural millwork and stains beautifully. I think a cut above red oak of equal cut and quality. In our area it surely costs more.

From contributor V:
I have a question about the flakes. When you write that red oak flakes are only 3/4 long, are you referring to width? The box pictured above has flaking on the top that is over five inches in lengh.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The length is the vertical direction in the tree, which would be left to right in the chest above.

From contributor Z:
Red oak and white oak are not so hard to tell apart if the end grain is examined. Red oak is ring porous and white oak is porous diffuse. What does this mean? The vessels (small round "holes") in red oak are concentrated in the sapwood and form a mostly continuous ring. In white oak, the vessels are throughout the entire ring. Hence, the comments on this post about the oaks "tubes" are spot on. These facts also enlighten the fact that red oak is a terrible exterior wood whereas white oak is quite good. I have seen white oak thresholds easily hold up over 100 years. Moisture can easily travel through red oak, but no so easily in white oak.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The idea that white oak does not transport liquids is not true for all white oak species. Both white oak and red oak are ring porous. There are about 20 species of red and 20 species of white oaks. The red oak large pores formed early in the growth ring are few and can easily be counted using 10x magnification while white oaks large pores are more numerous and there are so many that counting them is difficult.

From the original questioner:
I'm the originator of this post, and I couldn't be happier with all the good advice. It sounds like either one might work. So, I've got a hunk of each and I'll do a side by side comparison after I put a finish on them both - paste wood filler, then stain, and varnish gel.

From contributor G:
Whichever oak you decide to use still won't look anything like that hickory floor regardless of how you stain it.

From the original questioner:
I don't want it to match - just look good on that floor - a nice complement!

From contributor G:
I see - in that case, go with red oak as it takes stain easily.

From contributor R:
Aside from the aesthetics, red and white oak have distinct properties and you should take them into consideration when making a choice.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor S:
I beg to differ on the definition of rift vs. quartersawn. Rift sawn boards are such that the growth rings are 75-90 degrees from the wide side of the board. This is easily proven by the usual comment that there is less fleck in riftsawn lumber than in quartersawn lumber due to the fact that the cut does not intersect the rays in the log, but runs parallel to them most of the time. To further illustrate, if one were to slab off an entire log on a band mill, only the board that contains the center of the log and maybe the board above and below that one are truly riftsawn. The next few are quartersawn and the outermost from the center will be plainsawn.

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