White Oak Versus Red Oak for Outdoor Exposures

The key difference is that White Oak has a closed-cell pore structure and is therefore more weather-resistant. November 23, 2012

I am from Australia so we donít get much white oak here to work with. How suitable is kiln dried white oak for a curved timber handrail? Is it ok for a front door if the door is undercover and not exposed to weather?

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor D:
White oak has excellent exterior properties and is great to work with and takes a finish so much better then red oak and is much harder.

From contributor C:
Having worked with both white and red oaks, I would disagree that white oak is "much" harder. I have discerned no great difference in hardness between the two.

From contributor D:
I am referring to Eastern white oak, not sure what type you mean? White is heavier and harder and closed grain compared to red.

From contributor L:
I also prefer white to red oak. The color is somewhat more uniform, it is more weather resistant, and it finishes a bit better. We are just finishing up a good sized job with it. It ran nicely into lots of moldings.

From contributor A:
It's fine for a handrail. It will not rot outside. We often use it for exterior door thresholds. The only problem with making an exterior door is the yellow factor. It will turn yellow if you clear coat it.

From contributor O:
I have used a lot of oak, and I can attest that red oak is often white, white oak is often red and the difference between the two is usually grain pattern. I don't know why, perhaps the size of the harvested trees. Either is fine for a handrail. Although bending oak can be a pain it can be done with a steambath or other methods, depending on the arch you need (I would have to see the handrail).

From contributor B:
White or red has nothing to do with color but about cell structure and as far as that is concerned, there is a big difference. The most important consideration is that white oak has a "closed" cellular structure where red is open. White oak will not readily absorb moisture whereas red oak is a sponge. This made all the difference in the world to conscientious craftsmen living before the age of interior climate control. Red oak was disdained and avoided where ever possible. As far as I'm concerned, white oak is still the best option for flooring and stair treads.

From contributor L:
"How suitable is kiln dried white oak for a curved timber handrail?" If you are sawing it out it is fine. Bent laminating will also work - if you intend to steam bend it: kiln dried doesn't work very well! White oak is pretty stiff!

From contributor O:
I would have to agree, it isn't the best wood for bending. I would go with something else if possible, but if it is ripped into laminate, that is a better bet.
Thanks for the tip above about cell structure, I didn't know that! Learn something new every day. I know color is almost impossible to distinguish sometimes; I will stick with white oak from now on!

From contributor I:
Agree with Contributor D. I find the density of white oak significantly higher than red oak. It also appears to be much lower in tannins, which makes it exceptional for weather exposed use. I use white oak almost exclusively for entry door thresholds.