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Species Profile: Oak

Northern Red OakWhen it comes to hardwood flooring in the U.S., Oak has been the go-to species not just for decades, but for well over two centuries.  Part of Oak’s popularity is due to its prevalence on the North American continent—Oaks account for more than half of all domestic hardwood trees.  Their wood is also uncommonly dense and hard, so very durable, and is high in tannins, which help it to resist fungus and repel insects, making it an ideal material for flooring.

In a recent survey of professional designers from around the country, nearly half of the respondents chose Oak as the species they recommend most—and more than half made this their recommendation for pet owners.  An article from Floor Covering Weekly notes that modern harvesting and milling techniques allow for more customization of Oak than ever before, making it at once a classic and a contemporary favorite.

Here, we take a closer look at America’s hardwood sweetheart.

Hundreds of species

Oak trees make up the genus Quercus, of which there are some 600 different species.  Here in the States, the most popular species for flooring are the native Quercus alba, White Oak, and Quercus rubra or borealis, Northern Red Oak.  However, there are a few other species whose qualities are so similar to Quercus alba that they are also sometimes sold as White Oak.

White Oak

White Oak trees tend to be shorter and squatter than Red Oaks and can live for several hundred years.   These are some of the Oaks you see with sprawling limbs, ideal for climbing and tire swings.  This picturesque tree has earned a place as the state tree of Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland and is even the symbol of Connecticut minted on that state’s quarter.  It grows throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and in much of southern Canada and remains abundant thanks to sustainable harvesting and careful forest management.

White Oak wood has a closed cellular structure, which helps to make it water- and rot-resistant. Because of this trait, white oak has long been used to make barrels for fermenting wine and whiskey and in shipbuilding.  Rating at 1360 on the Janka hardness scale, the lumber is prized particularly for its strength, stability, and resiliency.

Not only is White Oak a durable hardwood, it is also a versatile flooring choice.  Its grain is generally straight, but with a coarse, uneven texture that gives it a little character.  Its natural color ranges from very pale (almost white) to light yellow or brown with slightly gray undertones, except at the heart, where it is more of a light to medium brown.  It takes stains and finishes well, opening up a world of aesthetic possibilities.   Because of the prevalence of these trees and their relatively large size, it is usually available in almost any cut—plainsawn or quartersawn (which display an interesting fleck pattern), narrow boards or wide planks, and traditional or longer lengths.

White Oak is usually a little more expensive than similar cuts of Red Oak, but the additional cost (not generally more than $1 or 2 per square foot) will be worth it if you need added stability or are looking for a harder, more durable wood.White Oak Cuts

Red Oak

Red Oak, or more accurately, Northern Red Oak, grows in many of the same parts of North America as White Oak, though it is somewhat wider spread due to its tolerance of different soil types and growing conditions.  In forests, Red Oaks tend to be taller and narrower than White Oaks and, under the right circumstances, can grow very quickly, reaching 15-20 feet in just 10 years.  They also have a relatively long lifespan, getting as old as 500 years, though their acorns take sometimes more than 3 times as long to germinate.  Like the White Oak, the Red Oak has become the symbol of many of the areas in which it grows, including the state of New Jersey and the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.

Often cited as the most popular domestic wood species for hardwood flooring, Northern Red Oak is extremely valuable for timber production for many purposes.  While the best cuts are used for flooring, trim, and furniture, even lower quality Red Oak finds its way to market, as firewood, fence posts, railroad ties, and more.

Unlike White Oak, Red Oak has an open grain, so much so that smoke can be blown through from one end of a plainsawn board to the other.  While this can be a neat trick, it unfortunately means that it is more subject to moisture infiltration and is less stable than White Oak.  It is also less dense, and consequently not as hard, rating 1290 on the Janka scale (by no means a poor score in terms of hardness).

The heartwood of Red Oak is light to medium brown, but with a reddish instead of an olive cast.  Sapwood, like that of White Oak, tends to be closer to white or light brown, but also has a pinkish tint, true to its name.  This wood is especially well-known for its ability to take stains, lending it a great deal of versatility.  Like other Oak species, quartersawn sections display prominent ray fleck patterns while plainsawn boards have a straight, coarse grain.

While Red Oak is not as resistant to insect and rot damage as its hardier cousin, modern finishes will generally serve to protect against these things.  And, though it may not be as strong as White Oak, it is a very durable wood and displays remarkable shock resistance, fending off signs of wear more adeptly than other woods might.Red Oak Cuts

Choosing Red Oak or White Oak

  • Because of its remarkable durability and resistance to everything from moisture to bugs, White Oak tends to be a little pricier than Red Oak, though the cost of both will fluctuate.
  • The natural color of the woods is, of course different, but either can be stained easily to suit your liking.   Red Oak may continue to display a slightly redder tint, though, even through the stain.
  • Both are widely available in practically any cut you might choose.
  • Red Oak’s grain is sometimes a bit stronger than that of White Oak, giving White Oak a slightly smoother look.
  • White Oak is notably harder than Red Oak, but Red Oak’s resiliency can leave it looking less worn over time.
  • White Oak is much more water resistant and therefore has greater dimensional stability.
  • If you are expanding existing Oak flooring into other areas of the house, you will want to make sure to determine whether your current floors are Red Oak or White Oak, as this will make a difference in matching the stain and general appearance of the floor.

 

Image credit:  tree: northern red oak. [Photograph]. In Britannica Online for Kids. Retrieved from http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-126764