Unfinished Flooring

White Oak vs. Red Oak Floors

Have you ever thought, “What is the difference between red and white oak?” It may surprise you to know there is not a single red oak or white oak tree species?

There are actually, a number of species that make up what we call red or white oak. The oak genus Quercus (pronounced kwerk-us) has an estimated 450 species. Of the 91 Quercus species native to the United States, 41 are endemic or unique to the U.S. Twelve species reach north into Canada and 38 species cross the border into Mexico, including two species that extend further south into Central America.

When you buy oak flooring, it likely contains a mix of trees classified as either red or white. As the Wood Database puts it, “You’re buying characteristics found in an oak group, and not necessarily an exact species.” The beauty and subtleties of each tree combine to make your floor a truly unique-one-of-a-kind piece of art that you get to live on.

How to Tell the Difference Between White Oak and Red Oak?

Oak trees have similarities that are sometimes hard to distinguish one from the other. You can determine the difference between the two with a chemical test (which we sell at all of our stores) or by visually inspecting the ends of boards.

When looking at the end grain of a cut piece of plain sawn red oak, you’ll notice that the pores look wide and open. The pores on a piece of white oak will look filled in and will sparkle in bright light. If you try this test, be sure to clean the pieces of flooring well and make a fresh cut from a piece of heartwood.

Logs in the woods
When looking at the end of a cut piece of red oak, you’ll notice that the pores look wide and open. The pores on a piece of white oak will look filled in.

The most reliable test is a white oak test kit. From a clean unfinished oak board simply shave off flakes of wood into the plastic tray. Wet the shavings with a few drops of part A solution, wait for a minute then add a few drops of part B solution. If the shavings change color to greenish or black, the test is positive for white oak. If the color does not noticeably change it is not white oak. There is no definitive chemical test to confirm red oak. It is only by deduction that if I have two boards known to be oak that are alike in grain pattern and appearance and one tests positive and the other negative, by reason you can assume the negative is likely red oak. It is important to determine this difference when replacing a damaged board or adding on to an existing oak floor since the stain will look different depending if it’s red or white oak. If you install white oak next to red oak, they will look very different even using the same stain and finish. The most reliable way is to use a test kit!

Why not pick one up today at any of our locations or stop by for free test.

What about looking at the color?

The over all hue of the flooring whether white oak and red oak can have a similar appearance, especially after stain is applied. Variation in the natural tone of the wood can vary from tree to tree with some red oak species looking more like white oak depending on where it grows. For the most part, unfinished red oak ranges in tones from pale-pink to light red. Some boards can be so light that they resemble white oak but don’t be fooled! Each species will still absorb stain color differently. Red oak will overall provide a warmer feel whether applying a stain or keeping it natural.

Unfinished white oak tends to be more uniform in color ranging from yellow-beige to wheat color. White oak is not white and under certain light can seem greenish when finished with natural color.

The Science Behind White Oak’s Distinct Look

Research reveals why white oak is different than red oak in the type of cell structure that develops during the tree’s growth. White oak is considered “ring porous,” meaning that in springtime it produces very large diameter pores. These vessels act like a bundle of drinking straws running up and down the tree transporting nutrients to and from roots. Later in the growing season as newer vessels form, the mature ones go through a process called, “tyloses where they fill with cellulose, lignon, and natural tree sugars like glucose and xylose. These “sparkly” compounds are the key to identifying a white oak board once it is cut, dried and milled into flooring.

The process:

  • New smaller diameter and thicker-walled pore-structures are formed.
  • These structures create alternating layers of fine and coarse textured wood.
  • In the heartwood, these circular pits fill with natural compounds.
  • These compounds limit how much liquid can be transported, making the wood impenetrable.

This unique “water resistant” characteristic is why white oak has been used to craft boats, buckets, and wine and whiskey barrels.

When the wood is milled into lumber, it is recognizable in the grain by a sparkle or glisten as light reflects off the surface. This is unique to white oak and one way to identify it when comparing it to red oak, which lacks tyloses.

Man milling lumber
After being milled into lumber, white oak can be recognized in the grain by a sparkle or glisten as light reflects off the surface.

Common White Oak Trees Used for Flooring

Certain varieties of this genus are what are commonly made into flooring knows as white oak. This list shows an extensive, though not exhaustive list of those types. In addition to these proper names, other descriptive names are given to white oak species: Eastern white oak, Basket oak, Stave oak, Ridge white oak, Cucharillo, Encino, and Roble.

NameWhere It Grows
American White Oak
(Quercus alba)
In states bordering the west bank of the Mississippi River and then east and Southeastern Canada
Chestnut oak
(Q. prinus)
Northeastern states south to Alabama and Georgia west and north to southern tip of Illinois
Bur oak
(Q. macrocarpa)
Eastern Great Plains and east to Appalachians except southeastern United States, also in southeastern Canada
Post oak
(Q. stellate)
Southern portions of eastern and central states and south and southwest into Texas, Oklahoma, and southeast Kansas
Swamp oak
(Q. bicolor)
Northern half of eastern United States
Live oak
(Q. virginiana)
Atlantic and Gulf Coast states of the United States, into south central Texas, and northeastern Mexico
Overcup oak
(Q. lyrata)
Lower Mississippi and Ohio River bottoms, portions of Atlantic and Gulf Coast states
Oregon white oak
(Q. garryana)
Southern California to southwestern British Columbia
English oak
(Q. robur)
Asian and European native tree, imported in 1600’s, northern USA and Canada
Chinkapin oak
(Q. muehlenbergii)
Eastern United States except Atlantic coast and most of the immediate gulf coastal plains
Swamp chestnut oak
(Q. michauxii)
Southeastern and midwestern United State
Learn more about white oak from Wood Database.

Common Red Oak Trees Used for Flooring

Red oak trees span the country from coast to coast. Used for everything from railroad ties to cabinet doors, red oak remains the most popular choice for solid hardwood flooring.

Not to be outdone, Red Oak holds the top spot for the most populous and most used hardwood in America. There are more species classified as red oak than white oak. Other common names are Northern red oak, Eastern red oak, Gray oak, American red oak, Canadian red oak, and Mountain red oak.

NameWhere It Grows
Red Oak
(Quercus rubra)
Eastern and Central United States, except coastal plain, and Southern Canada
Black oak
(Q. velutina)
Most of the eastern United States, and Southern Ontario
California black oak
(Q. kelloggii)
Southwestern Oregon on west side of the Sierra Nevada extending south into Baja California.
Cherrybark oak
(Q. pagoda)
Coastal Plains and Central Mississippi river valley and south
Swamp Laurel oak
(Q. laurifolia)
Coastal planes
Pin oak
(Q. palustris)
Western lake states and northern portion of midwestern states, central eastern United States and eastern states
Scarlet oak
(Q. coccinea)
Appalachian region and north to New Hampshire
Shumard oak
(Q. shumardii)
Southern portion of central states, South and Southeast
Southern red oak
(Q. falcata)
Southeastern United States north to New Jersey and Ohio Valley
Water oak
(Q. nigra)
Southeastern United States
Willow oak
(Q. phellos)
Southeastern United States and coastal area north to New Jersey
Northern pin (jack) oak
(Q. ellipsoidalis
Southern Minnesota to central Mississippi and northern portion of midwestern states
Nuttall oak       
(Q. texana)
Lower Mississippi river region
Shingle oak      
(Q. imbricaria)
Appalachian forest, Ohio, and central Mississippi river valley
Bluejack oak    
(Q. incana)
Coastal planes
Blackjack oak   
(Q. marilandica)
New York to central Iowa and south
Learn more about red oak from Wood Database and Global Trees.