Oak is the most popular choice and widely available hardwood floors in the US. Also, both white and red subvariant are popular. Additionally, they are environment-friendly as they have a low carbon footprint. While white oak floorings are the most popular and go-to choice for wide plank floors in the hardwood category, suppliers have turned to red oak floorings due to white oak scarcity.
According to Floor Covering News, the demand for white oak flooring grew exponentially as the market share increased from 19% to 50% between 2012 and 2022.
There’s a lot of controversy about whether white or red oak wood flooring is best. I may sound a bit diplomatic, but it depends on your preferences. However, I’ve spent hours researching this topic, and I’ll point down the key differences between these two with data, facts & stats. It’ll be easier for you to pick the right one after that.
How to Tell White Oak vs. Red Oak Flooring?
I often encountered one common question, i.e., “Guessing a floor to tell whether it is red oak vs. white oak flooring,” people asking on the internet.
In this section, I’ll give you tips by which you can easily guess the type of oak timbers just by seeing them. You can skip this section and move to the in-depth differences section below if you face no problem identifying between these two variants.
Drop a few drops of water on the floorboard to determine whether the floor is red or white oak. If the water drops leaves stains on the board that looks like a coffee stain, the board is possibly made of white oak. Otherwise, it’s made of red oak.
To determine it more scientifically, you can get a white oak test kit available on the market and test it.
Now, let’s dive into the major differences between these two species.
The color would be the weakest identifier between white and red oak. Generally, contrary to its name, white oak hardwood flooring is not really white – it is a mix of brown and tan that makes it darker than red oak, which has a pinkish hue throughout.
While red oaks have a pinkish hue, white oaks can have a pink tone. Additionally, sometimes, you’ll find a greenish hue over white oak boards. The below picture is of white oak lumber. You can clearly see a pinkish undertone of the heartwood in the center.
While it’s almost impossible to distinguish between red and white oak flooring if they are dark-stained, it’s easier when stains are more transparent. That’s why I told you above that color alone is unreliable to distinguish between these two species.
The grain is another factor in deciding whether the floor is red or white oak.
When the color difference is gone between the two oaks due to the application of stain, what sets these two kinds of wood apart? The grain – even though both red and white oak are from the same species of oak, there is a difference in their grain pattern.
Red Oak has a wild grain – many swirls and deviations can be found. It also has wider grain lines that can be wavy or zigzag in appearance. On the other hand, White oak is a closed-grain wood with smaller and tighter grain lines that make it appear straighter and uniform. The grains are also more visible since red oak is lighter than white oak.
If your room is busy with many textures and patterns, consider choosing less prominent grain wood such as white oak. If your room is minimalistic and you want to add more character, consider picking red oak, as it has vibrant grain patterns.
Because of the uniform grain of the white oak flooring, you may feel that it is sturdier and more durable, but the red oak floor is just as durable and sturdy. Let’s take a look at their scores based on the Janka Scale.
Not to mention the grain pattern also depends on how the wood is cut, i.e., flatsawn, quartersawn, or riftsawn.
As you may already know, the durability of hardwood flooring is dependent on the rating it gouges on the Janka Scale. According to the Janka Scale, white oak scores 1360, whereas red oak scores 1290. This means that White Oak can withstand a force of 1360lbf or 6,000N, whereas red oak can withstand a force of 1290lbf or 5,700N. In layman’s terms, White oak is stronger than red oak hardwood flooring.
Why hardness matters?
It would be best to have a hardwood floor that withstands scratches and dents in high-traffic areas like the kitchen and hallway. Hence, harder wood, like white oak, will be a better option in these areas than red oak.
However, some people are okay with little dents and scratches as they add character to the wood floors. Additionally, many people love hand-scraped hardwood floors that are purposefully scratched to give them character. Consider red oak hardwood flooring if you’re okay with dents and scratches. Well, the white oak floor hides scratches better than the red floor.
I’ve researched this and found that white oak floors have a better decay resistance than red oak floors. Better decay resistance means better resistance against rots done by termites and insects.
A test done by Oregon State University found that white oak has more rot resistance than red oak.
White oak boards are heavier and stronger; thus more immune to rots – University of New Hampshire.
Similarly, The University of Tennessee found white oak floors to be better.
While all hardwood floors risk water damage, white oak is better water resistant than red oak. White oak is commonly used for building boats for a good reason – it is better than red oak at fighting waters. Because red oak is more porous than white oak, it soaks up water immediately as it gets in contact with it. It is definitely a better choice for your home if water damage may pose a concern.
Louis Sauzedde from Shipwright has demonstrated in this video how water can affect both oak species. From this video, it’s crystal clear that white oak is the winner.
Not to forget, Louis is a wooden shipbuilder, and water resistance is the number one criterion when choosing wood. Moreover, a larger number of antique furniture builders preferred white oaks.
Red oak hardwood flooring comes at a cheaper cost than white oak, and there is a reason for it. Red oak trees grow more rapidly (around 24″ per year, according to the Arbour Day Foundation) than white oak (12-14″ per year, according to the IOWA State University) and are more common throughout the US; hence they are readily available and cheaper. On the other hand, white oak hardwood floors are not available as much as red, making the price a bit higher than red oak hardwood floors.
Below is a chart from the University of Kentucky showing these two species’ log pricing. It’s clearly visible that red oak is cheaper than white ones. Remember, we shouldn’t co-relate log prices to the floorboard pricing. However, it can give us a hint.
However, in some cases, you may find white oak and red oak hardwood floors ranging from $3 to $5 per square foot due to the competition in the market because the pricing depends on the locality where it’s produced and its availability.
One more thing, it almost costs the same to install hardwood flooring of these both species.,
Both white and red oak hardwood flooring is considered an eco-friendly national natural resource as they are farmed and grown in North America. The carbon footprint is lower than that of exotic hardwood flooring species such as Brazilian Cherry and Tigerwood. Also, white and red oak are constantly being replanted in the US due to forestry protection programs.
Staining And Matching
Red oak is much more common in stair treads, banisters, saddles, and other transitions. If you have oak stair treads installed, they are most likely red oak – meaning you must match those with red oak flooring. If you do not already have stair treads installed, they are usually readily available and low-priced in red oak than white oak hardwood flooring.
Remember that red oak and white oak hardwood floors can be stained but may not accept the same stain. Lighter stains like white and grey suit white oak, while darker stains make both the oak floor look visually the same.
Nevertheless, due to their different grain patterns, red and white oak hardwood flooring can’t be stained to match each other.
Both white and red oak are fairly durable to last in a home. Their differences are mainly in the grain and appearance. However, it is important to note that white oak is more water resistant and rotting than red oak floors. Finally, white oak will win if we take water resistance, hardness, decay, refinishing, and grain pattern as parameters to compare.