Chances are that if you’re looking for hardwood flooring, you’ve considered oak. It’s an American classic: grown all over the United States, the oak is one of the most readily recognizable woods in homes. On a scale of 1 to 5, oak has a hardness of about 4. It’s a long-lasting, durable wood that provides great value. This hardwood is strong and beautiful, especially when properly finished.
But did you know there a variety of species of oak?
The two major species that are used in most floors are white oak and red oak, both native to the United States. While both make good material for any home, there are some major differences between the species. Depending on your needs and preferences, it’s worth taking a closer look.
If you already have oak flooring, you’ll have to get the same species for it to match properly; if you are looking for a new installation, either type will be available. If you mismatch wood types, the staining will not come out the same and the grains may be misaligned.
First off, the most obvious difference is in the name: the colors of the two species are slightly different. Red oak has a slightly pinkish tint, while white oak is greyer. Ironically, white oak actually tends to be darker than red, with warm hues.
Both can be stained to any color you like. The darker you go, the less obvious the differences will be; with a lighter stain, the color may be darker on white oak than on red, and the red may have a pinkish tone to it. White oak is denser than red, and so absorbs stain at a different rate.
Importantly, if you want your floors stained gray, white oak is your best option. Because of the light staining, red oak will show a pinkish undertone on gray floors unless you choose to go with a darker gray. The cooler tone of the white oak will suit the gray better.
While the two species are both members of the oak family, they have some different tendencies for grain. Red oak tends to have more characteristic swirls, circles and deviations. White oak, on the other hand, tends to be more uniform and straight-grained. The red oak’s grain pattern may also show more prominently because it is naturally a lighter color.
Strong graining has its benefits — the eye-catching pattern and noticeable lines may help hide dents and scratches over time. Other people prefer the more demure, smooth grain of the white oak for continuity across the floor. It depends on where in your home you are placing the flooring and what kind of aesthetic you are looking for, but the grain differences can really change the look of a floor.
One of the main differences is in the hardness. White oak is a little denser than red—about 70 points on the Janka scale, which measures hardness. Contrary to that scale, red is a little less prone to dents.
However, the density difference makes white less prone to water damage. It’s what is called a closed-grain wood, making it almost impervious to water. The pores of the heartwood of white oaks are typically plugged with tyloses, which makes the white oak impenetrable to liquids and particularly suited for use in the boat industry, and also widely used to construct outdoor furniture. Because of its resistance to moisture, white oak has a big advantage in areas of homes that are more prone to water exposure, or in areas with high humidity fluctuations.
Oak is grown and milled right here in America and tends to be a fairly affordable flooring option. The price tends to fluctuate, though, depending on supply. It will vary by width and grade, but in general, red and white oak are fairly similarly priced.
Wide planking in wood floors is increasingly popular. Mixed width, with some broad boards and some narrow, is also gaining ground among homeowners. However, wider boards—especially those more than five inches wide—will be more expensive. In the case of white oak, boards more than five inches wide tend to be more expensive than red oak.
Deciding on a type of wood for your home flooring project can be difficult—there are so many good options out there. Oak is a great choice and both, red or white oak, can be a great fit for your home depending on your needs. Matching can be difficult, even if you choose the same type of oak you already have, though, so it’s always best to call a hardwood flooring expert to get advice on how you should work on making your home the best it can be.