by Eric Meier

The typical smart-aleck response might be: “well, red oak is red, and white oak is white. . .”

Not so fast. There are all sorts of color variations seen in oak lumber, depending not only on the exact species of oak, but also from the growing conditions from tree to tree. From first glance, just going by color, (especially if the wood has a stain applied to it), it can be difficult to tell the two apart.

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

White Oak (Quercus alba)

White Oak (Quercus alba)

So, how do you tell the two apart, and why would you want to?

First I’ll cover a few quick ways to tell the two groups apart, and then I’ll describe the working properties and characteristics of each group. But before we start, let’s take a look at the two groups, and which oaks fall into which groups:

Red Oak Group

White Oak Group

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Black Oak (Q. velutina)

California Black Oak (Q. kelloggii)

Cherrybark Oak (Q. pagoda)

Laurel Oak (Q. laurifolia)

Pin Oak (Q. palustris)

Scarlet Oak (Q. coccinea)

Shumard Oak (Q. shumardii)

Southern Red Oak (Q. falcata)

Water Oak (Q. nigra)

Willow Oak (Q. phellos)

White Oak (Quercus alba)

Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa)

Chestnut Oak (Q. prinus)

English Oak (Q. robur)

Holm Oak (Q. ilex)

Oregon White Oak (Q. garryana)

Overcup Oak (Q. lyrata)

Post Oak (Q. stellata)

Sessile Oak (Q. petraea)

Swamp Chestnut Oak (Q. michauxii)

Swamp White Oak (Q. bicolor)

While there is one specific wood species (Quercus alba) that is commonly considered the “White Oak,” and there is one specific species (Quercus rubra) that is considered the “Red Oak;” the truth of the matter is, when you buy oak lumber, oftentimes you will not actually be buying these two exact species, but most likely instead you’ll be buying one of the oaks contained within the two broad red and white groupings found in the table above. Basically, you’re buying characteristics found in an oak group, and not necessarily an exact species.

Now that we’ve got a general overview of the species involved, let’s take a look at different ways that will reliably enable you to tell the two groups of oak apart:

1. Look at the Endgrain

A quick and fairly reliable way to tell the two oaks apart is simply by looking at the endgrain. In order for this to work, the ends of the board can’t be painted, sealed, or rough-sawn. A freshly cut oak board should be easy to distinguish:

Red Oak (endgrain)

Red Oak (endgrain)

White Oak (endgrain)

White Oak (endgrain)

Red Oak (endgrain 10x)

Red Oak (endgrain 10x)

White Oak (endgrain 10x)

White Oak (endgrain 10x)

The pores found in the growth rings on red oak are very open and porous, and should be easily identifiable. White oak, however, has its pores plugged with tyloses, which help make white oak suitable for water-tight vessels, and give it increased resistance to rot and decay. The presence of tyloses is perhaps the best and most reliable way to distinguish the two oaks, but it comes with a few caveats:

1.) Make sure that you’ve cleaned up the endgrain enough to see the pores clearly, and blown out any dust from the pores. You don’t want a “false-positive” and mistake sawdust clogged in the pores for tyloses.

2.) Make sure that you’ve viewing a heartwood section of the board in question. While white oak has abundant tyloses in the heartwood, it is frequently lacking in the sapwood section.

Notice the absence of tyloses in the sapwood (top)

One related test regarding porosity is to take a short section of oak and try to blow air through the pores. If you are able to blow anything through it at all, it’s probably red oak. Take a look at this video, where a red oak dowel was used to blow bubbles in a glass of water:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIXZ9iYM4PA

One exception to this rule is Chestnut Oak, which is still considered to be in the white oak group, even though its pores are large and open like red oaks.

2. Look at the Rays

When looking at the face of the board, especially in the flat-sawn areas, you may notice little dark brown streaks running with the grain, sometimes referred to as rays.

White Oak (left), Red Oak (right)

White Oak (left), Red Oak (right)

Look closely at the picture above, (click on it to enlarge it if you have to), and note the length of the rays in both types of wood. Red oak will almost always have very short rays, usually between 1/8″ to 1/2″ long, rarely ever more than 3/4″ to 1″ in length. (Pictured above on the right.)

White oak, on the other hand, will have much longer rays, frequently exceeding 3/4″ on most boards. (Pictured above on the left.)

This method is probably the most reliable under normal circumstances, and is useful in situations where the wood is in a finished product where the endgrain is not exposed.

3. Use Sodium Nitrite

This technique is sometimes used at sawmills if various logs need to be sorted out quickly. Instead of taking the time to analyze each log closely by hand, a 10% solution of sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is sprayed or brushed onto the wood and observed. If it’s red oak, there will only be a small color change, making the wood only slightly darker. But if it’s white oak, there will be a noticeable color change in as little as five minutes, (though it can take longer if the wood is dry, or if the temperature is low). The heartwood of white oak will eventually change to a dark indigo to almost black.

This method is extremely accurate and reliable, though in most instances, it’s probably overkill. However, if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t separate between red and white oak based on anatomy, this method is nearly foolproof. (Though, only the heartwood will bring about the color change, not the sapwood.)

First, you have to obtain some sodium nitrite (NaNO2). You may be able to find some locally through chemical supply stores, but they typically only sell in bulk quantities, making such a small project prohibitively expensive. However, some online retailers have the chemical for sale in much smaller quantities, bringing it into reach of most that are curious about oak identification. (See links below for current eBay sales.)

Next, you need to mix up a roughly 10% solution of sodium nitrite by weight. This ratio actually isn’t as critical as it seems: solutions as small as 1% and as high as 20% have all been used with success, but to err on the side of caution, we’ll use the most appropriate quantity recommended.

Recipe for 10% Sodium Nitrite Solution for Testing Oaks:

1 cup water

4 teaspoons sodium nitrite

Directions: Stir in sodium nitrite until clear. Clearly label solution to avoid confusion; sodium nitrite is very dangerous if ingested.

All that’s left is to simply brush this solution onto a raw wood surface and wait for a reaction. With dried wood stored at room temperature, this reaction should take about 10 minutes. Red oak will be only slightly discolored by the solution, sometimes developing a slightly greenish hue, while white oak will gradually turn a dark reddish brown, eventually turning a deep indigo to nearly black.

See the progression photos below for a better look. (Also note that around the 8 and 15 minute marks the water begins to evaporate from the surface of the wood, but the color is still present after the wood has dried, as indicative of the 25 minute photos.)

Time

Elapsed

Red Oak

White Oak

raw

Red Oak (raw)

White Oak (raw)

1 minute

Red Oak (1 minute)

White Oak (1 minute)

5 minutes

Red Oak (5 minutes)

White Oak (5 minutes)

8 minutes

Red Oak (8 minutes)

White Oak (8 minutes)
15 minutes

Red Oak (15 minutes)

White Oak (15 minutes)
25 minutesRed Oak (25 minutes)White Oak (25 minutes)

4. Look at the Leaves

This option is obviously only available if you have access to the leaves of the living tree. If the tree has just recently been felled, or if it is still standing, and you are contemplating the option to have the trunk milled into lumber, here’s a quick and reliable way to tell the two trees apart:

White Oak

White Oak (Quercus alba)

Red Oak

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

If you look closely at the two pictures above, you’ll notice that the leaves on White Oak generally have rounded lobes, while those of Red Oak are pointed; and for most of the species in each of the two groups, this general rule of thumb remains constant.

The Characteristics of Red Oak versus White Oak

As to the reasons why you’d want to be able to distinguish between the two, most of the answers have been explained above, but I’ll recap:

  • White oak is much more resistant to rot, and is suitable for water-holding applications, boatbuilding, outdoor furniture, etc.
  • Red oak should only be used for interior pieces such as cabinets, indoor furniture, etc.
  • White oak tends to be more dense, while red oak is a bit lighter and has a more porous and open grain.
  • White oak is usually slightly more expensive than red oak.
  • Mat

    An alternative to the Sodium Nitrate solution is to drop some of that steel wool you’ve undoubtedly got in the shop in to some vinegar, let it sit for a while, then you can wipe that on white oak and you’ll have your black. It reacts with the tannin in the wood pretty darn quickly so you may not even have to wait a minute to see results. The ingredients are also a fair bit easier to get and quite safe.

    The attached image shows what to expect after a minute on a dressed surface. You can see it happen before your eyes and even quicker on endgrain.

  • Eddie Earley

    Thanks for all that good info. I am a woodturner(11yrs) & harvest most all of my owwn wood. Additionally I have noticed that some Reds may have a rounded looking lobe but will have a needle point on the tip of the leaf.

  • Stephanie Alden

    I have been trying to identify the type og oak used on a table that has been in my family since the 1920’s. I have been told it has a rare natural marbeling (as seen in the picture)from the guy who refinished it for me. I appreciate any input given. Thank You.

  • Stephanie,
    It’s hard to tell from the picture, but I can say that antique furniture was very frequently made using quartersawn white oak. That’d be my first guess on a piece such as this.

  • cw

    Possible types of wood

    (1) Zygia racemosa (syn. Marmaroxylon racemosum, Pithecellobium racemosum) of the family Leguminosae (aka Fabacea) (subfamily Mimosoideae), the legume or pea family
    (2) Diospyros marmorata of the family Ebenaceae

  • Ann

    We are planning to replace our carpeted stairs with unfinished oak “retro-treads” which we hope to stain and finish to match our finished oak floors. The retro treads come in both unfinished red oak and white oak and I’m not sure which to order. Our house was built in 1955 and the wood floors are original to that time, although we had them sanded, stained and polyed when we moved in 27 years ago and they still look great. Do you think our floors are likely to be red or white oak? Could either the red oak or white oak retro-treds be stained to match the floors as close as possible?

    Thanks.

  • jimmy mcguire

    I looked at a larger version of your picture, and it seems that a pile of wood I found curbside had a very similar grain character. The finish was also very much like that yellows and reds in your picture. I estimated the furniture age of what the boards used to be in as about turn of the century, up to 1925 or so. I have never known of this stuff to be called anything other than quartersawn white oak, tiger(stripe) oak, or sometimes just white oak or even just oak.

  • david elliott

    Very interesting site. I didnt know others were as so interested in wood technology as myself. Keep up the excellent work. I know now where to go if my memory fails me, although I always have DESCH on my book shelf. Regards David.

  • chris

    I read somewhere that red oak roof shakes last a long long time if strapped properly because it lacks tylosis. My guess is that it being ring porous allows the shakes to dry out faster and maybe the tannins repel certain fungis as well just guessing though.

  • Maddie Carre

    I have pics of a dresser but not quite sure of the wood. Could you help me?

  • Carl V

    Maddie,
    It is somewhat hard to tell from the picture but it appears to be very similar to Monkeypod. The picture on this site for “sealed” monkeypod has pores that appear to be the same.

  • @ Carl/Maddie: I’d be extremely surprised if it turned out to be a wood as obscure as Monkeypod. It doesn’t appear to be an entirely natural wood color, I suspect it’s stained. It lacks the conspicuous rays that you’d expect to find on oak, even on the flatsawn surface. The grain pattern does look reminiscent of mahogany and its myriad lookalikes.
    This is a classic example of trying to pinpoint an ID with insufficient information! See the article on “The Truth Behind Wood ID” especially the section “think you’re a know-it-all?”
    http://www.wood-database.com/wood-articles/the-truth-behind-wood-identification/

  • Doug

    Hi all,

    I recently was given a quantity of 2″+ rough sawn red oak, at least from the visual tests here it appears to be red rather than white oak. It’s dry, been in a garage for 20 some years.

    I want to turn shallow bowls with it.

    My question is, are there any methods of dying it near black with common household solutions like the steel wool on white oak?

    Thanks, Doug

    • Dan

      Doug
      Did you try India ink?

  • Fred

    Doug, you can buy dyes for wood. Are the bowls you plan to turn for food ? If so you may wish to use something other than oak or any other open grained wood.

  • Rich

    In which orientation would one want the growth rings in relation to the edge of a piece of white oak in order to maximise impact resistance? I understand that the idea is to have as many fibres as possible on the impacting surface to spread the force but reliable way to determine this by examining the growth rings/rays/etc is eluding me.

    Having tried to find definitive description of how to determine this online I’m coming away feeling more confused than before I started… any help would be greatly appreciated and might just save my sanity!

    I’ve attached 5 (poor quality I’m afraid as taken on my phone) pics side by side, if anyone wants to have a stab at ordering them in best->worst for impact resistance (vertically with respect to the picture) with reasons why it might help me understand…

  • Mary

    Question: A friend has some red oak for sale. It was salvaged from a courthouse in Florida. Not sure of age or how it’s cut. Haven’t seen it yet; just a pic. Any idea what it’s worth per bf?

  • daniel

    I have a huge beam twenty foot long approximately 12″ by z12 hand notched pegged together. Washed up in my creek I have found several other beamms upbthe creekm I have been told they are from early 1800 any value in the wood for reclaimed wood

    • Tractorshaft

      Not too much of commercial value in the beam but integrating it into a project in your home, shop, garden would be a great way to salvage a piece of history along with the story of finding it!

  • Mat

    An alternative to the Sodium Nitrate solution is to drop some of that steel wool you’ve undoubtedly got in the shop in to some vinegar, let it sit for a while, then you can wipe that on white oak and you’ll have your black. It reacts with the tannin in the wood pretty darn quickly so you may not even have to wait a minute to see results. The ingredients are also a fair bit easier to get and quite safe.

    The attached image shows what to expect after a minute on a dressed surface. You can see it happen before your eyes and even quicker on endgrain.

    • floor guy 19

      Doesn’t distinguish between wood types. They’ll both turn black. Try again

  • Stephanie Alden

    I have been trying to
    identify the type of oak used on a table that has been in my family
    since the 1920’s. I have been told it has a rare natural marbeling (as
    seen in the picture)from the guy who refinished it for me. I appreciate
    any input given. Thank You.

    • ejmeier

      Stephanie,
      It’s hard to tell from the picture, but I can say that antique furniture was very frequently made using quartersawn white oak. That’d be my first guess on a piece such as this.

      • Dawn Grantham Warren

        I agree. I work in quartersawn oak everyday. (shaker boxes). That’s exactly what it looks like.

    • Brian

      It’s old growth quartersawn white oak. Growth rings are very tight on this. Most likely from virgin forest.

    • jess no

      Looks like tiger wood. Not certain, just saying.

      • mark

        Na

    • mark

      Gorgeous table.. almost looks burly

  • Rich

    In which orientation would one want the growth rings in relation to the edge of a piece of white oak in order to maximise impact resistance? I understand that the idea is to have as many fibres as possible on the impacting surface to spread the force but reliable way to determine this by examining the growth rings/rays/etc is eluding me.

    Having tried to find definitive description of how to determine this online I’m coming away feeling more confused than before I started… any help would be greatly appreciated and might just save my sanity!

    I’ve attached 5 (poor quality I’m afraid as taken on my phone) pics side by side, if anyone wants to have a stab at ordering them in best->worst for impact resistance (vertically with respect to the picture) with reasons why it might help me understand…

    • Victor Engel

      Rightmost is best. Second is worst. Just recall a baseball bat, where you swing with the label up. The label is always on the side that has concentric ring shapes.

      • Victor Engel

        P.S. I can’t quite tell where the grain is in the middle one.

  • Ed Collins

    Use the smell test: red oak(s) usually have a sour smell when cut, white oak(s) have a herbal or nut-like aroma when cut. Smell disapates soon, have your nose readily available. A good clean cut with a miter saw also allows viewing the end grain

  • Laura

    I have 5 white oak trees 150-200+ years old that need to be taken down. Is there any value in the wood?

  • Tractorshaft

    An old man gave me a really good method of remembering the leaf differences in red and white oak.. Red Oak leaves are pointed like the Red Man’s arrows, White Oak leaves are rounded like the White Man’s bullets….I have shared this with many over the years and it’s always remembered! Great site, thanks for all of the work.

    Jerry Honeycutt

  • Rakesh Dhube

    can we use teak for whisky barrel making.

  • Rakesh Dhube

    what are alternatives to oak in barrel making

  • Sheryl

    I have salvaged oak beams that I would like to use for flooring. Is it best to use the white oak only or can they be used together?

    • ejmeier

      It depends on if you are planning on staining them fairly dark, or leaving them natural colored. On average, red oak and white oak will look visibly different when placed next to each other. (The James J Hill house in St. Paul actually uses red and white oak flooring as subtle contrasts to one another.) So, unless you plan on coloring the wood fairly dark to hide the color difference, I say don’t mix them.

  • ejmeier

    Yes, that’s oak!

  • Bert Malenfant

    I just milled some red oak that was cut over 10 years ago . There is some rot 12″” from the butt end however there is a beautiful green stain going from the butt end up 3-4′ and almost from side to side. Is this stain from the rot or is it from something else ?

  • Kristín Jóna Þorsteinsdóttir

    Thank you for very good information.
    Can i use white oak for cutting boards?

  • Joakim Hammenstig

    Here’s a clip for a fast and easy way to separate the two: https://youtu.be/L6t2AZubF8U

    Sorry if this has been posted earlier. I haven’t looked through all the other comments.