Distinguishing Red and White Oak

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)
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:

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 within North America, oftentimes you will not actually be buying these two exact species, but instead you may 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 1x)
White Oak (endgrain)
White oak (endgrain 1x)
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 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)

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.

White oak (left), red oak (right); courtesy of USDA

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.

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

rawRed Oak (raw)White Oak (raw)
1 minuteRed Oak (1 minute)White Oak (1 minute)
5 minutesRed Oak (5 minutes)White Oak (5 minutes)
8 minutesRed Oak (8 minutes)White Oak (8 minutes)
15 minutesRed 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:

Red oak (foliage illustration)
White oak (foliage illustration)

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.

Why you’d want to tell red oak from 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, flooring, 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.
  • White oak has larger and more pronounced ray flecks when perfectly quartersawn and historically has been used more often in antiques than red oak.

Get the hard copy

wood-book-standupIf you’re interested in getting all that makes The Wood Database unique distilled into a single, real-world resource, there’s the book that’s based on the website—the Amazon.com best-seller, WOOD! Identifying and Using Hundreds of Woods Worldwide. It contains many of the most popular articles found on this website, as well as hundreds of wood profiles—laid out with the same clarity and convenience of the website—packaged in a shop-friendly hardcover book.

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Rachelle Summers

I’ve been going crazy trying to determine if this is red or white oak. It’s 2 1/4″ x 3/4″ tongue and groove flooring from my 1952 ranch home in the Pacific Northwest.
I sanded a bit in front of the fire place to get a sense of its true color (first photo) and the second photo is a comparative of sanded and the original finish floor.
I need to replace a few damaged sections and everyone has different opinions!

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Jeremy

Best article I’ve found on the details between the two, thank you. What do you think this is? I bought it to use as deck railings thinking it was white, but now I’m not sure. Would red be ok for a deck railing of properly oiled/sealed?

Thanks!

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Brieann

Red Oak or White Oak??? Or is it even Oak at all? I don’t know if it helps, but it is a VERY heavy table, just sanded all down as my daughter poured nail polish remover on it and ruined the finish. Also, would you stain this wood or just use a polyurethane?

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Brian Knudson

We had one flooring guy tell us this is Red Oak, and one tell us this is White Oak. I think it is White.

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Rico

Hello sir, is this red or white?

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Brian Knudson

60 year old hardwood floor in Maryland. Sanded and 3 coats Natural Satin Poly in 2005. Has amber patina (Poly?) Have had different flooring folks tell us it is Red….and white Oak. We think it is white. If we put down unfinished in Kitchen and do the same Natural Satin Poly will it Patina to match with time? Don’t really want to sand 2000 sf of hardwood.

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Paul Schindler

Hi Eric. I could use your help/opinion on this. Shortly, I will be turning a Celtic wedding (i.e., double captive ring) goblet as a wedding gift to our son and his fiancé. The wedding location has a large old oak tree on the property, so I wanted to turn the goblet from oak. Any thoughts as to which species would be better for this turning project… Red or White Oak? Thank you.

Jessica Shuri Frey

Is this oak

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Jessica frey

Here’s another pic

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kat

Hi Eric, most of our floors date to the late 1930s – we want to replace the areas that are tiled with matching/similar hardwood. My initial guess was white oak but there are a lot of water (dog) stains, especially at the ends of the boards which makes me think red? Any thoughts before I try the nitrite would be a huge help.

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Emily

Hi, could you please help me identify this type of wood?? I’d be very grateful, we cannot find it anywhere.
thanks

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John Andrew Jones

Neighbor gave me a butt log he had identified as white oak (for me to use making Windsor chairs). When the log was opened up it was rather red in color. I sent sample off to be identified and the results say “white oak group” which has really thrown me! So if you happen to know: which oaks in the “white oak group” tend to be reddish in color when split open??
Thanks!
John

Shameem

Hi Eric. Good explanation. I am trying to make a decision on hardwood floor and wanted to know the below details

  1. What type of wood is attached in pic? red or white oak..looks like red oak?
  2. I heard about Columbian Hills Oak. is that red or white oak?
  3. is red oak superior quality than Columbian Hills oak?
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Lisa Hinton

I am guessing red oak. What do you think?

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Carolyn

Images didn’t attach before

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Carolyn

Any better?

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Carolyn

Thanks! That’s what I concluded but feel better with confirmation.

Carolyn

Eric
Extending our wood floor as we create an open floor plan. I’ve had multiple people try to determine if we have white or red oak. I get various answers.

attached is our current floor – no stain just waterbase coat

I’m ready to order but hesitant to purchase incorrectly.

Raymond

Could you help us identify this barn wood, was apparently used in a ohio barn in 1800s, we have stacks of 1 by 8 boards, one side had paint , the other is side in pics, we used clear polyurethane on small section and it stained very dark? The wood is very hard.

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Mark Burger

Hi Eric –trying to send again- I would greatly appreciate your opinion on the attached photos. I just had a white oak floor put in and now after the first 2 coats of Bona stain went down there are several boards that stick out noticeably more reddish in color. I’m not sure what you are referring to when you say to look at the “Rays” and was hoping you might be able to tell from the photos whether you suspect any or all to be red oak? Many thanks in advance!

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Mark Burger

Thanks for the reply – appreciate your input!

Hugh Gillespie

I am trying to determine if the paneling in this picture is white or red oak. Wil be used on an outside porch and be exposed to the elements.
Thanks

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Rakhi

Here’s a closer look of the cabinet door.

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Rakhi

Hi Eric,

I am looking to pinpoint the wood in the picture. I think it’s oak but the long rays, pale color, minimal graining and darker rays have me thinking otherwise. How would one achieve this color if it is stained? Can this look be achieved with a laminate? Thank you so much for your help!!

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Rakhi

The ray is the gray/mauve upside down swoop is it not? What would you guess the type of wood it be if you had to guess?

Rakhi

No worries, thank you for your help.

Tina

I am would like to strip and restain these cabinets and attempt to get away from the yellow tones. Are you able to distinguish what species of Oak these are from?

Thank you!

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Mark

Hi Eric – I wood (pun intended) greatly appreciate your opinion on the attached photos. I just had a white oak floor put in and now after the first 2 coats of Bona stain went down there are several boards that stick out noticeably more reddish in color. I’m not sure what you are referring to when you say to look at the “Rays” and was hoping you might be able to tell from the photos whether you suspect any or all to be red oak? Many thanks in advance! Mark Post post edit: I tried to attach pics but… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Mark
Stephanie Williams

I purchased this kitchen table a few years ago. As you can see from the picture, it got a scratch in it. The finish is also disintegrating in spots. The chairs are in great shape so I only want to redo the top. I think after reading your article it is red oak. I am sure it is stained so I know matching the color will be a project in itself. My question are: Will being red or white oak make a difference in the stain color? Like would Colonial Maple look the same on either red or white? Do… Read more »

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Stephanie Williams

Thank you.

Jamie

Would this be red or white, I did read the article but still am unsure. Thank you!!

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Will

Id say white oak because of how long the rays are. Then again I’m here. so I’m also just learning. This is fun, like school when you’d have to do a quiz to be sure you were paying attention to your notes

Jenna

Is this better?

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Jenna

Thank you.

Jenna

Can anyone tell if this is red or white oak?

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Jenna

No worries! Thank you Eric. I will try to get a better one.

Jason

Hi do you know if this is red or white?

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Emmanuel

photos

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Emmanuel

Thanks Eric! I am having them look into the staining.

Emmanuel

Hi Eric, builder says this are oak stairs. Handy man carpenter not sure if oak. What do you think?

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Taylor

Hey Eric,

Hardwood floor guy said this looks is white oak and said we wouldn’t know for sure until we do a chemical test… but looks an awful lot like red oak.

What’s you’re take?

Best,

Taylor

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Farris

Hi Eric, I just grabbed these logs from a recently felled tree in my neighborhood, it’s winter so I didn’t have leaves or acorns to go off of. Any recommendations on finding the type before I rough saw and dry them is very appreciated.

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Farris

Not a problem! Fantastic article, and very helpful for the future. I’ll update with a higher quality picture and results following milling and a chemical test. Thanks again.

Jack

Hi Eric, What are your thoughts on this bit of timber? in its previous life it was used as part of a timber bog matt for heavy machinery. dimensions are 300x300mm and 6m long. I think it may be a species of oak but unsure what type of oak it may be? or is it another species of tropical wood

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Tom

Hi Eric, attempting to match flooring from 1979. Are you able to identify the wood?

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Tom

Thank you, much appreciated.

Eric R

Hi I was hoping to confirm the attached is red oak- then again I may be very wrong :) Eric R

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Renee

Hello Eric, I am actively stripping paint from my cabinets (I love wood cabinetry). Once they are all cleaned up, I plan to stain them. Can you tell me what type of wood I have. I think it’s oak but I’m not sure

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Renee

Thank you!

Erin

Hi Eric, I am having a hard time telling if my oak is white, red, or a combination of both? Are you able to tell the type of oak in my picture? Thanks in advance for any help you are able to provide!

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Erin

Thanks so much!

Bill St. Croix

Hi Eric…I have stair treads I’m needing to match. I’m thinking this is white oak, but not sure. Was hoping you might be able to tell? The tread is what I’d describe as ‘butcher block’ looking with each of the ‘blocks’ about 2 inches wide. Just trying to get a close match as we will be likely doing a carpet runner with about 4″-6″ exposed on each side and stained. Thoughts? And thank you, in advance!

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Bill St. Croix

Thank you, sir!

stephanie colclough

Hello, maybe you can help me Erik. Would you say this is Tiger Oak?

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Stephanie Colclough

Thank you!

Paula Caicedo

Dear Erik.
I need your opinon, does the picture looks like oak to you? we bought white and red oak for our flooring (like in the short samples), but when it arrive, the color and the patterns of the wood looks so different that we are not sure if they sail us what we payed.

Thank you so much

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Alison

Hi, this is our sanded oak floor from 1951. Was patched and added onto with red oak and it looks so different I’m wondering if it was a mistake. In the last photo you can see the floor change from lighter (new floor) to darker, and the grain seems much busier than the original floor. Any insight? Thanks in advance!

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Rhodri

Help! Dear Eric Hoping you can help – I’ve just had delivery of what is meant to be a solid oak door with 3 coats of clear sadolin from a local joinery company. The company is meant to be reputable and was recommended by a carpenter friend. Pics are attached showing the door. It’s very solid, but doesnt quite look like the door I was expecting from them. Maybe it’s the coating which is throwing me, but I’m wondering if it’s actually oak – is it? I’m paying a substantial amount of money for it, so want to be sure!… Read more »

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Rhodri

Hi Eric, thanks again that’s very helpful. Yes it must be the staining / coating of the wood. What i was expecting it to look like was the first pic attached here (door with no. 32 by it). I’ve also attached the pic of my door here again so they’re side by side. In terms of getting mine to look like the former, I’m guessing it would be a case of applying a different coating / stain – any particular kind I should use to achieve that? Many thanks

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Gordon

Existing floor refinished and some pieces replaced with new material. The old and the new, red oak or white oak? Thank you!

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Gordon

Thank you Eric, I don’t know if they are the same. That really is my question. Is the repair made with the same as the original. See attached close up. Thanks again!

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Lisa

I’m trying to identify the kind of wood this dining room set is made out of I was wondering if you had any insights

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Claudia

I bought white oak doors but how can I know? Does this wood look like white oak? I was expecting the pattern and knots to be less in white oak?

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Claudia

Yes, it is white oak I figured it out. It is finished with Rubio Monocoat Cotton White. But I think the product was left for too long.

Jill Lynch

I’m trying to identify my existing hardwood floors. The flooring sample in the first picture is white oak( not matching color ) . The second picture is the existing floor. Do you think my floor is red or white oak? Thanks

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Jill Lynch

thanks. I’m reading this as : Red or white oak will look similar with a dark stain.

Allen Michael Lewis

Will the coloring effect of the sodium nitrite remain if the wood is sealed after applying it? Or does it go away no matter what?

Allen Michael Lewis

Thanks!

Adeeb Gharzouzi

Hello can you please help me identify the type of oak this is? I am need to replace some flooring in the house and not sure what the previous owner used.

Thank you

Pat Mullery

Upper sample looks like white oak, lower sample looks like red oak.

mino

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?

Help Needed

Under a loupe one seems to have empty holes, shorter rays and a pinky hue….