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White Oak vs Red Oak Tree: What’s the Difference?

white oak vs red oak tree
white oak vs red oak tree
Credit: (L) Msact, Commons Wikimedia | (R) Djlayton4, Commons Wikimedia

Oak is a popular wood used for many different things from furniture making to building barrels for wine and bourbon. The Oak tree grows across the United States and Canada, but there’s more than just one type of oak tree. In the United States alone, there are more than 60 native species of oak trees, and this is a plant that grows around the world.

Luckily, things can be made simpler by classifying these oak tree species within two families; red oaks and white oaks. But what’s the difference between these two oak families? In this article, we’re going to explore the main differences between red and white oaks so you can easily tell them apart and even know the differences in how they’re used.divider 4

Overview of White Oak Tree:

White_Oak_Tree,_West_Hartford,_CT_Commons Wikimedia
Credit: Msact, Commons Wikimedia

White oak trees are massive, hardy trees that can live for centuries. Their acorns provide food for a wide range of wildlife, while their branches provide shelter and refuge. Good acorn crops only come around once in a while, and takes 20 years or more for a white oak to start producing acorns at all.

These giants often reach heights of 80 feet and are generally no shorter than 50 feet. Fully mature, they’re just as wide as they are tall, with branches reaching out to form an upward reaching umbrella that’s 50-80 feet in diameter. Each white oak grows at different speeds. Many grow less than a foot in height each year, though some can grow nearly two feet per year.

Common White Oaks

There are many different types of white oak since white oak is actually a family.

Some of the most common white oaks include:
  • English Oak
  • Chestnut Oak
  • Bur Oak
  • White Oak
  • Post Oak
  • Chinkapin Oak

Appearance

White oak trees have ashy-colored oak that’s lighter than that of a red oak. It’s also very rough. There are deep ridges throughout with triangular cross-sections. You can also tell a white oak by the leaves, which have round edges and no sharp angles. Despite having very rough bark, the grain of white oak is very smooth with closed grains.

What’s Special About White Oak?

Beyond their massive size, white oak trees are special for their wood. Oak looks beautiful as finished furniture or other items, but white oak wood has a particular property that makes it different from other woods, even red oak. White oaks have tiny structures in their tissues called tyloses that help the tree survive infection or drought by cutting particular regions of the tree off from the rest. This makes the wood more resistant to water when harvested, which is why white oak is the best wood for making barrels for bourbon and wine.

Pros
  • Can survive for centuries
  • Turns beautiful colors in autumn
  • More resistant to rot and drought
  • The wood is highly water-resistant
Cons
  • Grows at a slow to moderate rate
  • Difficult to transplant

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Overview of Red Oak Tree:

Red_Oak_Tree_in_Darien,_CT_Commons Wikimedia
Credit: Msact, Commons Wikimedia

Red oaks are large and commanding, though not nearly as impressive in stature as white oaks. These trees tend not to spread out as far with their branches spreading out about 45 feet on average. They can reach heights of about 75 feet, though many are as short as 60 feet.

They’re hardy trees, able to survive pollution and grow in compacted soil. For the first ten years of life, a red oak will grow more than two feet in height each year. They look beautiful in fall when the leaves turn red and produce acorns that feed just as many woodlands critters as white oaks.

Common Red Oaks

Many trees are part of the red oak family. While they all share many similar characteristics, each is its own distinct species.

Some of the most commonly known red oaks are:
  • Sawtooth Oak
  • Scarlet Oak
  • Black Oak
  • Pin Oak
  • Shingle Oak
  • Water Oak
  • Willow Oak

Appearance

Red oak trees tend to have smooth bark that’s a dark color. There won’t be deep ridges like you’ll find on white oaks. Instead. There are thinner veins running down the sides of the tree. When looking at the grain of bare oak wood, you’ll see many wide pores, unlike with white oak. You’ll also notice that red oak has a distinctly red tint to it.

The leaves of a red oak tree are another dead giveaway. They’re covered in sharp points as opposed to white oaks with smooth, rounded corners.

What’s Special About Red Oak?

Red oak is a very popular wood for making furniture and other wooden showpieces because of its red tint. It’s a very attractive wood when finished. Plus, since it’s a hardwood, it’s durable and long-lasting, making the kind of furniture that can be passed down through generations.

Pros
  • Grows more than two feet per year
  • Beautiful colors in the fall
  • Grows even with pollution and compacted soil
  • Easy to transplant
Cons
  • Not as water-resistant as white oak

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Differences Between Red and White Oaks

Red and white oaks are all part of the same genus, but they represent different families. Many trees make up both the white and red oak families, but there are many commonalities between the trees of a given family that allow us to tell them apart.

Leaves

The leaves offer one of the easiest ways to tell apart red and white oaks since they’re shaped completely differently. White oak leaves have large, soft, rounded corners with no jagged edges or sharp points. Red oaks are the exact opposite, with no rounded corners and sharp points sticking out everywhere.

Bark

If you know what to look for, the bark of white and red oak trees offers another dead giveaway as to what type of oak you’re dealing with. White oaks have very rough, jagged bark; the opposite of their leaves. Red oaks tend to have much smoother bark that lacks the deep ridges found on white oak bark.

The Wood

Red oak is easiest to identify by its red tint. Furthermore, red oak has wide-open pores that you can visibly see since they’re large and numerous. White oak pores close up though, so you can’t see very many of them. What you can see of white oak pores is very small compared to the large pores in red oak.

Size

When fully mature, white oaks can be massive, reaching heights of 80 feet. Moreover, they’re extremely wide, with branches spreading out approximately the same distance as the overall height of the tree. Red oaks are pretty sizable and can be nearly as tall as white oaks, but they don’t cover the same amount of space. Generally, red oaks spread out to a diameter of around 45 feet, which is only a little more than half the spread of some large white oaks.

Growth

Though white oaks can be much larger than red oaks, red oaks are faster growers. On average, red oaks grow a bit more than two feet each year for the first 10 years of their lives. White oaks often grow at rates of less than a foot each year, though some can grow much faster.

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Conclusion

White oaks and red oaks are two families of oak trees that have many similarities. However, it’s the differences that make each special. White oaks tend to be much larger than reds though they grow slower. They have very rough bark and their wood has closed pores and is resistant to water. The wood of red oaks has a red tint and numerous open pores. Red oaks have smoother bark than whites. The leaves on a red oak are jagged and pointed while white oak leaves are smooth with rounded corners.


Featured image credit: (L) Msact, Commons Wikimedia | (R) Djlayton4, Commons Wikimedia

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