Red Oak

Geographic Distribution:

The wood commonly known as Red Oak is known to botanists as Quercus rubra.

But as is often the case with botany and all things wood, the reality is a bit more complicated.  Although Q. rubra can be thought of as THE Red Oak, the reality is that Red Oak represents a group of species any or all of which are sold as Red Oak.  This Red Oak group includes the following:

  • Black Oak ( velutina)
  • California Black Oak ( kelloggii)
  • Cherrybark Oak ( pagoda)
  • Laurel Oak ( laurifolia)
  • Pin Oak ( palustris)
  • Scarlet Oak ( coccinea)
  • Shumard Oak ( shumardii)
  • Southern Red Oak ( falcata)
  • Water Oak ( nigra)
  • Willow Oak ( phellos)

Q. rubra itself is a native of North America, growing in the eastern and central United States and southeast and south-central Canada. Q. rubra grows from the north end of the Great Lakes, east to Nova Scotia, south as far as Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, and west to Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota.

Quercus rubra Distribution Map

Quercus rubra Distribution Map

Other members of the Red Oak Group have different geographical distribution patterns.

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to Q. rubra from this point forward simply as Red Oak.  Furthermore, all information is specific to Red Oak, not the Red Oak group.

General Characteristics:

The heartwood of Red Oak tends to be a light to medium brown, commonly with a reddish cast. However, it is important to note that color alone is not a reliable way to distinguish between Red and White Oak, in those limited situations in which differentiation is of importance.  The sapwood of Red Oak is of a white to light brown color and it is not always sharply demarcated from the heartwood. When Red Oak is quartersawn it displays a prominent ray fleck pattern.

The grain of Red Oak tends to be straight. The texture of Red Oak is coarse with an uneven texture. The pores of Red Oak are so large and open that it is said that a person can blow into one end of the wood, and air will come out the other end, provided that the grain runs straight enough. There are videos which demonstrate this property.

Red Oak 2 Interior Slanted

Red Oak 2 Interior Slanted

Red Oak does not have the same level of decay and rot resistance that White Oak demonstrates.  Red Oak is rated as non-durable to perishable in terms of its susceptibility to rot and it also has poor insect resistance.

Red Oak will stain when in contact with.

Working Characteristics:

Red Oak responds well to both hand and machine powered tools.

Red Oak responds well to steam bending.

Red Oak glues, stains, and finishes nicely.

However, it does have a moderately high rate of shrinkage which gives it poor dimensional stability, particularly in flatsawn boards.  In addition, Red Oak can react with iron, especially in the presence of water, which causes staining and discoloration.

Red Oak Bowl Interior Slanted

Red Oak Bowl Interior Slanted

Red Oak is reported to have a distinct smell when worked.  This scent is reportedly common to all Oak species and most wood workers report the smell to be pleasant and appealing.

Note that there is no mention of Red Oak and turning.  This is because while Red Oak can be turned, its characteristics don’t make it ideal for the purpose compared to other moderately priced and readily available domestic hardwoods such as maple and cherry.

Pricing and Availability:

My Red Oak blanks were cut off scrap from a larger Murphy Bed and library table project.  I have no sense of the price of the lumber, but Red Oak prices should be in the moderate range for a domestic hardwood, and Red Oak tends to be slightly less expensive than White Oak.