White Oak’s beautiful cousin

In this blog I have talked about the challenges that the Bourbon industry has presented to quartersawn white oak log procurement pipeline.  In my presentations to architects around the country I have made the suggestion that in order to avoid the problems inherent with a tight white oak supply, the design community needs to look at red oak as an alternative.

We are currently supplying quartersawn red oak to a very large residential project in Manhattan, a market that has been locked into quartersawn white oak flooring for decades.  The designer of that project has seen no delays in supply and the floors are beautiful.  I will be writing a case study of this red oak project, as it gets further along.  There are other massive projects in New York that are drawing from all of the quartersawn white oak suppliers in the country and are still struggling to stay on schedule.

As an interesting experiment, one of the owners of Frank Miller Lumber took 5 samples of white oak and red oak flooring and used 5 different stains on each.  The challenge to one of our largest manufacturing customers was to tell the difference between the white and red oak pieces.  It proved difficult not only for the customer, but for several of us in the office.  Sometimes the similarities are so striking that the only way you can tell the difference is by looking at the end grain.  With white oak the end grain is closed (making it perfect for wine and bourbon barrels) and with red oak you can see tiny pinholes in the end grain.

As flooring material red oak and white oak score the same on the Janka Scale, which is a test to see how much pressure it takes to push an 11.28 mm steel ball into the surface of the wood to half of its diameter.  Red Oak will take the same amount of foot traffic abuse that white oak can take.  One need only look at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City to see a gorgeous quartersawn red oak application.  It has been open for three years and with a bit of care the floors look as beautiful as they did when the building opened.

One subtle difference between red and white oak is the size of the medullary rays.  Red oak rays are slightly smaller and shorter.  If the aesthetic for a floor leans more towards rift, red oak can offer that look a bit more easily than white oak.

Red oak represents about 35% of the American hardwood forest inventory, while white oak represents about 15%.  Supplies of red oak will not be affected by the demand for bourbon and wine barrels, since it is porous and isn’t used in barrels.  It will always be in plentiful supply and at more reasonable pricing than white oak.  In my 18 years with Frank Miller Lumber this is the first time I have seen white oak prices rising almost weekly while red oak pricing has remained steady and affordable.

If supply, equivalent beauty and durability and reasonable pricing are important to you for your next project, you might want to let us introduce you to white oak’s beautiful cousin, red oak.