Both white and red oak species are commercially harvested and can be used for the same projects, but with a different appearance in the finished product. There are differences in workability, density and availability. Red oak is more common and grows more rapidly than white oak, resulting in lower production cost than white oak.
Both species of oak rank among the hardest of the hardwoods. If maple is at the top of the hardness scale, white oak ranks one point under it, with red oak ranking one point below white oak. This inherent hardness of white oak also makes it heavier, and when considering the total weight of a large project, it can be considerable. The hardness factor is also considered when milling oak. Most woodworking machines can handle red oak if equipped with normal saw blades and bits, but when milling white oak, it's advisable to use only carbide-tipped blades and bits.
Similar grain patterns on both species can make red and white oak hard to differentiate. But looking closely, you will notice that the grain in white oak runs straighter and tighter than red oak, with fewer swirls, circles or deviations. Red oak also has wider grain lines that can run in zigzag patterns, or subtle, wavy lines that are absent from white oak. Color is the most distinguishing difference between the two. Red oak has a pinkish tone that ranges from white to soft amber. White oak has a darker gray, almost yellowish tint that is more stable with fewer color variations. One other thing to note: white oak has a light, perfumed scent when it is cut.
When cutting, milling or carving either species, you many notice differences in how they feel in your hands and how the machines react to them. The inherent hardness of white oak can make a saw blade burn, chatter or skip if it is even slightly dull. White oak is also more brittle than red oak and will splinter or even shatter if the wood is introduced into a blade or bit too fast. Red oak cuts smoother and has a slightly pliable quality to it that prevents it from shattering or breaking as easily as white oak. When working with hand tools such as chisels, red oak is far easier to carve.
Over the years, white oak has been coveted. Almost all quality oak antiques, some worth thousands of dollars or more, are almost invariably built from white oak. Old-growth white oak trees produce some of the finest, most sought-after grain patterns ever produced. This type of grain pattern, also known as quartersawn or "tiger," is still available today, but at an incredible price. Contemporary white oak is still sought after and used more exclusively than red oak for fine furniture, architectural moldings and trim. Red oak lumber is a standard of the industry and is far more common in cabinets and everyday items such as desks, chairs, molding and flooring.