Red oak is the most plentiful species of oak in the United States, and it is especially plentiful in the eastern half of the country. But its range extends far beyond U.S. borders and can be found as far away as Iran, where it is called Persian oak. The principal species of red oak are Quercus rubra and Quercus falcata, but Quercus velutina, known as black oak, and Quercus shumardii, known as Shumard oak, are among the related species.
Trees of North America and Europe describes red oak as the “best growing oak introduced from North America to Europe; young trees may grow at the rate of 8 inches per year.” In the United States, red oaks in the grow even faster. According to Know Your Woods, by Albert Constantine Jr., young red oaks can add 2 inches in diameter and 12 inches in height per year.
North and South
The Encyclopedia of Wood, draws a distinction between red oak grown in the northern and southern United States. “Northern red oak grows comparatively slowly and compares favorably with northern white oak, while red oak from the Southern states grows faster and produces a harder, heavier wood.”
Werner Lorenz, owner and president of Indiana Veneers Corp. in Indianapolis, IN, says that northern red oak’s slow growth makes it superior to southern red oak. “It is the slower growth dictated by climate that gives wider growth rings as well as a finer-grained wood,” Lorenz says.
Red and White
Lorenz says that white oak, which is often touted as “better in overall properties” than red oak, is more popular in international markets, but that red oak is still preferred in the U.S. market. Americans’ preference for red oak could be due in part to price, he explains, since “white oaks tend to run 10 to 20 percent higher in price than red oaks.”
In the United States, red oak is probably third most popular of all species behind cherry and maple, according to Lorenz. “Supplies of red oak are abundant. It remains very popular for kitchen cabinetry and furniture, especially for Mission and Arts and Craft style furniture,” Lorenz says.
Properties and Uses
Red oaks yield wood that is heavy, hard and stiff with a high shock resistance. All red oaks are said to have fairly large shrinkage in drying. The wood from red oak is very porous. While white oak is frequently used for cooperage because of the tight pores, red oak is not considered suitable for tight cooperage. Frequent uses of red oak include architectural interiors, wall paneling, furniture, flooring, millwork, boxes, crates, caskets, coffins, timbers, handles, pallets, agricultural tools, boats and woodenware. Red oak is an excellent source of firewood. The bark from the trees is rich in tannin, which is used to tan leather.
“[Red oak] was introduced into France and England during the early part of the 18th Century and today there are many fine buildings of this oak in France, Belgium and Germany,” according to Know Your Woods.
In “Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material,” from the USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory, red oak’s heartwood is described as brown with a tinge of red. Its sapwood is nearly white and usually 1 to 2 inches thick. “Sawed lumber of red oak cannot be separated by species on the basis of the characteristics of the wood alone. Red oak lumber can be separated from white oak by the number of pores in summerwood and because, as a rule, it lacks the membranous growth known as tyloses in the pores.”
Tropical Red Oak Species
In addition to being plentiful in the United States and Canada, red oaks are commonly found in Mexico and Central America. Mexico has more than 100 species and Guatemala about 25, according to the USDA’s handbook. The numbers diminish southward to Colombia, which has two species. The wood from the various tropical oak species is in most cases heavier than the species in the United States, but it is rarely used for cabinets or furniture due to difficulties encountered in drying of wood. The most common use for the tropical species of red oak is charcoal.
Quercus rubra of the Family Fagaceae
Red oak, American red oak, Canadian red oak, gray oak, northern red oak, southern red oak, Spanish oak, swamp oak red oak, cherrybark oak, Shumard red oak, southern red oak, pin oak
Weight averages about 48 pounds per cubic foot. Average height ranges from 60 to 80 feet. The tallest tree on record is 145 feet.
The wood dries slowly. Care is recommended in drying or degrade is possible. The wood has medium movement in service. Red oak is a dense, hard wood with a very good steam-bending classification. It has medium bending strength and stiffness, with high shock resistance and crushing strength. It can have moderate blunting effect on cutting surfaces. Experts recommend keeping cutting surfaces sharpened. Preboring is recommended. The wood finishes well, but because of its open pores, wood should be filled prior to finishing or painting. Red oak is not considered durable. Preservative treatment is highly recommended if wood is used for exterior applications.