How to tell red oak from white oak. Assuming you have just come across a tree or a pile of wood. Can you determine whether the wood is red oak vs white oak?
The terms “Red Oak” and “White Oak” refer to general groups of trees. As shown in the table below, within each group are several different species.
Red Oak Group
- Black Oak
- Pin Oak
- Red Oak
- Sawtooth Oak
- Scarlet Oak
- Shingle Oak
- Shumard Oak
White Oak Group
- Bur Oak
- Chestnut Oak
- Chinquapin Oak
- English Oak
- Swamp White Oak
- White Oak
- Leaf Identification of Red Oak vs White Oak
- Bark Identification of Red Oak vs White Oak
- Grain Identification of White Oak vs Red Oak
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- Distinguishing Red and White Oak
- 2. Look at the rays
- 3. Use sodium nitrite
- 4. Look at the leaves
- Difference Between Red Oak Trees & White Oak Trees
- Leaf Differences
- Acorn Differences
- Bark Differences
- How to Identify Oaks Using Acorns
- Common Oak Trees: Oak Tree Identification Guide For Gardeners
- Oak Tree Varieties
- Most Common Oak Trees
- Chinkapin Oak
- Landscape Plants
- Quercus muehlenbergii
- Symbolism of the Mighty Oak
- The Importance of Oak Trees
- Planting Instructions
- “Water Oak” Versus “Pin Oak”
Leaf Identification of Red Oak vs White Oak
If the tree still has leaves, then this makes identification much easier. While the characteristics vary from one species to the next, red oak has jagged leaves with sharp angles. Whereas, white oak has leaves with rounded edges.
In the fall, when leaves change colors, the leaves on red oaks will often display brilliant colors. However, the leaves on white oaks often simply change to a dull brown when fall comes around.
Bark Identification of Red Oak vs White Oak
When looking at the bark, red oak is typically smoother. The bark does not have deep furrows and tall ridges. Rather flatter veins running down the tree – which have a hint of red in them. On the other hand, white oak bark has deep furrows and ridges that are triangular in cross-section.
Grain Identification of White Oak vs Red Oak
When examined closer, the pores of red oak and white oak are very different. Red oak is an open-grained wood with very large pores. The pores are so large, some people say you can blow into one end of the wood and air will come out on the opposite end. On the other hand, white oak is a close-grain wood that is almost impervious to water. This may explain why white oak is less likely to shrink than red oak.
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Distinguishing Red and White Oak
The pores found in the growth rings on red oak are very open and porous, and should be easily identifiable. White oak, however, has its pores plugged with tyloses, which help make white oak suitable for water-tight vessels, and give it increased resistance to rot and decay. The presence of tyloses is perhaps the best and most reliable way to distinguish the two oaks, but it comes with a few caveats:
1.) Make sure that you’ve cleaned up the endgrain enough to see the pores clearly, and blown out any dust from the pores. You don’t want a “false-positive” and mistake sawdust clogged in the pores for tyloses.
2.) Make sure that you’ve viewing a heartwood section of the board in question. While white oak has abundant tyloses in the heartwood, it is frequently lacking in the sapwood section.
One related test regarding porosity is to take a short section of oak and try to blow air through the pores. If you are able to blow anything through it at all, it’s probably red oak. Take a look at this video, where a red oak dowel was used to blow bubbles in a glass of water:
One exception to this rule is chestnut oak, which is still considered to be in the white oak group, even though its pores are open like red oaks.
2. Look at the rays
When looking at the face of the board, especially in the flat-sawn areas, you may notice little dark brown streaks running with the grain, sometimes referred to as rays.
Look closely at the picture above, (click on it to enlarge it if you have to), and note the length of the rays in both types of wood. Red oak will almost always have very short rays, usually between 1/8″ to 1/2″ long, rarely ever more than 3/4″ to 1″ in length. (Pictured above on the right.)
White oak, on the other hand, will have much longer rays, frequently exceeding 3/4″ on most boards. (Pictured above on the left.)
This method is probably the most reliable under normal circumstances, and is useful in situations where the wood is in a finished product where the endgrain is not exposed.
3. Use sodium nitrite
This technique is sometimes used at sawmills if various logs need to be sorted out quickly. Instead of taking the time to analyze each log closely by hand, a 10% solution of sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is sprayed or brushed onto the wood and observed. If it’s red oak, there will only be a small color change, making the wood only slightly darker. But if it’s white oak, there will be a noticeable color change in as little as five minutes, (though it can take longer if the wood is dry, or if the temperature is low). The heartwood of white oak will eventually change to a dark indigo to almost black.
This method is extremely accurate and reliable, though in most instances, it’s probably overkill. However, if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t separate between red and white oak based on anatomy, this method is nearly foolproof. (Though, only the heartwood will bring about the color change, not the sapwood.)
First, you have to obtain some sodium nitrite (NaNO2). You may be able to find some locally through chemical supply stores, but they typically only sell in bulk quantities, making such a small project prohibitively expensive. However, some online retailers have the chemical for sale in much smaller quantities, bringing it into reach of most that are curious about oak identification.
Next, you need to mix up a roughly 10% solution of sodium nitrite by weight. This ratio actually isn’t as critical as it seems: solutions as small as 1% and as high as 20% have all been used with success, but to err on the side of caution, we’ll use the most appropriate quantity recommended.
Recipe for 10% Sodium Nitrite Solution for Testing Oaks:
- 1 cup water
- 4 teaspoons sodium nitrite
Directions: Stir in sodium nitrite until clear. Clearly label solution to avoid confusion; sodium nitrite is very dangerous if ingested.
All that’s left is to simply brush this solution onto a raw wood surface and wait for a reaction. With dried wood stored at room temperature, this reaction should take about 10 minutes. Red oak will be only slightly discolored by the solution, sometimes developing a slightly greenish hue, while white oak will gradually turn a dark reddish brown, eventually turning a deep indigo to nearly black.
See the progression photos below for a better look. (Also note that around the 8 and 15 minute marks the water begins to evaporate from the surface of the wood, but the color is still present after the wood has dried, as indicative of the 25 minute photos.)
4. Look at the leaves
This option is obviously only available if you have access to the leaves of the living tree. If the tree has just recently been felled, or if it is still standing, and you are contemplating the option to have the trunk milled into lumber, here’s a quick and reliable way to tell the two trees apart:
Difference Between Red Oak Trees & White Oak Trees
small oak image by alri from Fotolia.com
The Beech family (Fagaceae) is a large group of trees that includes the beeches, chestnuts, chinkapins and the oaks. The oaks (Quercus) include as many as 60 species in North America. Within the Quercus genus are two divisions of oaks—the white oaks and the red oaks. These trees have differences in their leaves, acorns and bark that the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees” says you can employ to tell them apart.
The leaves of an oak tree are important indicators of the oak group to which a species belongs. The leaves of the white oaks typically feature lobes with rounded ends, like on a bur oak, or foliage with edges with rounded serrations all along their margins, which is the case with the various chestnut oaks. The red oak group includes leaves with an array of appearances. Some of these trees will have leaves that possess a more pointed lobe, with the lobes tipped with bristles. Other red oaks will have spiny teeth on their margins, some will have smooth edges and others may own edges that are smooth but with one bristle at the apex of the leaf.
The acorns of the white oak group mature more quickly than the fruits on the red oaks do, taking just one growing season to develop fully. The acorns of the red oaks usually need two growing seasons to mature. This means that as the older acorns mature and new ones develop, there will be acorns of different sizes on the tree at one time. The white oak acorns will have a shell that lacks any hair on the interior portions and the meat of the white oak acorn does not have a bitter taste. Red oak trees do have tiny hairs growing on the insides of their shells and the meat from these acorns has a bitter taste.
The color and texture of the bark on oak trees can help you to discern the red oaks from the white oaks. You will notice that white oak is usually some sort of grayish shade, whether light or dark, and that the bark will appear to have a scaly appearance and feel to it. The red oaks have a much darker bark, with some so dark that they may even look almost black. The red oaks bark will normally have deep furrows running through it, with ridges crisscrossing the trunk.
The red and white oaks grow across the United States and Canada. In the white oak group, the white, bur, overcup, post, Chapman, chestnut, swamp chestnut, swamp white and chinkapin oaks are all in the eastern half of the continent. The Gambel, Oregon white and California white oaks grow in the Far West. The red oaks have several eastern species like the myrtle oak, bear oak and turkey oak, but have a larger presence in the western states, with types existing there such as the blue oak, California black oak, canyon live oak, interior live oak, silverleaf oak, Engelmann oak and emory oak.
The live oaks are part of the red oak group and get their names from the facts that while other oak trees shed their leaves, these types retain them through the winter. The live oaks are evergreen, with old leaves falling off and replacements quickly growing in. The oaks such as the willow oaks and the laurel oaks will feature elongated and narrowed leaves; these species are part of the red oak group. The chestnut oaks, which all occur in the eastern United States, have leaves with marginal teeth that all look like the leaves of the chestnut tree, with the same oblong shape.
How to Identify Oaks Using Acorns
The humble acorn is more than just a tasty snack for many mammals, birds and insects. It’s also a valuable tool used by botanists to identify oak trees.
We have been blessed — or cursed — with an abundance of acorns this year. Production of acorns increases and diminishes according to a periodic schedule together with annual weather conditions. And this year all are in alignment, just like the recent supermoon.
Known as an acorn, the seed from an oak is a blessing to a host of mammals, birds, insects and even fungi. Certain mammals seem to have a problem with the tannic acids from the acorns staining their driveway or patio.
But from the botanist’s perspective, the seed and its cap hold an inner meaning. Because of the oak’s, shall we say, rather promiscuous pollen behavior, the traditional method of tree identification from leaves, twigs and bark is not always accurate. Botanists have instead relied on the shape, size and color of the acorn and its cup.
Here’s how to identify several of our local oaks:
For those of you who still retain some high school Latin, the “big seed” oak is no surprise. Although the seed is large, varying from 1 to 2 inches long and almost as wide, it is the cup which distinguishes this oak. The common name of bur oak is derived from the thick fringe surrounding the outer edge of the cup, reminiscent of the prickles or hooks on herbaceous plants or the ragged edges on wood or steel from cutting tools. The cup frequently encloses 80-90 percent of the acorn.
The cups make the basis of some great craft ideas. Some paint them with glittery gold or silver. Others will use them as the basis for miniature bird nest ornaments and insert them into the Christmas tree or holiday centerpiece displays.
Our most ubiquitous oaks, live oaks produce a prodigious amount of seed every 5-7 years. A unique feature of our local live oak acorn is its football shape with light brown stripes against a dark reddish brown field. No other acorn has this distinctive shape and coloring. The cup is somewhat more pedestrian with a squatty shape that covers only about a ¼ of the acorn, which ranges in length of ¾ to 1 inch.
Texas red oak
The Texas red oak, known for its lovely fall color, inhabits mostly on the north and east slopes of hills or in any sheltered canyon. Its acorn also has a striped appearance that is enhanced by a fuzz on the outside of the acorn. The acorn itself is a rotund fellow about 1 inch long and almost as wide. Red oaks are easy to find in the fall. They need several months to mellow before wildlife find them attractive.
A member of the white oak subfamily, chinkapin (also spelled chinquapin) acorns are difficult to find in the wild or the landscape. The reason: chinkapin acorns are extremely tasty and squirrels, raccoons, opossums, deer, turkeys, jay and every other known critter are simply waiting for them to ripen.
The acorn is long, though not as football-shaped as the live oak, about 1 inch to 1 ¼ inches in length. The cup covers at least 1/3 to ½ of the acorn and is a medium brown color.
Oaks are one of the major constituents of the great oak-juniper forest ecosystem that stretches haphazardly from east of College Station to just east of Los Angeles. It’s helpful to know a bit about the individual species that make up this great forest, especially since the oaks tend to hybridize quite readily.
Common Oak Trees: Oak Tree Identification Guide For Gardeners
Image by ollirg
Oaks (Quercus) come in many sizes and shapes, and you’ll even find a few evergreens in the mix. Whether you are looking for the perfect tree for your landscape or want to learn to identify the different types of oak trees, this article can help.
Oak Tree Varieties
There are dozens of oak tree varieties in North America. The varieties are divided into two main categories: red oaks and white oaks.
Red oak trees
Reds have leaves with pointed lobes tipped with tiny bristles. Their acorns take two years to mature, and sprout the spring after they drop to the ground. Common red oaks include:
White oak trees
The leaves on white oak trees are rounded and smooth. Their acorns mature in one year, and they sprout soon after they fall to the ground. This group includes:
Most Common Oak Trees
Below is a list of oak tree types that are the most commonly planted. You’ll find that most oaks are massive in size and not suitable for urban or suburban landscapes.
- White Oak Tree (Q. alba) – Not to be confused with the group of oaks called white oaks, the white oak tree grows very slowly. After 10 to 12 years, the tree will stand only 10 to 15 feet tall, but it will eventually reach a height of 50 to 100 feet. You shouldn’t plant it near sidewalks or patios because the trunk flairs at the base. It doesn’t like to be disturbed, so plant it in a permanent location as a very young sapling and prune it in the winter while it is dormant.
- Bur Oak (Q. macrocarpa) – Another massive shade tree, the bur oak grows 70 to 80 feet tall. It has an unusual branch structure and deeply furrowed bark that combine to keep the tree interesting in winter. It grows further north and west than other white oak types.
- Willow Oak (Q. phellos) – The willow oak has thin, straight leaves similar to those of a willow tree. It grows 60 to 75 feet tall. The acorns aren’t as messy as those of most other oaks. It adapts well to urban conditions, so you can use it a street tree or in a buffer area along highways. It transplants well while it is dormant.
- Japanese Evergreen Oak (Q. acuta) – The smallest of the oak trees, the Japanese evergreen grows 20 to 30 feet tall and up to 20 feet wide. It prefers the warm coastal areas of the Southeast, but it will grow inland in protected areas. It has a shrubby growth habit and works well as a lawn tree or screen. The tree provides good quality shade despite its small size.
- Pin Oak (Q. palustris) – The pin oak grows 60 to 75 feet tall with a spread of 25 to 40 feet. It has a straight trunk and a well-shaped canopy, with the upper branches growing upward and lower branches drooping down. The branches in the center of the tree are nearly horizontal. It makes a wonderful shade tree, but you may have to remove some of the lower branches to allow clearance.
Chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) is a native oak which is often not recognized as an oak when first encountered. It does not have lobed leaves like most other oaks; its leaves are toothed like a chestnut. Like all oaks, it does have a cluster of buds at the end of branches.
Habitat: Grows on rocky slopes and exposed bluffs. Commonly fount in the east and southwest Iowa.
Chinkapin Oak Tree – Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University
Hardiness: Varies with the species of oak tree ranging from zone 3 to zone 9
Growth Rate: Slow to Moderate
Mature Shape: Broad, rounded
Height: Varies with species. Often maturing between 50 to 75 feet tall. Capable of growing upwards of 100 feet.
Width: 40 to 70 feet. Varies with species
Site Requirements: Best growth in moist, well-drained soils. Adaptable to adverse soil conditions.
Leaves: Alternate, simple, lobed; lobes with rounded tips
Flowering Dates: May – June
Seed Dispersal Dates: September – October
Seed Bearing Age: 15 years
Seed Bearing Frequency: Yearly
Seed Stratification: No stratification period is needed.
Chinkapin Oak Leaves – Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University
Chinkapin oak is a medium sized tree (1 to 2 feet in diameter and 40 to 70 feet tall). It is native over all of Iowa except for the northwest one-quarter of the state. Although native, chinkapin oak is sporadic within its range and seldom is a dominant species in a woodland. Its common associates include white oak, bur oak, black oak, ironwood, redcedar, and the hickories. Chinkapin oak prefers well drained soils along bottomlands or on limestone ridges bordering streams where it grows best. It is commonly found on dry bluffs, ridge tops, and rocky, south facing slopes.
Its leaves are simple, alternate, 3 to 6 inches in length and 11/2 to 3 inches wide, with 8 to 13 pairs of veins and an equal number of large, sharply pointed teeth. The leaves are thick, firm, light yellow green above and lighter green to silvery white below. The acorns are 1/2 to 3/4 inch long, without a stalk; the caps are bowl shaped covering 1/3 to 1/2 of the acorn. Twigs are greenish tinged with red or purplish red, turning orange brown to gray brown later in the year. The bark is quite thin, breaking into plate-like scales similar to white oak.
Chinkapin oak is normally a tree, but on very dry and/or on soils with low fertility, it will become shrubby. Small chinkapin oaks can be confused with dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides); dwarf chinkapin oak has smaller leaves with 3 to 7 pairs of veins and teeth and shorter petioles. The issue is even more confusing where the two species are growing together because they hybridize easily, resulting is stands of shrubby oaks with some of the characteristics of both species.
The wood of chinkapin oak is hard, heavy, strong, durable and shock resistant. Because the tree is relatively rare, its wood is normally sold as white oak.
Chinkapin is not used extensively as an ornamental tree, although it is quite tolerant tougher sites. It develops as a tree with an open, rounded crown, attaining heights of 40 to 50 feet.
Chinkapin Oak Fruit – Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University
Diseases that Can Affect Chinkapin Oak
- Pin Oak Chlorosis
- Oak Leaf Blister
- Oak Tatters
- Oak Wilt
Insects that Can Affect Chinkapin Oak
- Oak Sawfly
- Giant Bark Aphid
- Lace Bugs
- Acorn Weevil
- Walking Stick
- Yellownecked Caterpillar
Chinkapin Oak Male Flowers – Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University
Chinkapin Oak Twig – Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University
- Broadleaf deciduous tree, to 40-50(80) ft tall, spread at maturity is greater than height, low branches, rounded crown. Leaves alternate, simple, size and shape variable, 10-18 cm long and 2.5-10 cm wide, oblong, lanceolate, or obovate, leathery, 8-14 teeth on each side, teeth variable, rounded, sharp or spreading, tip pointed, base rounded or acute, upper surface dark, glossy yellow green, lower surface white with soft hairs. Monoecious (male and female flowers), male catkins 7-10 cm long; female flowers in short spikes. Fruit (acorn) on a short stalk (5 mm) or essentially no stalk (sessile), cup covers 1/4 to 1/2 of the nut, which is 1.5-2 cm long and 1-1.7 cm wide.
- Sun. Grows best in rich, alkaline soils.
- Hardy to USDA Zone (4)5 Native range extends from New England east to southern Ontario and Minnesota, and south to Oklahoma and south-central Texas, and northern Mexico and east to Virginia, the Carolinas and northwestern Florida.
- The following is from the Flora of North America (www.eFlora.org).
- The four species of the chestnut oak group in eastern North America (Quercus montana, Q . michauxii, Q . muhlenbergii and Q . prinoides) are somewhat difficult to distinguish unless careful attention is paid to features of leaf vestiture and fruit and cup morphology. Attempts to identify these species mostly or solely on basis of leaf shape and dentition (as in many other oak species complexes) have resulted in a plethora of misidentified material in herbaria and erroneous reports in the literature. The closely appressed, asymmetric trichomes on the abaxial surface of the mature leaf, in combination with longer simple hairs along the midvein, are unique to Q . montana among North American species of Quercus. Immature leaves and densely shaded leaves sometimes exhibit a more erect trichome that could be confused with the longer, felty hairs of Q . michauxii, so it is important to evaluate mature sun leaves when possible.
- muehlenbergii: after Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muehlenberg (1753-1815), Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania and a distinguished amateur botanist.
- Whole Plant Traits: Plant Type: Native Plant Poisonous Tree Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Habit/Form: Open Rounded Growth Rate: Medium Maintenance: Medium Texture: Medium
- Fruit: Fruit Color: Brown/Copper Display/Harvest Time: Fall Fruit Type: Nut Fruit Length: < 1 inch Fruit Width: < 1 inch Fruit Description: 1/2-1 inch long oval light brown acorns are produced annually with 1-2 acorns per stem. They have a thin grey pubescent cup that covers 1/4- 1/2 of the nut.
- Flowers: Flower Color: Gold/Yellow Flower Inflorescence: Catkin Insignificant Flower Bloom Time: Spring Flower Description: Pollen flowers in drooping, elongated clusters. Female flowers short-stemmed in axils of the leaves.
- Leaves: Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Leaf Color: Gold/Yellow Green Red/Burgundy Leaf Feel: Glossy Leathery Leaf Value To Gardener: Showy Deciduous Leaf Fall Color: Brown/Copper Gold/Yellow Leaf Type: Simple Leaf Arrangement: Alternate Leaf Shape: Oblanceolate Oblong Obovate Leaf Margin: Dentate Lobed Undulate Hairs Present: Yes Leaf Length: > 6 inches Leaf Width: 3-6 inches Leaf Description: 4- 8 in. shiny green leaves have a smooth upper surface and dull under surface and may have white hairs. Margins are described as either small-lobed or toothed and may or may not be wavy. The tip is pointed (acute) and the base is rounded or acute. Fall color is variable from yellows to browns.
- Bark: Bark Color: Light Gray Surface/Attachment: Fissured Bark Plate Shape: Irregular Bark Description: The bark is thin, light gray, rough and irregularly fissured.
- Stem: Stem Color: Brown/Copper Gray/Silver Orange Stem Is Aromatic: No Stem Bud Terminal: Cluster of terminal buds Stem Cross Section: Round Stem Surface: Smooth (glabrous) Stem Description: Orange-brown twigs change to brown on the current year’s growth with scattered white lenticels.
- Landscape: Landscape Location: Lawn Meadow Naturalized Area Landscape Theme: Drought Tolerant Garden Design Feature: Shade Tree Street Tree Attracts: Butterflies Small Mammals Songbirds Resistance To Challenges: Deer Drought
- Poisonous to Humans: Poison Severity: Low Poison Symptoms: Stomach pain, constipation and later bloody diarrhea, excessive thirst and urination when young leaves or raw acorns are eaten. Poison Toxic Principle: Gallotannins, quercitrin, and quercitin. Causes Contact Dermatitis: No Poison Part: Fruits Leaves
Symbolism of the Mighty Oak
The Oak tree is one of the most loved trees in the world, and with good reason. It’s a symbol of strength, morale, resistance and knowledge. Throughout history, the Oak has been represented in different mythologies and sometimes linked to powerful gods (in Greek mythology it was a symbol of Zeus, the God of Thunder.) The oak is considered a cosmic storehouse of wisdom embodied in its towering strength. It grows slowly, but surely at its own rate. Oak is often associated with honor, nobility, and wisdom as well thanks to its size and longetivity. Oaks are known to easily surpass 300 years of age making it a powerful life-affirming symbol. “The oak is a living legend representing all that is true, wholesome, stable, and noble.”
The Importance of Oak Trees
Symbolism aside, Oak trees are important for a number of reasons. The oak tree belongs to the Quercus genus tree species – there are up to 800 species all over the world, especially in the Northern hemisphere where they are native. It’s a long-lived tree which can live more than 1000 years. The oak is a tree with multiple uses: the boiled bark has therapeutic properties. Its fruit (acorn) is used to feed livestock and in times of shortage has also been used for human consumption. A meadow of oaks is a refuge for many animal species. The shape of the blade is very characteristic, and is found in badges, coins and medals.
Oak trees support a complex ecosystem with many species, including humans. The oak is one of the most loved trees by the humans, and it can be easily found in many artistic creations.
For our Oak species, which are part of the Red Oak family, we recommend a small stratification period to get them ready for planting.
- Place the seeds inside of a plastic bag in the fridge with a small amount of compost, and make sure they are moist. Place them in the fridge for 2-4 weeks. Likewise, instead of planting in the fridge, you can plant them directly outdoors in a cool location, where temperatures are around 40 F.
- Once germination begins, the Oak seeds should be planted between 1-3 inches below the surface of the soil. Avoid overwatering or allowing the soil to dry out.
- Watch for germination when daytime temperatures top 65 F for one to two months.
- Water the seeds with a bit of water weekly during the first summer.
Buy your Bios Urn with Oak seeds here.
Initial growth is rapid and within a few weeks from germination the seedlings will be between 10 and 15cm high. To encourage maximum growth ensure that the trees are never stressed because of a lack of water and that they are well nourished and grown in a warm, sunny position.
Trees should be planted in their permanent position as soon as is practical. If they are large enough, at the end of their first growing season and certainly at the end of the second. These should be planted in a large area, outdoors. Oak trees are not suitable for indoor growth for a long period of time. Allowing them to be grown in too shallow a container for any length of time will cause permanent root issues.
“Water Oak” Versus “Pin Oak”
Locally common names for Oak varieties can cause confusion. Here’s a discussion of some Oak tree varieties and some information on their characteristics. February 9, 2008
Here in the South I’ve always heard it called water oak or pin oak. Can any of you tell me if it’s worth sawing into boards? We have a very large one to cut down today and I was wondering what to do with it.
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor T:
Pin oak and water oak are not the same tree. Water oak makes fine boards, especially if stem diameter is between 2 and 3 feet. Once they get over 3 feet in diameter, they are usually rotten inside.
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Water oak (Quercus nigra) is a fine wood indeed. It is sometimes called possum oak. It is not the same as pin oak.
From the original questioner:
Thanks for the info. How can I tell the difference between the two? Now that I think about it, has the pin oak got long slim leaves?
From contributor N:
I may be incorrect here, but if you are in the deep South, I doubt you will have much pin oak. I don’t think that it dips down into the lower coastal plain. Perhaps do a search on pin oak range map?
From contributor N:
I checked for you and found a range map. They list no pin oak in AL. Only one county in GA and a few in MS (surprised that some are in southern counties). This site also has pictures: http://plants.usda.gov/
From the original questioner:
Man, you all are the greatest. I’ve got a water oak. Not sure all these years what I’ve been calling a pin oak.
From contributor K:
Willow oak usually grows along with water oak. The willow oak has a long narrow leaf, and the water oak has a bulge on the end like a slender pear shape.
From contributor V:
Adding to what contributor T said, I have seen at the mill where I buy lumber that fresh sawn water oak seems to split easier than other oaks if handled roughly. I have seen a wide 4/4 board break in half just falling off the saw onto the belt, feeding the green chain. The boards came from the outside of large logs and though they weren’t rotten, they did seem to be weak. I don’t know what they would be like after drying.
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Some trees have growth stress in them and this stress causes the lumber to split easily when it is handled, as noted. It can happen with many species.
From contributor J:
I live in Southeast Texas and the water oaks are very plentiful here. Common terminology for them here is pin oak as well, wrong as that may be. I cut them for lumber regularly and the resulting boards are so similar to red oak, that most people can’t tell the difference. I actually find more tiger striping with the water oak and prefer it for cabinets and furniture over local red oak
From contributor T:
Water oak is a variety of red oak. Much or most of the flooring sold in the US as red oak is indeed water oak.
From contributor X:
As contributor J said, here in north Texas as well, many old timers refer to water oak as pin oak and vice versa. We do have both pin oak and water oak in my county, regardless of what the books say.
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Some of the common local names for the water oak tree (Quercus nigra) are American red oak, blackjack, pin oak, possum oak, punk oak, red oak, spotted oak, water oak. This is from the USDA publication ‘Hardwoods of North America.’
From the original questioner:
Well that makes me feel better. I believe what contributor K called willow oak is what I’ve been calling pin oak.
From contributor B:
Knowing the names for trees comes in real handy and sometimes keeps you from making costly mistakes. We had a new logger ask us if it was okay to bring pin oak. One of us agreed, thinking it was what we call chinquapin. What he brought was what we call water oak. Here it tends to be shelly and very fast growth. Often it stinks like a pig pen. We got about 10 logs in and I sawed two into 10×10 by 18 beams for a bridge project. They were rejected due to extensive shell.
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The smell and the shake (shelling) tell us (100% certain) that this tree was bacterially infected, which causes the bad odor and the shake.
From contributor B:
Thanks for that additional information. The buyer of the timbers for this bridge project knows his woods real well. (He even knew the logger and commented, “He knew better than that.”) He identified one other 10×10 as being pin oak and took it. We have about 10 more of these logs in and not all show the shake/shell. I’m letting them set until the last to see if shell develops in the ones that don’t now show it.
From contributor W:
What is confusing about water oak and “pin oak” in the South is that locally in many places, willow oak and laurel oak are called “pin oak.” They are not pin oak, since there is a distinct species that is pin oak, Quercus palustris, that has lobed deeply cut leaves. It is just a local convention, and wrong at that.
From contributor X:
A lot of our pin oaks, and other red oaks, are succumbing to oak wilt. The live oaks are hardest hit. Whites are pretty resistant to it. I cut a lot of standing dead red oaks. They are already spalting in most cases, but I don’t keep anything even slightly punky. I am not using the wood in structural applications, but am considering using some for bracing in my timber frame addition. Can anyone see a problem using the spalted (just an attractive bacteria) pin oak for braces?
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Spalting is the result of a white rot fungus being in the wood. It does indeed reduce the strength substantially, so you should not use it. Punkiness is the ultimate indicator of severe strength loss; you can easily lose 50% of the strength without punkiness. The grading rules for structural wood do not allow any white rot fungus in structural pieces of lumber. Note that spalting is not bacterial. It is fungal.
From contributor X:
I wouldn’t have thought the strength could be compromised that much and still be hard, heavy, and solid. I won’t use it for braces then. It’ll make pretty cabinets.
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