Investigating Walnut and White Oak Species

Exploring Walnut

Few species have stood the test of time as being a luxury, high valued item like walnut. With a mix of straight and irregular grain, and a nice dark colour, walnut is a beautiful species. Walnut, however, is known as being difficult to work with due to the defects that are allowed in its grade. One walnut mill commented that if regular walnut was graded like a normal hardwood, it would grade 1 Common at best.

Walnut is in a league of its own when it comes to grading. Knots and cracks are allowed in the face-and-better grade that we stock. We do carry another option, a “superior” grade, or “red oak rules” as some may know it, but only in a few thicknesses. The superior grade means the walnut is graded as if it were any other hardwood. Superior grade does come with a premium price, but the defects are fewer.

So why does walnut allow for more defects? To start, there is a limited supply of furniture grade walnut. Walnut trees tend to have quite a few wild, twisted branches, and the trunks don’t always yield long lengths. If all the walnut lumber was held to the “higher” grading standard, there would be barely any walnut available in the market. Also, most walnut logs that are high quality are sent off for veneers, leaving less options for lumber.

Another notable attribute of walnut is its dark color. Before drying, the sapwood is white and the heartwood is dark, giving a very distinct contrast. In some species this color contrast is desirable, however the majority of consumers prefer more consistent color when it comes to walnut. To minimize the contrast, walnut goes through a steaming process. Steaming draws out moisture from the green lumber and the chemicals in the lumber oxidize, which darkens the sapwood.

As mentioned before, working with walnut may be frustrating. Due to the number of defects allowed, the waste may be higher in walnut than in other species. Most shops we deal with the figure in a higher waste factor when ordering walnut, some 30%, a few up to 75%, and even the odd shop that just doubles the order right away. If you are wanting to work with walnut, please know that defects are a part of the grade. If you are willing to pay for the superior grade, your waste may not be as high. If price is a factor and the budget does not allow for walnut, poplar could be a good alternative depending on the application. While poplar is not as dense as walnut, it does have a similar grain pattern, and with a few more steps in the finishing process, it can be stained to appear very close to walnut.

Exploring White Oak

Another “luxury” species, white oak has seemed to gain noticeable popularity over the past year or so. It seems almost every shop needs white oak lumber and sheets for flooring, furniture, millwork, or kitchens.

White oak has always been a favored species among certain industries. Whiskey barrels, flooring, millwork, and furniture depend on a consistent supply of white oak lumber. There are a few hindrances, however, to the supply chain. Due to a relatively warm winter, many of the white oak forests, and forests in general, have been almost too wet and muddy for the loggers to get their equipment in and the logs out. Also, global demand for white oak has increased over the past year.

White oak prices have backed off compared to prices last year, but we are anticipating on price increases in the next coming months due to the potentially low supply.

A common question that is asked is “what is the difference between red and white oak?”. Starting with the tree, the leaves of a red oak will be pointed at the tips, while white oak leaves will be rounded. White oak is rot resistant which makes it a good choice for exterior projects, even for boats. There usually are colour differences between the species, but not always, so colour should not be used alone to identify white oak. Red oak may have pink tones, and white oak may have olive/ light brown tones. As well, with the many sub-species of each, colour is not a dependable identifier. While red and white oak grain may look similar, the white oak grain will not be as open or wavy as red oak. The end grain is a sure way to know which is which. Ideally looking at the end grain in the heartwood, red oak will have open pores and white oak will have tight, closed pores. Another sure identifier are the rays (lines) in the flat sawn boards. White will have long lines usually 1” or more, while red oak will have short lines roughly ¾” and shorter.

When working with either, white oak will be denser and harder to cut through, while red oak is lighter because it is more porous. One downside to the density of white oak is that it can be difficult to dry properly in a kiln, especially in boards 5/4 (1-1/4”) and thicker. This may lead to checking (small cracks in the surface of the board) or even worse, honeycombing (holes in the middle of the board). One last, unusual difference is white oak has an acidic, almost pickle-like, smell.

White oak will come with a higher price tag due to a smaller supply than red oak. If you are needing a durable species for outdoor projects or a beautiful species for furniture or flooring, white oak is a great option. Craftsmen Hardwoods stocks a variety of thicknesses and lengths in white oak lumber that are flat cut, quarter cut (fleck pattern) and rift cut (straight grain) boards along with white oak veneer plywood and edge banding to go with it.


Matt Mullen is the Sales Manager at Craftsmen Hardwoods.  With seven years of experience in the wood industry, Matt has blogged extensively about wood and the industry in general.

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