Northern Versus Southern Red Oak

The characteristics of Oak vary from North to South. Here's more. April 15, 2013

For general cabinet and door making is northern red oak considered interchangeable with southern red oak? Most of my experience is with walnut, cherry, hickory, and alder jobs, but we have a large oak job to do and we can save some money by using southern red oak instead of northern. What are the real differences?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
Go by the look and feel and quality of the wood. Some southern is harder, wider grain, and darker in color. It's all over the place so go and look at your wood first.

From contributor D:
We used to call southern oak swamp oak - it makes great flooring. Then there is northern oak which is labeled as Appalachian. I prefer northern as the grain is finer. The ones that have very wide spaces between the growth rings are less desirable in general and will be from other regions. The northern will have closer and tighter growth rings and sands and finishes better in my opinion. The main visual difference is the color variations that Appalachian and southern will have, but the Northern is often lighter in color and more consistent.

From contributor Y:
The one thing I notice between northern and southern oak is the southern oak will have grey wood and the northern oak will be more uniform and red in color. Another thing to consider when building with oak is the plywood is normally rotary cut but there is plain sliced available and looks much better in your cabinets.

From the original questioner:
We decided to go ahead with the southern red as this will get a dark potassium permanganate finish which should even out some differences. The customer did not specify northern or southern so we'll save a few bucks.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
As a general rule we consider that when the rings are spaced 1/4" or more apart that we have lowland oak which is often called southern oak. Actually the species of red oak changes from north to south, so that southern oak consists of different wood species of red oak than northern. There are over 20 species in the U.S. Due to the warmer temperatures southern oak has more sapwood. We have a good risk of getting a grey sap stain (enzymatic stain or fungal stain). The most reddish color will come from cherry bark or southern red oak, but because of the variety of species we will see a variety of colors too both north and south.

It is harder to dry the southern oaks, so surface checking can be an issue at times and sometimes these surface cracks go deeply into the wood (called honeycomb sometimes). So you do need to have a supplier that will stand behind his product in case there are quality issues. Also, many of the southern oak species shrink and sweep with moisture changes more than the northern ones. However, with proper and reasonable care southern red oak will be competitive with northern oak lumber.

Southern white oak is often much poorer than northern white, as the southern white oak species seems to be very difficult to dry properly without quality loss than affects secondary manufacturing. One of these white oak species is swamp oak or swamp white oak, mentioned above.