Oak and beech are both well-known lightly colored kinds of wood. But despite superficial similarities in appearance, there are some critical differences. Which is better for furniture, flooring, and cabinets, oak or beech?
White oak and beech are both relatively easy to work and bend well. White oak is harder and more resistant to rot than beech. It is also considered more attractive and is more expensive.
Beech is cheaper for flooring. Red oak is generally an inferior wood to either white oak or beech.
Let’s consider the differences between oak and Beech in more detail to understand better which wood you should choose.
What is Oak Wood?
Many species in the genus Quercus yield oak wood. The genus has an enormous number of species, but woodworkers classify all commercially harvested New World oaks (and the English oak) as either red oak or white oak. Red oaks have pointed leaf lobes, whereas white oaks have rounded lobes.
There are also significant differences in the properties of their wood, which we will examine.
What is Beech?
Species in the genus Fagus yield Beech. The two species commonly available for purchase as lumber in the United States are Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, which grows in the eastern United States, and Fagus sylvatica, the European beech.
How are Oak and Beech Different?
Now that we have considered what oak and beech are let’s look at what makes them different.
Description of Oak and Beech
Beech has a straight grain with a fine, plain texture on flatsawn surfaces, while quartersawn surfaces show a silvery fleck pattern. It has conspicuous rays and tiny pores. It is usually a yellowish color.
Oak wood has a straight grain with a coarse, uneven texture. Quartersawn surfaces show prominent ray fleck patterns, particularly in white oak species (sometimes called “tiger oak”). Oak wood is usually light brown, with a slight reddish cast in most red oak species or a slight olive cast in white oak species.
However, color is variable, and distinguishing the two types of oak based on color alone is unreliable. The end-grain of oak provides a reliable way to distinguish between the two types of oak, provided it hasn’t been painted, sealed, or rough-sawn. The pores in the growth rings of red oak are very open, to the point that it is possible to blow bubbles in water through a red oak dowel.
White oak, on the other hand, has its pores blocked by tyloses. White oak is therefore suitable for water-tight vessels and more resistant to rot and decay. Red and white oak can also be distinguished by the rays, especially in flatsawn areas of a board.
These are tiny dark brown streaks running parallel to the grain. Red oak typically has very short rays, usually between 1/8” and 1/2″ long, whereas white oak, has much longer rays, generally more than 3/4″ long. Oak wood has a distinctive odor while being worked that most people find appealing, whereas Beech has no particular scent. Red oak and European beech both weigh approximately 44lbs per cu. ft.
American beech approximately 45lbs per cu. ft., and white oak about 47lbs per cu. ft.
Durability of Oak and Beech
Beech is non-durable and susceptible to insect attack. It is permeable to preservatives. White oak heartwood is durable (rot-resistant) and very resistant to preservatives. The sapwood is moderately resistant to rot.
Red oak heartwood is non-durable to perishable with poor insect resistance. The sapwood is permeable.
Mechanical Properties of Oak and Beech
White oak has medium crush strength, whereas red oak and Beech have high crush strength. Beech has better bending characteristics than oak and is superb for steam bending. However, oak’s low stiffness also makes it suitable for steam bending.
White oak is harder than beech, with a Janka hardness of 1350 to beech’s 1300. However, red oak only has a hardness of 1220.
Seasoning of Oak and Beech
Beech wood dries rapidly, whereas both red oak and white oak dry slowly. Beech and oak both show a tendency to split and check. Oak tends to honeycomb, whereas beech’s worst seasoning vice is a tendency to warp.
Working Properties of Oak and Beech
Beech is easy to work with hand and power tools. It nails and glues well. It stains and polishes easily and to a good finish.
It responds very well to steam bending. It shows a large amount of movement in service. White oak takes nails and screws well, but you should pre-drill it to avoid splitting the wood. It varies in its gluing properties.
It stains and polishes easily and to a good finish. Red oak varies in density and has a moderate blunting effect on cutters. It varies in its gluing properties, and you may have to pre-drill it to nail it.
It stains and polishes easily and to a good finish. Red oak is considered an excellent steam-bending wood.
Availability and Sustainability of Oak and Beech
Both oak and beech are readily available. Neither the CITES Appendices nor the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species list oak or beech as threatened species.
Cost Differences Between Oak and Beech
Beech retails for around $6.29 per board foot, with red oak coming in slightly cheaper at $5.49 per board foot. On the other hand, white oak is considerably more expensive, at $9.99 per board foot.
Which is Better for Furniture, Oak or Beech?
Because beech is considered less attractive for furniture than other woods, it tends to be less expensive, and furniture makers often use it as a secondary wood for areas such as the back and sides of a bureau or the legs of a chair. Whether red oak or white oak (but mainly white oak), oak is considered to have an attractive grain and is favored for furniture but tends to be more expensive.
Which is Better for Flooring, Oak or Beech?
Red oak is cheaper than white oak or beech and is easiest to work with. White oak is more challenging to work with and more expensive than red oak, but it is cheaper than beech and the most durable. Beech is usually most costly for flooring but easy to work and reasonably durable.
Which is Better for Cabinetry, Oak or Beech?
Red oak is usually not considered for countertops, as it is too easily scratched and too porous. White oak has good wear resistance, and the tyloses in the pores and the high concentration of tannic acid make it water-resistant. However, the wood can impart flavor and odor to food that remains in contact with it.
Beech does not impart flavor or odor and is gentle on knives’ edges. However, you must properly seal it to avoid warping from humidity.
When choosing between oak and beech for furniture, you probably want to go with oak for appearance, particularly white oak. Both white oak and beech will serve well for flooring and cabinetry, with beech having the edge in price and oak in durability. You should preferably avoid red oak unless durability is not an important factor in one’s desired application.
- Wood-database.com – European beech
- Wood-database.com – American beech
- Wood-database.com – distinguishing red oak from white oak
- Wood-database.com – Red Oak
- Wood-database.com – White Oak