If you are planning on doing some woodworking around your home, there are a few different types of wood that you should consider using. Two very popular choices include oak and birch.
That said, oak and birch do have some big differences. Today, we want to do a side-by-side comparison of oak to see which one is best used for a variety of construction and woodworking purposes. Let’s figure out which one of these is best for you.
What Is Oak?
First, we have the oak tree, and here we’re talking specifically about the red oak tree. This is simply because it is one of the most commonly found varieties in North America, and one of the most often used for construction and woodworking purposes. That said, there are technically over 160 different species of oak trees in the world, most of which are in the Northern Hemisphere.
The red oak tree is a deciduous tree, which means that it is a flowering tree that loses its leaves during the winter. It is also a type of hardwood, so it’s quite dense, heavy, hard, structurally sound, and resistant to many types of physical damage, mainly denting and scratching.
Although oak can be resistant to moisture in the short run when properly treated and sealed, it’s really not ideal for outdoor purposes. When it has not been sealed or treated, oak is not very moisture-resistant at all. It’s also not very resistant to decay, mold, fungus, or pests. In the grand scheme of things, this wood is just not a very good choice for outdoor use.
As for appearance, oak wood features a relatively straight and tight grain. It also features a coarse and uneven texture, along with quite a few gaps, knots, and holes. This wood has a brownish-red color, usually a bit darker. Oak may be used for a wide variety of purposes, mainly for indoor projects like decorative pieces, cabinets, indoor furniture, flooring, and other small projects.
What Is Birch?
We then have the birch tree, and here we are talking about the yellow birch, as this is one of the most commonly used for things like hardwood flooring, walls, and similar purposes. This tree can be found from the Atlantic provinces over to the eastern edge of Manitoba, as well as in some of the most northeastern parts of the United States.
The birch tree has a relatively straight and tight grain, although it may have some irregularities or waves. It also has a very low natural luster, combined with a fine and even texture, along with some knots, gaps, and voids.
Birch has a reddish-brownish-yellow color, with the sapwood being mostly white. That said, its heartwood is what is usually used for construction, and tends to be fairly light in color.
This wood is moderately heavy, somewhat hard, and fairly easy to work with. It is somewhat resistant to various forms of physical damage, and it is one of the harder types of wood that is generally found in North America.
However, birch is not very resistant to moisture and pests, so it’s not ideal for outdoor use. It is more resistant to moisture than pests, but just shouldn’t be used outdoors. Birch is, however, great for indoor purposes, especially for small projects, decorative pieces, lower-end indoor furniture, cabinets, and floors for low-traffic areas. This material is quite cost-effective, which does make it fairly popular with many people.
Oak vs. Birch: What Are the Differences?
Now that we know what both oak and birch are, let’s figure out what makes the two different.
What is interesting to note is that red oak features a Janka hardness rating of 1,220 lbf, while yellow birch comes in at 1,260 lbf. As you can see, birch is just slightly harder than red oak, which means that it is also slightly more resistant to physical damage such as denting and scratching. That said, both are quite hard and more than ideal for furniture.
In the grand scheme of things, the difference between the two on this front is negligible at best.
What is also interesting to note is that both of these types of wood are almost the same weight, as both are around 43 lbs per cubic foot. Both are almost identical in terms of weight, meaning that in terms of lifting them and working with them, both are about the same.
Pest and Moisture Resistance
Another interesting point here is that neither of these types of wood is resistant to moisture or pests. Birch is a little more resistant to moisture, whereas oak might be a bit more resistant to pests. With that said, the difference here is relatively negligible, mainly because both of these types of wood are not at all ideal for outdoor use.
Both are fine for indoor applications, but exposure to the elements should be avoided at all costs. For more details, you might also want to read our article on oak’s water resistance.
In terms of overall durability, by which we are also talking about the modulus of elasticity, the modulus of rupture, and the compressive strength, both of these types of wood are also relatively similar.
With that being said, yellow birch scores a little higher on all three fronts, as well as in the hardness category, than red oak. Therefore, yellow birch appears to be slightly more durable, harder, and more structurally sound. However, once again, the difference between the two is so minimal that for home use, realistically, there is not much of a difference at all.
Both of these types of wood are so similar in most regards that their workability is more or less identical. They are both quite easy to work with in the grand scheme of things, and they both take on paint, stain, and screws quite well.
Appearance – Color and Grain
One difference here is that birch has a much finer texture than oak. Birch is also lighter in color, and more yellowish-brown than oak, which is more reddish-brown. Most people would agree that red oak is the better-looking of these two types of wood.
Red oak may cost you as much as $25 per board foot, whereas yellow birch should not cost you more than $10 per board foot.
When to Use Oak?
Keep in mind that oak is very hard, dense, and durable, but not very resistant to moisture or pests. Therefore, oak is a great option for indoor purposes. It’s durable and structurally sound, therefore ideal for cabinets, furniture, floors, walls, doors, decorative pieces, and everything in between. Just don’t use oak for outdoor purposes.
When to Use Birch?
Generally speaking, birch is ideal for more or less all of the same things that oak is ideal for. Both are almost identical in terms of hardness, durability, and overall structural soundness, plus they’re both not resilient to the elements. Therefore, birch is also an ideal option for indoor furniture, cabinets, doors, walls, decorative pieces, and more. It really just comes down to which one of these you prefer in terms of aesthetic qualities.
Alternatives to Oak and Birch
Neither of these types of wood is ideal for outdoor purposes. If you do want a type of wood that can easily withstand a variety of outdoor conditions, options such as cedar, teak, mahogany, and spruce all make for much better choices.
As you can see, both oak and birch have their uses. With that being said, while both are ideal for indoor purposes, neither is ideal for outdoor use.