When it comes to woodworking projects, there are many different types of wood for you to choose from. Two very popular and commonly used types of wood for a variety of purposes are oak and hickory.
With that being said, these two materials are fairly different from each other, and these differences might be determining factors when it comes to your overall choice. Let’s figure out what makes oak and hickory different from each other, so you can choose which one is best for your next project.
What Is Oak?
First, there is the oak tree, and here we are talking about the red oak tree. This is one of the most popular varieties when it comes to construction, and one of the most commonly found in North America. There are technically over 160 different species of oak trees that can be found in the world, most of which are in the Northern Hemisphere, although we will be focusing on the red oak today.
This is a flowering deciduous tree, so it doesn’t lose its leaves during the colder seasons, and it is a type of hardwood. Oak is quite heavy, dense, hard, structurally sound, and has great resistance to many types of physical damage.
Oak is not the number one most pest or moisture-resistant type of wood. Unless it is properly sealed and treated, it just is not suitable for any kind of outdoor use, as it is susceptible to pests, fungus, mold, and rotting. As for appearance, oak wood features a fairly straight and tight grain, along with a coarse and uneven texture, and a fair amount of gaps, knots, and holes.
This wood usually has a brownish-red color, often a bit darker brown than it is red. It can also be used for many different purposes, generally for indoor applications, such as for flooring, cabinets, small pieces, furniture, and other decorative pieces.
What Is Hickory?
We then have the hickory tree. This is also a deciduous tree that loses its leaves during the colder seasons, and it is a type of hardwood that can be found throughout North America. There are a few different types of hickory that exist in the United States, Mexico, Canada, India, and China. However, the most commonly found and used in North America is known as mockernut hickory.
Therefore, this will be our main focus for today. Hickory tends to have a very straight, tight, and close grain, although there might be some waviness at times, along with a medium texture, and an extremely wide color range that could be anywhere from white to brown. Hickory is also quite dense, heavy, and hard, which means that it is physically resistant to damage.
Although hickory doesn’t contain a whole lot of natural oils or resins, it is somewhat water resistant, although it’s not the best choice for outdoor use. Hickory is generally also only used for indoor purposes, for things like decorative pieces, high-end furniture, and related projects. This wood is also not overly expensive.
Oak vs. Hickory: What Are the Differences?
Now that we know what both oak and hickory are, let’s figure out what makes the two different from each other.
Red oak features a Janka hardness rating of 1,220 lbf, while mockernut hickory features a Janka hardness rating of 1,970 lbf. This means that mockernut hickory is substantially harder than red oak, making it much more durable in terms of denting and scratching. For this reason, many people might choose hickory over red oak when it comes to things like indoor furniture and decorative pieces.
If we are talking about density or weight, red oak comes in at 43 lbs per cubic foot. However, hickory is even heavier, coming in at 51 lbs per cubic foot. As you can see, hickory is quite a bit heavier than red oak, which does in part lend to its overall durability, but this increased weight can also make it much harder to work with. Being so dense does, however, make hickory very structurally sound.
Pest and Moisture Resistance
Although not a difference per se, it is worth mentioning that oak and hickory both are not very pest or moisture-resistant at all. Hickory might be slightly more moisture-resistant than red oak, but the difference here is negligible. The bottom line is that neither are suitable options for outdoor use, as they are fairly susceptible to the elements.
We wrote more about oak water resistance here.
Overall Strength and Durability
When it comes down to it, hickory is just a much stronger type of wood. If we look at other factors that determine its overall strength, such as the modulus of elasticity, the modulus of rupture, and the compressive strength, hickory scores much higher on all of these fronts. This means that hickory is stiffer, doesn’t sag as much when weight is applied to it, and can handle a lot more pressure.
Due to the fact that hickory is so stiff, heavy, and hard, it can be fairly difficult to work with, especially when sawing tools are concerned. With that being said, red oak does contain a lot of voids, gaps, and knots, which can also make it hard to work with. However, in the grand scheme of things, red oak is likely slightly easier to work with than mockernut hickory.
Appearance – Color and Grain
Both of these types of wood are fairly good-looking, and they make for popular options for things like indoor furniture and decorative pieces. With that being said, red oak tends to be a bit darker brown, although hickory has a lot more variation.
Hickory also often has a reddish hue, which many people think looks nice. It also has a slightly smoother texture than red oak, which can be fairly coarse. Both are beautiful materials, and which one you like better is really a matter of personal preference.
What is very surprising is that, although hickory is the much more durable type of wood, it actually costs much less. You can expect to pay around $25 per board foot for red oak, whereas hickory usually won’t cost more than $7.50 per board foot, up to $10 at the very most.
When to Use Oak?
If you are planning to make some really beautiful indoor furniture or decorative pieces, or even flooring, then red oak is always a good option to consider. This is especially the case because red oak is generally considered to be a very beautiful type of wood. With that being said, make sure that you don’t use it for outdoor purposes or anywhere that is going to see a lot of moisture because it just can’t handle a lot of it.
When to Use Hickory?
Generally speaking, the same things can be said for hickory as for oak. It’s a beautiful type of wood that is also extremely durable. The big difference here is that hickory is much more durable and structurally sound, so you can use it for high-traffic areas, whether it be flooring that needs to last for years to come, or all sorts of furniture, decorative pieces, and much more. The really cool thing about hickory is that it doesn’t even cost very much.
Alternatives to Oak and Hickory
The issue with both oak and hickory is of course that they are not very resistant to moisture or pests, so they don’t make for good outdoor options. However, there are types of wood that are much better suited for outdoor use, such as mahogany, teak, cedar, spruce, and many others. Furthermore, if you are looking for an extremely hard and durable type of wood, you might want to go for something like ebony or ironwood, as both of these are rock solid.
Now that you know what all of the major differences between oak and hickory are, you can make an informed decision between the two. Generally speaking, both are more than ideal for indoor purposes but should be avoided when it comes to outdoor use.