Oak Vs Walnut: Which Type of Hardwood Is Better?


By Robert

Oak and walnut are two of the most popular hardwoods for all types of interior furniture – from cabinets and bed frames to flooring. These two hardwoods are also quite similar in a lot of ways but there are also a few key differences between them.

So, oak vs walnut – which type of hardwood is better for your home and why? Let’s explore that issue from all possible angles below.

Oak vs. Walnut Furniture: Which Is Better?

Oak Vs Walnut

Oak and walnut are both high-quality solid hardwoods that are excellent for all kinds of interior projects. Both are also available in several variations as no two trees are completely alike.

Oak, in particular, has two distinct species – white oak and red oak. Of these two, white oak is typically a bit harder and more durable, which is why it’s preferred for outdoor projects and why it’s also a bit more expensive.

Appearance-wise, both red and white oak have a light brown color but red oak has a bit more reddish streaks whereas white oak has a more subtle olive-colored cast.

These two main types also have various sub-types such as Black oak, Cherrybark oak, Laurel oak, Scarlet oak, and other red oak variants or Bur oak, Overcup oak, Swamp chestnut oak, Post oak, or other white oak variations.

When talking about indoor furniture and flooring, we’re typically talking about red oak.

When it comes to walnuts, there are also several main variations including the American black walnut, Peruvian walnut, Claro walnut, White walnut, Bastogne walnut, or English/European walnut.

You can and should explore the differences between them if you’ve set your heart on walnuts but here we’ll talk about walnuts altogether as the main differences between the several sub-types are in their color and appearance.

So, how do oaks and walnuts compare?

Overall, both types of wood are quite hard and durable, and both boast impressive beauty. We’ll delve into a point-by-point comparison below but a quick summary would look like this:

  • Oak – even red oak – is typically a bit harder and more durable than walnut
  • Walnut’s darker brown color makes the occasional dents and knocks in the wood less noticeable
  • While both types of wood don’t take pain very well because of their coarse textures, oak is better for stain
  • Walnut’s gorgeous darker color makes for very impressive flooring or large furniture pieces and it needs nothing more than a clear coat finish to enhance its natural looks
  • Oak is usually about 20-30% cheaper than walnut simply because oak trees are more abundant than walnuts

Most of that is subject to variations between the different sub-types of these woods, different suppliers, and more. So, let’s take a look at a deeper comparison between oak and walnut below.

Oak vs. Walnut Comparison

Oak and walnut are similar in so many ways that the choice between them usually comes down to aesthetics.

This doesn’t make the choice simple, however, and it doesn’t mean that the other aspects and characteristics of oak and walnut aren’t intertwined with their color, appearance, and aesthetics.

Oak Vs Walnut Color And Overall Aesthetics

The first and most obvious part of the walnut vs red oak comparison is their looks. Most types of walnuts have a much darker and richer brown color than any oak you’d find.

This alone is often enough for a lot of people to pick walnut over oak as that signature natural color is walnut’s biggest selling point.

Oak is also beautiful, however, just in a different way. All types of oak are fairly light in color with a straight and tight grain pattern that usually has a slight reddish color. This does give oak a more “ordinary” look but that’s largely because oak is a more common choice for people’s homes.

Walnut, on the other hand, has a wider grain pattern that gives walnut more variation in its look. This can give different walnut furniture pieces widely differing looks which can be either a positive or a negative, depending on what you’re looking for.

Overall, oak furniture blends better with different interior styles and color patterns whereas walnut tends to grab the attention wherever it’s placed.

This typically makes walnut a bad choice for smaller rooms but a better option for attention-grabbing statement pieces in grand dining rooms, music halls, large bedrooms, and so on.

Oak Vs Walnut Grain

As we mentioned above, walnut’s grain is wider than that of oak. What’s also key, however, is that walnut’s grain gives it a softer and generally smoother surface while oak’s tighter grain is a bit raised and gives that wood a rougher and coarser surface.

Neither of these facts makes walnut or oak better or worse than the other but they are important to note when figuring out which type of wood you want.

Oak Vs Walnut Hardness

Both oak and walnut are types of hardwood and boast fairly good hardness and durability as a result. When comparing them on the Janka hardness scale, we can see that virtually all types of oak and walnut measure above 1,000 lbf (pounds-force).

To be precise, white oak is usually measured around 1,350 lbf, red oak – around 1,290 lbf, and most types of walnuts range between 1,000 and 1,100 lbf.

So, this is one area in which oak definitely outclasses walnut on average, although it is still possible to find certain harder walnut variants that have higher pound-force than some softer types of oak.

This means that oak is typically more resistant to knocks and scratches than walnut, and should have better durability and longevity on average.

That said, walnut is by no means “soft” either and it’s certainly hard enough to be a good choice for indoor furniture. In fact, both oak and walnut are often used for flooring too, so, walnut’s hardness is not to be underestimated.

Another related tidbit here is that walnut’s darker color masks knocks and scratches better which tends to make them harder to notice and can compensate for the lower hardness of the wood.

Overall, however, hardness and durability aren’t something to worry about with either walnut or oak, especially as far as furniture is concerned.

Oak Vs Walnut Flooring

If you’re looking for flooring, the relative softness of walnut can be a bit more relevant. So, it is recommended to consider covering walnut flooring with rugs in certain places, especially the more frequently traversed areas.

That said, walnut is still seen as a good option for flooring, as long as you’re not unnecessarily harsh with it. After all, any wooden flooring needs to be protected, and walking with stilettos indoors is never a good idea anyway.

All in all, while it’d seem like the hardness difference is the main distinguishing factor when it comes to oak flooring and walnut flooring, for most people the choice still comes down to color and appearance.

  • If you want a simpler and lighter color, coupled with increased hardness and durability – oak is the way to go, especially white oak.
  • If you want the eye-grabbing natural dark brown color of walnut and you’re aware that you’d need to protect your flooring from damage – walnut is an excellent choice.

Oak Vs Walnut Stains, Paints, And Finishing

Because of their grain, neither oak nor walnut is very good for painting. Oak, in particular, shouldn’t be painted because its coarse surface will be noticeable through the pain which isn’t a good look.

Walnut is smoother, as we’ve said, which technically makes it easier to paint. However, painting over walnut hides its main selling point – it’s natural look. So, there’s pretty much no point in doing so.

Instead, if you want to paint your furniture, it’s better to just get a more affordable type of wood or even manufactured wood and paint over that.

When it comes to stains, oak has a lead because it does take stains well. Walnut doesn’t, however, as it looks best with nothing more than a clear coat finish to enhance its natural beauty.

If you want to stain your furniture, however, oak is the way to go.

Oak Vs Walnut Price

Prices can vary greatly depending on the exact type of wood you’re getting, who you’re getting it from, what type of design or construction you’re going for, and so on.

This means that giving you an exact price comparison is pretty much impossible. For a rough estimate, however, it’s fair to say that walnut is about 20-30% more expensive than oak on average.

That’s not because walnut is better than oak or vice versa – it’s simply because walnut trees aren’t as common as oak trees – it’s a supply/demand issue, not a quality issue.

Does Oak And Walnut Go Together?

Oak and walnut can absolutely go well together, depending on what you’re looking to do. As one is light and the other is considerably darker, the two can contrast each other very well with the right design or arrangement.

The design is the leading factor here, however, as a bad designer can certainly use the two types of wood poorly and to a negative effect.

In principle, however, combining darker and lighter woods is often an excellent choice. Besides, as oak takes stains pretty well, you can always play with the exact colors even more.

Which Should You Choose?

Both types of wood are excellent for both furniture and flooring.

Oak is generally harder, lighter, and better for staining. Walnut, on the other hand, is softer (but still pretty hard), darker, and has a much more eye-catching natural look.

So, the choice between the two usually comes down to appearance and what exactly you’re looking to accomplish. In general, walnut is recommended for more impactful pieces whereas oak is seen as more “standard”.

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