Maple and oak trees are both deciduous angiosperms, so the wood each produces is classified as a hardwood. However, the difference between maple and oak wood is significant, and it would be difficult to mistake one for the other. All species of oak display a distinctive well-defined grain pattern whereas the maple wood grain tends to be creamy white with little visible grain. The differences don't stop there, but to really appreciate them, it's important to realize that within the broad category defined by oak is a subset of species that differ significantly from each other. The same is true for maple.
Red Oak, White Oak, Soft Maple and Hard Maple
If you're in the market for oak lumber, one of your first decisions will be to choose between red oak or white oak. The "red" category has 11 different species of trees, although the dominant one is Quercus rubra. Other red oak species include black oak (Q. velutina), laurel oak (Q. laurifola) and willow oak (Q. phellos). The white oak subgroup also includes 11 species, with the dominant one being Quercus alba. White oak subspecies include chestnut oak (Q. prinus), English oak (Q. robur) and bur oak (Q. macrocarpa). Red oak wood tends to be more porous than white oak wood. It has a subtle reddish tinge, and its grain is less dramatic.
If you've decided to purchase maple for your project, you'll be faced with a similar choice between hard maple and soft maple. Hard maple, also known as rock maple or sugar maple, generally refers to the wood from a single species of tree, Acer saccharum. The term soft maple, on the other hand, refers to one of a number of different species, such as silver maple (Acer saccharinum), red maple (Acer rubrum) or bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). The main difference between hard maple and soft maple is, as you would expect, in the hardness of the wood. The various types of maple wood are very similar in appearance.
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Maple Vs Oak
Keeping in mind what the various types of oak and maple wood are like gives you a better idea of the difference between maple and oak wood in general.
Appearance: The maple wood grain is noticeably lacking in visible pores. The surface of a maple board is often uniformly white or cream colored, although some sections of the sugar maple tree yield mottled patterns known as birdseye maple or curly maple. Oak, on the other hand, displays a strong grain pattern that can vary in color from reddish brown to yellow-white.
Hardness: Wood suppliers measure hardness using the Janka test, which involves measuring the force required to compress a 0.444-inch steel ball halfway into the face of a specimen board. Hard maple scores 1450 on this scale, while soft maple scores only 950. Both red oak (1290) and white oak (1360) score midway between these extremes. So while hard maple scores highest, it isn't accurate to say maple is harder than oak in general. It depends on the species. By the way, the hardest wood in the world, lignum vitae, scores 4390 on the Janka scale, which makes it three times harder than hard maple.
Workability and Usefulness: Harder woods are generally more difficult to cut and shape, so hard maple is at the bottom of the list in terms of workability while soft maple is at the top. The differences aren't that significant, though, and all species of oak and maple are considered suitable materials for cabinetry and interior woodwork. Because of its lack of a grainy, porous surface, maple is more difficult to stain than oak, however, and frequently requires conditioning to produce a uniform color. If you're looking for firewood, the choice between oak versus maple is easy; both burn slowly and provide plenty of heat.