Birch and oak are both hardwoods, although they differ slightly in hardness. They are both popular and common choices for wood flooring. As solid flooring, both are suitable as flooring on grade or above-grade, but not for use as solid flooring in basements because of the presence of moisture. Although choosing between birch and oak wood flooring is ultimately a matter of personal preference, weighing a few factors is helpful.
Wood flooring has a long history of use around the world. For the most part, anywhere there were trees people have used wood for flooring. Hardwoods, such as birch and oak, are both more durable than softwoods such as pine, making them popular choices.
There are more than 200 subspecies of red oak in North America, which means there is a great deal of variation in color and grain. The heartwood and sapwood of red oak are similar, with the sapwood being just slightly lighter in color. In general, red oak has a slightly reddish tone and is redder than white oak, according to the National Wood Flooring Association. Southern red oak is 18 percent softer than northern red oak. In addition, because red oak has a more porous grain than white oak, it takes stain better and works better for bleached floors than white oak, because white oak contains tannins that come through.
White oak heartwood is light brown and some boards may have a grayish to pinkish tint, while sapwood is white to cream, according to the National Wood Flooring Association. White oak has an open grain with occasional crotches, swirls and burls. It is 6 percent softer than northern red oak. Tannins near the surface can react during finishing with bleaches or products containing high amounts of water, but white oak stains evenly.
Although birch comes in yellow, sweet birch and paper birch, yellow birch is the hardest of the three and the most commonly used in wood flooring, according to the National Wood Flooring Association. The sapwood is creamy pale yellow, while the heartwood is light reddish-brown tinged with red. Yellow birch has a medium, straight grain with an occasional wavy or curly grain. It is 2 percent softer than northern red oak, making birch harder than white oak. However, birch may be difficult to stain.
Whether you choose oak or birch, hardwood floors are a lifetime investment and add value to your home at resale time. Both birch and oak are easy to maintain. And you can feel good from an ecological standpoint since wood is a natural material. In addition, with modern forestry practices, the lumber industry keeps planting new trees as it harvests oak and birch trees, which makes choosing either type of wood flooring a sound ecological choice. You'll be living with your choice for a long time. So you might want to bring some samples home and look at them during the day as the light changes to see which one you like best.