How Sustainable Is Red Oak Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Red Oak Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Red oak trees grow in abundance throughout the US forests, making their timber highly available for manufacturing furniture and building houses. However, as the long-lived, large oak species arguably support more life-forms than any other trees in the US, cutting down the trees hurts wildlife. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of red oak wood?

Red oak wood is sustainable thanks to the carbon sequestration potential of tall and big red oak trees. With a large growing stock, it’s possible to keep harvesting the wood without harming the forests. Also, locally-grown red oak wood has lower transporting carbon emissions than imported wood.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of red oak wood used for furniture and flooring. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable red oak wood.

Here’s How Sustainable Red Oak Wood Is

Red oak wood is a sustainable material because of the red oak trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with red oak wood. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of red oak wood, we assess the life-cycle of red oak furniture and household items. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of each stage in a product’s life-cycle, from the making to the recycling. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of furniture and flooring made with red oak wood. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant. 

The life-cycle stages of red oak wood Each stage’s sustainability
Growing of red oak wood Growing red oak trees is sustainable thanks to the potential for carbon sequestration, the abundance of these trees in the US forests and their value for reforesting disturbed sites. 
Manufacturing of red oak wood Turning red oak wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint. Kiln-drying – the most carbon-intensive step in manufacturing – results in 89.7 kg CO2-eq for 1m3 of red oak lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick. Wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 
Transporting of red oak wood Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of red oak wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As red oak trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of red oak wood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods.
Usage of red oak wood Using red oak furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of red oak wood The end-of-life stage for red oak furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that red oak wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a table or a door, depends on more specific factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy red oak wood more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing Red Oak Wood

Growing red oak trees is sustainable thanks to the potential for carbon sequestration, the abundance of these trees in the US forests, and their value for reforesting disturbed sites. 

What Type of Wood is Red Oak and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

Red oak is a group of long-lived hardwood species in the genus Quercus. Together with white oak, it forms the most common timber group of American hardwoods. 

Several tree species belong to the red oak group, including: 

  • Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) – one of the most important oak species for timber in North America
  • Black oak (Quercus velutina)
  • California black oak (Quercus kelloggii
  • Cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda)
  • Laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia)
  • Pin oak (Quercus palustris)
  • Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
  • Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii)
  • Southern red oak (Quercus falcata)
  • Water oak (Quercus nigra)
  • Willow oak (Quercus phellos)

Within the group, growth rates vary. Typically, species growing in the northern states, such as northern red oak (Quercus rubra), have a slower growth rate than species like southern red oak or California black oak of the South. 

Location and growing conditions dictate each red oak tree’s actual growth rate. 

In Nebraska, northern red oak has been reported with an average growth rate between 18 and 24 inches per year (though growth tends to slow down as a tree matures). Such annual growth rate is faster than in white oak species (which is between 12 to 14 inches). 

How Sustainable Does Red Oak Wood Grow

Red oak’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration, the high availability, and the ability to restore unproductive lands. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As red oak trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan, which could reach 500 years

    Being a carbon sink means that they are taking greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis. And they can store a lot as they grow up big and tall.

    For example, northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) trees can reach 115 feet in height and 5 or 6 feet in diameter. Southern red oak (Quercus falcata) trees can grow as tall as 100 feet and as wide as 5 feet. 
  • High Availability: Red oak trees are the most plentiful in the US forests. Currently, the group accounts for 18% of US hardwood growing stock (2.62 billion cubic meters in volume). That is, for example, as much as the stocks of soft maple and hard maple  combined and almost four times the growing volume of hickory.

    The US forests have 28.7 million cubic meters of red oak surplus every year after harvest. It takes 1.04 seconds for the U.S. forests to replace 1 cubic meter of red oak wood. It is an even shorter time than that of the fast-growing tulipwood (thanks to the high volume of red oak wood trees).

    Because red oak wood is highly available, it is more sustainable than rarer hardwood species like black walnut or ash. Thanks to the faster growth rate and a bigger population, red oak wood is considered more environmentally friendly than the white oak cousins.   
  • Rehabilitation value: Northern red oak can grow in some unproductive environments, such as land contaminated by coal mines. Consequently, they have been used to reforest acidic sites in rehabilitation projects

Where Is Red Oak Wood Usually Grown

North America is the exclusive natural range of red oak, though these species have been planted elsewhere. In the US, red oak trees are found wide and far throughout most eastern states from north to south. Some red oak species are adapted to mountainous terrains, while others thrive on low lands. 

There are downsides to cutting down red oak trees, especially when that is done illegally or unsustainably.

For example, northern red oak (Quercus rubra) tends to regenerate poorly after timber harvest. In some areas, adequate regeneration of this species requires certain techniques. These include selective cutting and reduction of competing understory species. Once the seedlings establish, there is also a need to remove overstory to reduce competition. In other words, clear-cutting and indiscriminate logging (as in the case of illegal and unsustainable logging) cause a lot of damage to the population. 

Harvesting wood from natural forests can also result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in the woods. 

One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality

Cutting down red oak trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

Because oak trees, red oak species included, tend to grow for a long time, and become large and tall while producing a huge amount of acorns, they support many life forms. Arguably, no other tree species in Northern America support more wildlife than an oak

The leaves of the northern red oak species, for example, are browsed by elk, hares, cottontail rabbits, and moose. White-tailed deer eat both the leaves and the young seedlings. 

Northern red oak acorns are an important food source for many mammals and birds. An average oak tree can produce three million acorns in its lifetime, providing tons of protein, fat, and carbohydrates for the wildlife’s diet. 

The mammals who eat northern red oak’s acorns include black beer, white-tailed deer, fox, eastern chipmunk, deer mouse, white-footed mouse, and several types of squirrels. 

The bird list contains more than 20 species, including land birds, like blue jay and red-belly woodpecker, and waterfowl, like mallard and American pintail. 

Illegal logging in the US is unfortunately not nonexistent. The only way for you as a consumer to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with tulipwood at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, which is a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, the loss in bio-diverse forests in tropical climates is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than in temperate, well-managed logging forests. 

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Red Oak Wood

Turning red oak wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 

The first step of manufacturing red oak furniture and flooring involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Electricity is needed to run sawing machines. 

The next step is to dry lumber before turning it into furniture. If a piece of lumber can be air-dried to the desired moisture content, no added energy is needed for this step. However, if a kiln is used, it requires extra energy, which could mean higher carbon emissions.

Oak, both red and white species, is difficult to dry. Air-drying can take 6 months and leads to a loss in value exceeding 10%. Conventional kiln drying of 4/4 oak from green to 6% moisture content takes approximately 35 days

Other drying methods include dehumidification drying (approximately 36 days from green to 6% for 1-inch-thick oak) and low-temperature drying (50 days of summer conditions from green to 20%).  

It is important to note that a 20% moisture content is often not low enough for making high-quality products. Furniture, for example, requires wood with a moisture content of 6% to 8%. Thus, extra kiln-drying is necessary.

Drying times vary depending on (red) oak species. The upland’s slower growth species have lower density and are often faster to dry. 

The carbon footprint of the drying step for 1m3 of red oak lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick, is 89.7 kg CO2-eq, according to the life-cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council. That is 

  • lower than the carbon footprint of drying white oak (98.3 kg CO2-eq), 
  • more than double the carbon footprint of drying, for example, hickory, black cherry, and willow (all of which being 42.7 kg CO2-eq), 
  • more than three times the carbon footprint of drying, for example, tulipwood (25.6 kg CO2-eq).

However, a high proportion of energy (to power sawing machines and kilns) can come from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector is derived from biomass (instead of fossil fuels). Solar is another alternative energy source that can be used to run low-temperature dryers during the summer months.  

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Red Oak Wood

Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of red oak furniture and flooring due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.

As red oak trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of red oak wood furniture or household items would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany, teak, rosewood or ipe, providing they are both sold in the US. 

Calculations made by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute showed that smaller wood hauling trucks emitted more CO2 per transported cubic meters of timber: 1.25 times more than larger wood hauling trucks, 1.3 times more than sea vessels, and six times more than freight trains. Therefore, the sustainable transportation option would be rail or large trucks running on biofuel. You can check with your wood suppliers how their products are transported and opt for the more sustainable option. 

According to the life-cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council, transporting 1m3 of red oak lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick from the forest to the kiln results in 60.3 kg CO2-eq, and from the kiln to the customer in Western Europe 228 kg CO2-eq. Transporting carbon footprint (in this scenario) is more than three times higher than the drying step in manufacturing. 

Compared with some other American hardwoods, the carbon footprint of growing, manufacturing, and transporting red oak wood is the second highest, only below white oak

For example, PE International AG assessed the environmental impacts of 19 American hardwoods through stages from cradle to gate plus transport. They found a carbon footprint of 496 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter of kiln-dried red oak lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick. That is

  • lower than the carbon footprint of white oak (559 kg CO2-eq), but 
  • higher than the carbon footprint of the rest of the hardwoods studies. Examples are  hickory (463 kg CO2-eq), hard maple (342 kg CO2-eq), aspen (325 kg CO2-eq), willow (310 kg CO2-eq), and tulipwood (270 kg CO2-eq).

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Red Oak Wood

Using red oak furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 

Red oak wood is a durable material with very good overall strength properties relative to weight. Furniture made with the hard and heavy red oak wood can last a century and more as long as it is dried properly and appropriately cared for. 

When red oak wood is decayed, either naturally in the forest or because of damage caused by usage at home, the carbon stored in the wood is released back to the atmosphere. Therefore, long-lasting furniture can be considered a good way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If the wood is then reclaimed for making another piece of furniture, its positive carbon storage environmental impact is even higher. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Red Oak Wood

The end-of-life stage for red oak wood furniture and household items is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture, flooring, and household items- at the end of their life: 

  1. They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its role as carbon storage.
  2. Wood products can also be upcycled and reused, extending their role as carbon storage and reducing the fossil CO2 emitted as much as four times when comparing, for example, a recovered hardwood flooring with a new one. New wood products often travel much further to their markets, compared with recovered wood products. The latter is typically made in urban centers and sold locally, which lowers the transportation environmental burdens.
  3. In another end-of-life scenario, products like a red oak door can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, the offset won’t be as high as there is much less waste for burning. However, if such products are made from manufacturing wood waste as by-products, their carbon footprint is minimal. 

According to the life-cycle assessment done by the American Hardwood Export Council, the overall carbon emission of red oak wood is negative, largely thanks to the enormous carbon uptake during the forestry stage. 

How Can You Buy Red Oak Wood More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying any wood is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the red oak wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change. 

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can buy sustainable furniture made from red oak wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any red oak furniture for as long as you can, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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