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I am planning an open wood staircase for new home in white oak and the cost is getting out of hand. The plan is to stain some parts dark and other parts light.

I am wondering if I could use red oak instead of white oak but make the red oak look more like white oak— the grain of red oak when stained is just too prominent.

So, my question is: Can red oak be bleached first and then stained to look more like white oak? (With something like Circa 1850 wood bleach?)

Or is it better to apply lighter stain or wood conditioner so subsequently added darker stain color will apply more evenly?

Cheers, Amy

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    Honestly, with questions like this the only thing that matters is your results with your trials using the material you have. No doubt there will be some informed opinions given as answers, but your best answer will be try a few different techniques on some test pieces and see for yourself the results for your lumber.
    – user5572
    Apr 24, 2022 at 14:08
  • What do you call white oak…? A lot of people miss the fact that Asha is called white oak. Nov 30, 2023 at 0:49

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There's some terminology confusion here. In conventional parlance you don't "stain" wood light. Stain only alters the basic colouration of wood1 or makes it darker, or both. Although there are various ways to colour wood a little lighter (including just using diluted white paint!) this isn't technically staining.

So, my question is: Can red oak be bleached first and then stained to look more like white oak?

Yes you can bleach all woods to make them lighter, using any of the two-part or A+B bleaches2. With a fairly typical red oak I'm not sure if you would need to stain it after to make it look like white oak, it could already be within the correct colour range. Obviously this is something that would need some experimentation, and it might vary with your wood which leads on to the next point.....

What colour is each anyway?
All wood varies to begin with (sometimes quite a lot) so we're never just dealing with a single colour no matter what the wood is. And there's heartwood v sapwood, the sapwood usually being lighter, sometimes much lighter as in walnut. Additionally, the dividing line between what's sold commercially as white or red oak isn't nearly as clear as the books and endless magazine articles might lead us to believe!

In reality there is no one White Oak or Red Oak, but various subspecies that are assigned to two categories (see the Wood Database and other resources for more). And some are much less characteristic of their supposed colouring/features than one would expect3.

So in short, it's possible to find some red oak that's already quite similar to white oak — within the range of colouring that white oak naturally exhibits — so you wouldn't have to do anything to it at all.

Chestnut
I presume you're in the US or Canada so this probably isn't an option since you lost virtually all your chestnuts to a blight last century, but elsewhere in the world chestnut would be a viable and possibly much cheaper alternative. It's long been referred to as "poor man's oak" it can look so similar, although it lacks oak's striking quarter-sawn figure or ray flecking (which obviously can be beneficial in some applications)

Thanks to @gnicko from the Comments:

Sassafras
While it's often stated that this is a close match or good substitute for American ash, as well as chestnut (the Wood Database entry mentions both), you can clearly see in images online that it can also look a heck of a lot like typical white oak. I would expect some regional variation on the availability of sassafras so you'd need to check local mills and/or hardwood dealers to see if they stock it.


1 Changes the hue — more reddish, yellowish etc.

2 Sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide, mixed together or used in sequence. Use with caution!

3 Despite how confident most of us are that we can tell which is which on sight, this is why some hardwood dealers and wood experts won't ID a piece of oak as one or the other unless they have it in front of them and can examine the prepared end grain with a loupe or microscope O_O

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    Sassafrass is cheaper yet and can look a lot like oak if you select the right boards.
    – gnicko
    Apr 30, 2022 at 0:12
  • @gnicko, good to know, thanks.
    – Graphus
    Apr 30, 2022 at 18:30
  • @gnicko, just looked around at many photos of sassafrass. While it's often stated to be a close match to American ash and chestnut whoa nelly it sure can look a lot like white oak! There are one or two edits I need to do to the Answer anyway but I'd definitely need to update it to include this anyway, so it's as informative as poss for future searchers.
    – Graphus
    Apr 30, 2022 at 18:51
  • Yes. It's hit or miss...but when it hits, it hits. And working with it makes your whole shop smell like root beer!
    – gnicko
    May 1, 2022 at 1:23

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