Oak and elm trees are both picturesque and can be found in landscapes all across the United States. If you’re choosing between an oak and an elm tree for landscaping or building material, it is important to know their distinctions so you can pick between the everlasting elm vs. oak differences.
Elm trees grow taller, but oak trees are wider than elm trees. Elms have non-invasive root systems and are more tolerant than oaks against poor quality soils. Oak trees are harder and more durable than elm trees, making oaks a more popular for construction like flooring and cabinetry.
You may automatically think that you should choose oak because it’s harder and more durable, but that’s not always the case! By the time you’ve finished this blog post, you’ll know the key differences between oaks and elms as well as which type of wood to choose when building a specific item. Let’s jump in!
Is Oak Or Elm Wood Harder?
In terms of hardness, oak trees have harder wood than elm trees, especially red oaks. It’s not as hard as hickory or American walnut, but it is considered one of the strongest in the North American market.
Since oak is also more durable than elm, it is often chosen over elm for projects. However, because it’s harder, oak wood is prone to cracking and splintering when cut into. It also needs care and maintenance to keep it from shrinking and cracking once it’s been turned into furniture or flooring.
As for elms, the wood tends getting out of shape easily and is more vulnerable to insect attacks than oak. It’s still a durable and hard wood, but these cons make it slightly less valuable than oak wood and ultimately a less popular choice.
What Determines Wood Hardness?
Oregon State University explains that trees’ wood is made up of cellulose that is bound together by lignin, and its hardness is determined by how dense that is. The wood’s cells are shaped like whiskers and the way they lay determines whether or not it’s hardwood or softwood.
Hardwoods have more hollow whisker cells, and oak trees in particular have resin in the hardwood that fills the cells and makes them even harder.
The Janka scale is the official test for the hardness and stability of wood. This is done by measuring how much force it takes to push a .444-inch steel ball .222 inches into the wood, which is measured by pounds force.
The red oak tree has a score of 1290, which means it is particularly hard. It’s even used as the standard that other wood types are tested against. Elm trees have a hardness rating of 830, which means it’s considered “soft hardwood”.
3 Differences Between Oaks And Elms
Now, onto the good stuff. Here are 3 differences between elm and oak trees to watch out for.
1. Elm Trees Are Taller Than Oak Trees
Both of these trees grow in different sizes and shapes. You can expect an elm tree to grow to about 60 to 80 feet and an oak tree to be about 60 to 100 feet tall.
2. Oak Trees Are Wider Than Elm Trees
As far as the wideness of the canopy, oak trees reach out further than elms to a shocking 100 feet wide. More often than not, oaks are wider than they are tall.
Elms, on the other hand, can stretch to about 60 feet wide. As with any living thing, the size dimensions are only averages and can of course have exceptions with especially old and healthy trees.
3. Oak Trees Are More Expensive Than Elm Trees
Sometimes cost is a factor if you’re purchasing a live oak or elm to put in your yard. Tall oak tree seedlings cost up to $35 and elm seedlings cost a little less at around $20.
Oaks range in price from $200 to $400 for a 10-foot tree. You can expect to pay less for an elm at about $120 for a tree between 6 and 7 feet. Matured trees above a certain height will cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
White oaks are the most valuable tree you can have out of the two species and because of that cost more, especially when they are mature.
Elm And Oak Tree Shared Qualities
Elm and Oak tress have a lot of similarities and differences, but are ultimately low-maintenance trees and common choices for a lot of homeowners and builders. One of the similarities between oaks and elms is their lifespan. Oaks can live up to 150 to 400 years, while elms live around 150 to 300 years.
Oaks and elms also require virtually the same care. Both trees enjoy full sun and moist, well-draining soil. Elm trees can handle partial shade but do very well with a lot of sun. Experts recommend fertilizing each tree once or twice a year. As far as pruning, they both do well with a trim once every 3 years.
As for prices, the two types of wood these trees produce cost about the same per board. Typically, elm costs about $3.50 to $6.50 per square foot, and oak costs slightly more, around $4.50 to $10.50 per square foot. Although they have their special uses, both of these woods are used for making furniture and flooring.
The Elm Tree
You will recognize the umbrella-shaped elm tree by its light to dark green leaves that are oval-shaped with a pointy tip and small saw-toothed edges. When they turn yellow in the fall, they showcase the full beauty that makes them great additions to yards and city streets across the United States.
Elm trees have the kind of bark that you’d picture if I told you to imagine a basic tree. It’s dark brownish-gray, has deep ridges, and looks kind of scaly. It’s also super useful, which I’ll talk about later on!
Although they’re not as popular as oaks, elm trees are great choices for yards because they provide a lot of shade and are generally very easy to take care of. Elm trees were very popular in urban areas until Dutch Elm Disease wiped a lot of them out. The ones that are still used in these areas were chosen because they give excellent shade for roads. Sometimes their canopies connect and provide an even bigger area of shade.
Despite many of them being wiped out by Dutch Elm Disease, scientists have created hybrid species that are resistant to it, so they’ve been making a comeback! We’re rooting for you Elms!
The Mighty Oak Tree
Oaks are known for their strength and elegant height; they’re even referred to as trees’ king of kings! An oak tree is easily recognized by its unique leaves, also called broadleaves, that are flat with multiple rounded lobes as the edges. They are green in color but turn red or brown in the fall.
As oak trees age, their bark changes from silvery brown to light gray or very dark brown. The bark has deep ridges all over its surface. Like the elm, the oak trees’ bark is very useful.
Because of how beautiful and stately they are, oak trees are used as landscaping trees all over American yards. They are rich in foliage and have wide canopies that can stretch to other nearby trees. And besides giving plenty of shade, oak trees are hardy and can handle all sorts of weather changes.
That’s All You Need to Know!
Now that you’re informed, you’ll know exactly which tree you want to use either as a landscaping addition or as timber.
To recap—oaks are harder, more durable, and grow bigger than elm trees. However, elms are hardier in rougher soils and are less likely to cause major root problems to structures as oaks do.
As for similarities, both trees require the same care and are used to add beauty and shade to yards. Both of the trees’ wood cost pretty much the same although oak tends to be slightly more expensive. And lastly, you’ll see both of these trees used for flooring and furniture.
All in all, you really can’t go wrong with either of these trees. It all depends on you! Whether you’re shading a corner of the yard or building a desk, the oak and the elm will both provide pleasant results.
Scheffer, T. C., & Morrell, J. J. (1998). Natural durability of wood: A worldwide checklist of species.
Vörös, Á., & Németh, R. (2020, July). The history of wood hardness tests. In IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science (Vol. 505, No. 1, p. 012020). IOP Publishing.