Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Long Squiggly Yellow Line

People often divide our country into North and South using a variety of metrics. There’s the Mason-Dixon line, of course. The Barbecue Line (the word means “grilled meat” in the North and “porky heaven” in the South). And so on.

I use the “Yellow Pine Line.” This fantastic material is difficult to find in many Northern climes, except as pressure-treated nastiness. And in the South, the stuff is so common that it grows on trees.

I think it’s an ideal workbench material. It’s cheap. It’s stable. It’s stiff. It’s easy to flatten. It’s available in wide widths. So it should come as no surprise that I get e-mails like this one from Paul:

I live in Aurora, Ill., a western Chicago suburb. It does not appear to be a location friendly to the Southern Yellow Pine that you’ve prized in earlier articles.  Home Depot/Lowe’s/Menards all stock, at best, SPF…so I don’t really know what I’m getting.

So now, the question , how might I best obtain woods with the density/strength that you recommend , in a land like mine that seems very un-woodworking friendly?

One note , one of your articles on Southern Yellow Pine suggested that, if it can’t be found, that we take the pickup truck down to Cincinnati. Unfortunately, that won’t be a good option for my Ford Taurus these days (though it would be fun to do).

I’ve thought of just dealing with the SPF that Home Depot offers, but I am afraid that I’d be disappointed with it in a year. I’d like my bench to last five, 10, or more years.

Well the easy answer would be to use “SPF” which is a grab-bag category for “spruce, pine or fir.” It’s certainly strong enough, though usually it’s a little soft. And some places don’t dry it as well as necessary. But the good news here is that you are actually close to the “Yellow Line.” You don’t have to come to Cincinnati to get Southern Yellow Pine. In fact, I know of some people in Chicago who have found it in the city at lumberyards (if you are out there, please chime in with the name of the yard!).

Even if you cannot find it in the city, you should be able to sneak over the border to Indiana and find some. It’s amazing how the wood choices can change radically by changing your geography slightly

And finally, let me repeat something that I’ve said about 100 times about workbench materials: Almost any wood will do. Pick something that is readily available, inexpensive, dry and stiff. You’ll be fine.

– Christopher Schwarz

Other Workbench Resources I Recommend

– Tim Celeski’s excellent workbench site:

– I actually still like my book “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use.

– We have a nice and inexpensive CD of many of the workbench and shop plans we’ve published “The Best of Shops & Workbenches.

– Watch Roy Underhill’s episodes (free!) where he builds a French bench.

26 thoughts on “The Long Squiggly Yellow Line

  1. Dave Odekirk

    Paul, two weeks ago I bought some SYP at New Glarus Lumber. For you that would be just north of the Cheese Line into Wisconsin, west of Janesville. Just follow all the tourists. Each 14′ 2×12 cost me just under $30 and they cut them into 7′ lengths for me. Compared to the equivalent amount of hard maple to build my bench, I think I got off cheap.

    SYP is as hard to find around here as are honest politicians!


    All, I just ordered the southern yellow pine to build my workbench from Fingerle Lumber in Ann Arbor, MI. John Fingerle was more then willing to order a small quantity (20 2x10x10), did not charge any special fees, and went out of his way to be helpful when other yards insisted I had to buy the whole bunk ($1,800 wholesale). He can be reached via there website at or:
    John Fingerle
    Fingerle Lumber Co.
    734 741-7721

  3. Clay Dowling

    Interesting to hear about all of the variation in quality at the big box stores, based on location. We have a lot of HD and Lowes stores in the Flint/Saginaw area, and they’re all pretty consistently poorer than Menards.

    I’m moving to Ann Arbor in the next year or two anyway, and my local lumberyard will probably become Fingerle lumber, significantly reducing my interest in what the big box stores carry.

  4. dave rodgers

    Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)

    Loblolly pine, also called Arkansas pine, North Carolina pine, or oldfield pine, is the most important commercial timber in the southeastern United States. Over 50% of the standing pine in the southeast is loblolly. The species name, taeda, comes from the Latin word for torch of resinous wood.

    Loblolly pine is found throughout much of the southeastern United States from New Jersey to central Florida and west into Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, and Oklahoma. It grows primarily in coastal plains and some Piedmont regions.

    It is widely grown in plantations for commercial timber production.

    The wood, which is marketed as SOUTHERN YELLOW PINE, is primarily used for pulp and paper but also for lumber and plywood. It may be sold interchangeably with shortleaf pine.

    From a Univ of FL website.

  5. dave ball

    In Chicago, you can find Douglas fir at local lumber yards (not HD/Lowes/Menards) for rafter material in very long and wide lengths. Typically you can go to the yard and cut it up yourself into manageable sections or they will do it for a fee. This was the route I was going to go until a trip to Marc Adams school put me across the SYP line. I hit a Lowes on the way out of Indy, spent a ton of time picking through/bothering the help to open additional bundles, loaded my Chevy CO up, and then drove slowly back to Chicago.

    One comment on Menards around here. Lowes has much better quality construction lumber. Menards has better sheet goods. HD has something in the middle on construction lumber and worse sheet goods than both. I found the same thing in Indy, which is why I bought my SYP at Lowes.

  6. Dean

    Dave, thanks for the excerpt. It sounds encouraging. I have read that even though a tree may be a desirable species, it needs to be allowed to grow to maturity to have the best wood (more rings per inch, etc.). Even if they have new long leaf southern yellow pine growing, most timber companies will harvest quite a bit short of a fully mature tree.

    However, I’ll take what they have. I still don’t know though if LLSYP is any better than “regular” southern yellow pine. Maybe someone will contribute that answer. Here’s hoping. Now I need to figure out how to close the distance between the North West where I live and the South East where Florida is.

  7. Alex Grigoriev

    "Pick something that is readily available, inexpensive, dry and stiff"

    Like… whiskey? rum?

  8. dave rodgers

    What do you think of sweetgum? It is a common wood here in central Florida and readily available at local sawmills. It has a bland color and texture like popular.

  9. dave rodgers

    Longleaf pine is the legendary southern yellow pine of forest history. While the tall, stately longleaf pine once covered 30 to 60 million acres of the southeastern United States Coastal Plain, 200 years of logging and land clearing have greatly reduced its range. Longleaf pine takes 100 to 150 years to become full size and can live to 300 years old. Modern methods of reforestation are helping to restore longleaf pine to previously cleared land. In the future, we may expect to see more of these majestic trees in the Florida landscape.

    Taken from a Univ of FL web site.

    You might have to get it from a southern sawmill.

  10. Dean

    I read “southern yellow pine”, however is this the exact same thing as “long leaf southern yellow pine”? If not, then is there enough difference between the two to make it worth using over SYP as material for a workbench?

    From a New Yankee Workshop show (building kitchen cabinets) to other sources I’ve run across, they all say that if you want “long leaf southern yellow pine” then you will need to purchase recycled LLSYP or purchase some from those that recover sunken LLSYP logs from river beds. This tells me that LLSYP is not a wood that is available at big box stores or lumber yards.

  11. Mark Steffens

    Hey Clay
    Broad brush – my mileage varies. Good wood is what you find when you look…our HD and Lowes consistenly have better selection than our two local lumberyards. That is not to say we haven’t found a stash at the locals from time to time. As the original e-mail to Chris concerned SYP, I responded to that inquiry…i.e., great SYP at HD (Exit 29 – I-94 in Michigan).

  12. Dan

    I am surprised to see Menards listed as better for quality…. Good for price yes, but the quality tends to be very hit or miss I find. They do carry more selection of stuff than Home Depot or Lowes. (or even some of the real lumber yards). For example, I was able to get 18, 20 & 22′ long 2x material there that all of the others had to order in.

    So what is the feeling of SYP vs. Fir? In the MN and WI big box stores it seems that most of the "SPF" crud is spruce, but I have noticed recently that the 2×6’s at the Home Depot and Menards have that distinct pink tinge that tells me they are fir. The 2×3’s at Lowes were also that way which surprised me.

  13. Zak Zenz-Olson

    I live in the Minneapolis, MN area and it was surprising to see the difference in Lowes locations… I happened to have Lowes next to my house that carrier a limited size selection of SYP but could not find it at any other Lowes in the metro area.. So, my recommendation would be to dig around on their website and change the store locations to see if anything pops up.. It might just be a limited selection..

  14. Clay Dowling

    Tip #1 for finding good lumber would be to stay clear of Home Depot and Lowes. These stores have many things to recommend them, but lumber and sheet goods quality is not one of them. If you are fortunate enough to have a Menards in your area, they tend to have excellent quality sheet goods and their lumber selection is much better than the other two.

    Your absolute best bet though is to go to a local lumber yard. Smaller yards are hard to find, but they tend to have better materials and better prices. When I built my shed/workshop a couple years back, my local small lumber yard gave me superior price, service and materials. The lumber was properly dried and dimensionally stable with no warping, quotes were promptly given, and material was delivered to my job site without any hassle. In fact, if you live anywhere near Flint, Michigan, check out Clio Lumber for what you need. Even the people at the big box stores recommend them.

  15. Gregg Counts

    SYP is plentiful here in Atlanta and, because of the price, it is probably what I will use for my Robou style bench. But I have two questions.

    1. Have you had any problem with the SYP being too soft for the leg vise with a wooden screw and with the tail vise by Benchcrafted? I thought I remembered reading somewhere that there was an issue with that but maybe I was dreaming.
    2. Would the sliding dovetail joint work in SYP just as well as a mortise and tenon?

  16. Mark Steffens

    I live across the Lake from Chicago.(Stevensville, MI) The Yellow Line makes a decidely northern jump here because both of our big box lumber yards(HD and Lowes) have SYP in 8"-10"-12" widths from 8′ to 12′ lengths and clear. Come on over…you can even wear your Cubs cap (just not in my house).

  17. Regina

    Horigan Urban Forest Products in Skokie has a great selection of local hardwoods taken from around Chicago: maple, oak, black cherry, spruce, and my personal favorite white ash.

  18. Thomas J. Hamernik

    I live in neighboring Downers Grove, IL (another Western Suburb of Chicago). I share Paul’s misery – no SYP to be found, and good D. Fir is almost as rare.

  19. Jan Goris

    Lots of SYP in St Louis, a short (and very flat) 300 miles south. Of course, you will have to leave your Cubs hat at home.

  20. Josh

    I went to Great Northern Lumber and was informed (very politely, but with a small measure of confusion and incredulity) that they are unable to accommodate orders of such small quantities. The gentleman I spoke with was perfectly nice, but clearly uncomfortable to even have a customer on the lot. However, I didn’t wheedle or cajole or try and lubricate the deal in the Chicago way.

  21. Ross Manning

    We don’t get SYP in Australia (not that I am aware of, anyway) but I have had success in using Douglass Fir (what we call Oregon here). I have used 12" x 3" to minimise the amount of glue-up needed, and it has resulted in a great workbench top.


  22. Rick Lapp

    I stocked up on some nice clear (and green wet) ash last fall. It’s stickered in my barn loft waiting…. I already built the base with some white oak left over from another project; that puppy has some heft. Rick


    Hee. Hee hee.

    After years and years of reading how maple is what benches should be made of, and my whining about how expensive that ‘imported from the wrong side of the Mason Dixon Line’ stuff is compared to southern yellow pine, I now revel that I can go to my local big-box here in Atlanta and get SYP for cheap.

    What’s more, I regularly visit the Home Depot down the corner and buy dimensional culls and shorts for dirt-cheep. They’re awesome for whatcha want to do. ($2.01 might get you a high grade 6 foot 2×10. 4 foot 2×6 or smaller at $0.51. Luck of the draw.)

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