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The Magic of White Pine

By Tom Caspar

Aah, the magic of white pine. Just saying the name makes me
smile. For a hand tool guy like me, it hardly gets any
better; white pine is easy to plane, saw and pare. And
the shavings smell so good, they transport me right
back to the forest.

White pine (Pinus strobus) isn’t your ordinary lumberyard
pine. Construction lumber is usually a mixture
of spruce, other types of pine,
and fir (SPF, for short). These woods
are denser and have a more
uneven texture than white
pine. SPF pieces are also likely
to move a lot after they’re
sawn, for two reasons.
First, SPF is frequently
sawn from
trees, so
boards often contain the pith. Second,
construction lumber has a high moisture content
(MC). It’s only dried down to about 17 percent
MC, so the wood has a ways to go before it stabilizes.
White pine, on the other hand, is often cut from huge
trees, far from the pith, and is usually available kilndried
down to 7 to 9 percent MC, ready to be used in
the woodshop.

Once dried, white pine is exceptionally stable and a
pleasure to work. It shrinks and swells less than red oak
or hard maple, for example, and is about on par with
cherry. It has a uniform texture with inconspicuous
growth rings, unlike construction lumber. You won’t
have the aggravation of catching an edge while planing
or paring through alternating sections of soft earlywood
and hard latewood. Your plane or chisel just glides right
through the wood–except the knots, of course.

American woodworkers have always valued white
pine. It was widely used in the colonial era for making
everyday furniture because it was so plentiful and easy
to work by hand. White pine’s figure is fairly plain, so
pieces were often stained or painted to brighten them
up. White pine is pretty soft and easy to ding or
scratch. It proudly bears its scars, though. All that old,
humble furniture shows its history, and that’s a big part
of its charm. For fancier work, white pine was often
used as a secondary wood. Many cabinetmakers used
it for drawer sides and bottoms, cabinet backs, and
as a ground for veneering.

White pine’s appearance changes as it ages.
Freshly cut, it’s usually a pale straw color. Exposed to
air and light, it turns a deeper yellow, like maple. But
unlike maple, it keeps getting darker, eventually turning
a warm brown. This patina extends down into the
wood. If you plane an aged white pine board that’s
been recycled from an old building (left), you’ll see
a wide variety of colors reveal themselves with
every pass. Eventually, you’ll get to the
wood’s original pale color, but the
wood that’s just under that old surface
still has a lot to say: I’m an
American classic, and I’m proud of it.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April/May 2009, issue #141.

April/May 2009, issue #141

Purchase this back issue.

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