I use Southern yellow pine for a lot of shop projects, especially for building workbenches and sawbenches. But I also use it for some furniture. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of using the stuff, it’s to always buy the longest boards possible.
Why? Long boards are clear(er) of knots and other defects. In fact, 16’-long 2x12s are remarkably clear.
Yellow pine and other structural softwoods are graded differently than hardwoods. While hardwoods are graded mostly on appearance, softwoods are used to build houses, and so their mechanical strength is more important than their visual beauty.
In fact, if you dive into the topic of softwood grading, you’ll find a lot of “mechanical grades” of lumber that have been tested by machine. Ignore these grades. These are expensive – if you can find them.
Instead, if you’re a furniture maker, look for softwoods that are visually graded and are No. 2 prime – that’s my favorite grade and it’s available at most home centers that sell untreated yellow pine.
No. 2 prime is dirt cheap – a 2×12 x 16’ is less than $30 in the Midwest. (That’s less than $1 a board foot of nominal thickness.)
And, as I mentioned above, when you buy a 16’ board, it’s almost all clear material. Why? Defects make a board weaker. Clear wood is generally stronger. So the 16’-long 2x12s are designed to span long sections of floors and ceilings. So they have to be clear to be strong enough to do this job.
Most furniture makers don’t need 16’-long boards. So we can cut these beauties up into shorter pieces with fewer knots.
The only disadvantage to these long boards is moving them. Solution: I carry a $20 Sharptooth saw in my truck so I can knock down these 16’ boards into manageable chunks, sometimes leaving the knotty sections with the home center to mulch.
So if you are building a workbench from yellow pine this year, look for lumberyards that carry 16’ lengths. When you get there, ask (nicely) if they could open a new bunk for you. Pick your wood and stack the remainder neatly.
And enjoy the clear wood.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Want to read about yellow pine grading? Click here and get ready for a lot of charts, graphs and equations.