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The Magic of White Pine


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 small-diameter 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

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