Wood of the Month:
Southern Yellow Pine a Longtime Favorite

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Pinus palustris (longleaf pine); Pinus echinata (shortleaf pine); Pinus taeda (loblolly pine) and Pinus elliottii (slash pine) all of the Family Pinaceae.

Longleaf pine: Florida pine, Georgia hard pine, North Carolina pitch pine, Texas long leaved pine and turpentine pine. Shortleaf pine: Carolina pine, North Carolina pine, pitch pine and yellow pine. Loblolly pine: basset pine, black pine, boxtail pine, longleaf, black pine rosemary pine, old-field pine, bull pine, Indian pine and longstraw pine. Slash pine: meadow pine, salt water pine, spruce pine, she pitch pine and swamp pine.

Longleaf pines are usually 100 to 120 ft tall with diameters of 2 to 2-1/2 ft. Average weight for the Southern yellow pine is 41 to 43 lbs per cubic ft with a specific gravity of 0.67.

According to the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, "longleaf and slash pine are classed as heavy, strong, stiff, hard and moderately high in shock resistance. Shortleaf and loblolly pine are usually somewhat lighter in weight than longleaf. All the Southern pines have moderately large shrinkage but are stable when properly seasoned." The timber can have moderate resistance to cutting edges with machine and hand tools. Long pitched saws are recommended to reduce resin problems. Pine can be nailed satisfactorily, glues well and accepts finishing treatments well with preparation. Steam bending is not recommended.

Pine trees are conifers, with narrow needles for leaves and seeds that grow in cones. In addition to being plentiful in the United States and Canada, the trees are fast-growing and can be harvested after only about 40 years, compared to twice that long for an average hardwood.

Pine trees are commonly divided into two main groups: white pines, which are also known as the soft pines, and yellow pines, a.k.a. the hard pines. Despite being designated as either hard or soft pines, all pines are actually softwoods.

One Name, 10 Species
Southern yellow pine is a name used to describe 10 species of conifers, all of them basically indistinguishable when sawn. Most southern pine lumber grows in the southern and south Atlantic states, with the greatest production from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

The United States Department of Agriculture's "Wood Handbook - Wood as an Engineering Material" explains the commercial classification and appearance of the four principal species of southern yellow pine: "Lumber from any one or from any mixture of two or more of these species is classified as southern pine by the grading standards of the industry. The wood of the various Southern pines is quite similar in appearance. The sapwood is yellowish white and heartwood reddish brown. The sapwood is usually wide in second growth stands. Heartwood begins to form when the tree is about 20 years old."

The Peoples' Wood
Southern yellow pine has no shortage of important uses - it is used extensively in construction, interior trim, outdoor decking, flooring, plywood and furniture. Early uses included shipbuilding, railroad construction and bridge construction. Pine's by-products, such as turpentine, resin, pitch and tar, are almost as important and widely used as the wood itself. While pine is highly regarded by consumers, it is not usually considered a premier cabinet wood on the order of such domestics as cherry and walnut. Still, pine's use in furniture has been constant since Colonial days and has been enjoying a recent increase in popularity due partly to its abundance and relative low cost. Pine is currently a popular choice for armoires, bedroom and dining room furniture, occasional pieces, desks and cabinetry.

Jane Struthers, author of Decorating With Wood, calls pine "the most commonly used softwood of all." She says that since the late 1980s, pine has "enjoyed a tremendous revival of popularity and interest." Yellow pine, radiata pine, pitch pine, ponderosa pine and western white pine "are some of the most commonly grown trees."

Old Growth, New Markets
Any discussion of southern yellow pines should include mention of old growth and virgin timber, which had been completely harvested by the turn of the century. Virgin growth heart pine is especially prized because of its tight grain and dense heartwood.

The trees, typically found in the southeastern United States, were usually tall, some upwards of 160 feet, with clear boles and diameters up to 5 feet wide. These trees were strong, hard and very resistant to attacks from nature or climate.

Recent technology allows loggers to reclaim unsawn wood logged long ago and lost to riverbeds and lake bottoms. That trend, combined with salvaging timber from buildings built prior to 1900, means that old-growth or heart pine is once again available on a limited basis. Companies such as Goodwin Heart Pine Co. of Micanopy, FL, sell heart pine lumber from these recovered the logs, some of which are more than 200 years old. Goodwin dries and mills the logs for customers who pay premium prices for wood that was once believed to be unavailable.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.