The South's hardest-working softwood.
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You probably know longleaf pine best as treated boards and posts for decks and fences, or as dimension lumber for building construction. Yet in the past, longleaf pine played other serious roles, too. Along with its cousin pitch pine, longleaf pine was an important contributor to the United States' naval stores' industry. The trees' pitch or gum was collected, then distilled into turpentine and resin, which was used in the manufacture of paint, varnish, shoe polish, printing ink, and other products. Longleaf pine also admirably served as flooring, interior trim, and millwork such as doors and windows in grand homes throughout the Southeast and Deep South. The hard, heavy wood stood up well to abuse and looked great at the same time. Too, because longleaf pine has superior strength for a softwood, it was sawn into large beams and girders for use in bridges, trestles, and other heavy construction. Today, this once-prominent species of the original southern pine forest has made a comeback. Not only is it a mainstay for the treated-wood and construction industry, but it's finding its way into cabinetry, doors, windows, and other architectural elements.

Wood identification

A part of the southern pine family that includes loblolly, slash, and shortleaf pine, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) grows best in the coastal plain from southern Virginia through the Carolinas into Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. The species thrives in moist, but well-drained, deep, sandy soil where it reaches 100' heights and diameters of 3'. The trunks of mature trees have orange-brown bark broken into papery scales. In keeping with its name, longleaf pine features slender, flexible needles up to 18" long carried on the branches in groups of three. Cones up to 10" long develop in the second season following its blooms. Longleaf pine has a very thin band of nearly white sapwood surrounding its resinous orange-yellow heartwood. The wood rates as straight-grained, extremely hard, strong, durable, and, at about 42 pounds per cubic foot air-dry, nearly as heavy as sugar maple. Rapidly grown plantation trees produce wood with a somewhat coarse texture, resulting from the difference in density between light earlywood and heavier latewood.


Uses in woodworking

Mills across the South process the newly appreciated longleaf pine into cabinet-class lumber as well as an extensive list of construction and architectural grades. That means you can craft it into just about anything. Don't plan on using it for naturally finished projects outdoors, though, unless you buy the treated variety or coat it with primer and paint.


Home centers and lumberyards carry longleaf pine boards (called Southern pine) in common grades (Nos. 1, 2, etc.), but not always the clearer finish grades (C, C&Btr.). These may have to be special-ordered. Better grades run about $1 per board foot. Longleaf pines are large trees, which means that you can buy thick, wide boards and timbers greater than 5X5". Finish-grade boards, generally clear except for a few tight knots, are your best bet for natural-finish projects. Otherwise, No. 1 Common and Better will yield about 66 2/3 percent clear cuttings. Because longleaf pine has primarily been delivered to the construction industry, even kiln-dried wood can have a moisture content of from 15-19 percent. The drier boards carry a stamp that reads either "KD15" or "MC15"-averaging about 12 percent. Even this wood you'll want to store for a few weeks in your shop and let it acclimate to the relative humidity. When you're ready to work it, heed the following guidelines.


Machining methods

  • Although botanically classified as a softwood, you'll find longleaf pine to be quite a hard wood. So use power, not hand tools.
  • Because this species of pine is a resinous one, the pitch or gum tends to collect on saw blades and other cutting edges. To avoid the burning and blade wander that comes from gum buildup during ripping, stop occasionally to wipe the saw teeth with acetone or oven cleaner. Or, switch to a Teflon-coated blade. Remember the pitch when routing, too.
  • Much like Douglas fir, longleaf pine has a tendency to chip and splinter on cuts across the grain. Use a backing board.
  • Drill this wood at faster drill press speeds than hardwood, but make it a practice to back the bit out of deep holes to remove cuttings that might burn.
  • Although resin can cause problems in sawing and cutting, it doesn't hinder adhesives, unless there,s an obvious sap pocket in the joint.
  • Before painting, seal any knots or pockets in the wood with shellac to prevent bleed-through.
  • Longleaf pine accepts stains nicely if you first prepare the wood with a thinned washcoat of shellac or wood conditioner to get even stain penetration.
  • All pines, but especially long-leaf, tend to darken with age, so select your stain color or clear finish with that in mind.

Carving comments

  • The difference in hardness between the latewood and earlywood makes the wood very difficult for detail work.
  • Because of splintering, limit long cuts with the grain.
  • Clean gum buildup from power-carving cutters.

Turning tips

  • Let any resin droplets on turned wood dry. Then scrape them off before finishing.

Shop-Tested Techniques

Any exceptions-and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species-appear under other headings on this page.

  • For stability in use, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent.
  • Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured or that with twisted grain at a slight angle (about 15°), and take shallow cuts of about 132 ".
  • For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade having 24-32 teeth. Smooth crosscutting requires at least a 40-tooth blade.
  • Avoid using twist drills. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use brad-point bits and a backing board under the workpiece to reduce tearout.
  • Drill pilot holes for screws.
  • Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
  • Carving softwoods generally means fairly steep gouge bevels-20° or more-and deeper cuts.
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