The majority of us are quite content only understanding certain aspects of the building of homes and furniture. We expect it to be safe and stable. Outside of that, we’re usually unconcerned with the exact materials that go into the building. Many people look at wooden furniture and simply don’t care what type of wood is used, as long as it is not plywood. There is a difference between woods, though.
Again, many people may recognize the wood, but cannot place the type it is. If it’s a lighter wood, it’s likely pine, and if it’s dark wood, it’s probably mahogany, right? Stains have altered the way we look at woods in their finished products. Two very common types of wood that are used in construction due to its prevalence and affordability, are whitewood and pine.
Wait a minute. I’ve heard that pine and whitewood are the same types of wood. What gives? The truth is there are differences between the two, and we’ll take a look at those differences. We’ll also discuss common uses for each and how best to work with it.
What Is Pine?
Ah, the smell of Christmas. Nothing says Christmas like a beautifully decorated and fragrant pine tree. Pine trees are from the genus Pinus. It is a coniferous tree, which means that it grows needle-like leaves and produces cones for reproduction. Of course, many foodies, like myself, know these pine cones are the producers of tasty pine nuts, which are the tree’s seeds.
Pine trees are fast growers, which makes them excellent products for lumber companies. Most pines can grow between one and two feet a year. While these are typically cut down for Christmas trees in about seven years, pine trees can grow up to 100 feet before they are harvested. This typically takes about 20 to 30 years to fully mature. The 120 species of pine grow all over the world, but most used for lumber are grown in the Northeast of North America.
There are two types of wood that are harvested by lumber yards: sapwood and heartwood. More common is the sapwood because this is the outer wood that is fresh growth. The wood is fine-grained and creamy in color.
Some pine woods are more yellow than white, but it depends on the type of pine tree used. The knots that contrast with the creamy wood tend to be much darker. Because of its coloring and striations, this is considered a “rustic” choice for wood and great for projects that want that rustic quality.
Heartwood is the interior of the tree that is no longer growing. It is denser, harder, and darker in color. You’ll recognize heartwood as reddish because of the resin that resides within the grains. These boards tend to be rarer given how old they are and are often reclaimed from older homes and projects.
What Is Whitewood?
You may be hard-pressed to find an exact definition of whitewood. Whitewood is a marketing term to blanket several types of trees that are used for lumber. This even includes pine at times (maddening, I know). If you spot a label that says SYP whitewood, it means it is made from Southern Yellow Pine. Typically, you’ll find that whitewood refers to spruce, yellow poplar, and tulip poplar trees. Though two poplar trees are mentioned, these are not part of the poplar genus (again, maddening).
For the rest of this article, we’ll focus on the most common tree when referring to whitewood: the tulip tree.
The tulip tree is part of the genus Liriodendron tulipifera. The tulip tree provides soft, smooth wood that is light in both color and weight. This tree is typically found along the Eastern Coast of North America, traveling from Canada down to Florida. The sapwood tends to be an off-white cream, while the heartwood of the tulip tree is greenish with stripes of other colors throughout. The colors depend on the soil they grew in, sometimes creating a rainbow effect.
The beauty of the tulip tree is that it grows rather quickly and tall. This means lumber yards can have a quicker turnover for their tulip trees than some other woods, like oak. They can typically grow up to 25 inches in a year, usually reaching 20 feet in just ten years. Overall, tulip trees can grow as high as 160 feet, which is a whole lot of lumber to harvest. These reasons make the tulip tree very valuable in the lumber game.
Lumber and construction companies use a scale called the Janka scale to understand the hardness of lumber. This looks at how hardy the wood is, how easy it is to use in projects, and how much pressure it can withstand.
To do this, a very small steel ball is driven halfway through a piece of wood, and the pressure needed to do so is measured. The higher the number, the better rating on the Janka scale. For instance, the hardest non-fossilized wood on the Janka scale is Brazilian Ipe at 3680. A more common type that you may recognize is Santos Mahogany with a Janka number of 2200.
So, where do pine and whitewood fall on this scale? Both pine and whitewood are considered softwoods, so you can expect the numbers to be quite low on the scale.
Yellow pine, which is a common pine cut down for lumber, falls at 690. However, the Eastern white pine only falls at 380, which shows that different kinds of pine are better for certain projects. For reference, most woods are not considered hard enough for flooring unless they are at 1000. The tulip tree, which we agree is whitewood, has a Janka number of 540.
Because these are softer woods, they are excellent for construction and building projects. Why is this? Well, it is affordable wood for DIYers who may make accidents. It is also easy to cut, sand, and use on a lathe. However, because it is softer, it dings very easily. Even picking up the lumber can cause your fingernails to leave crescent shapes behind in the wood.
Whitewood Vs Pine
So, which is better? This is really up to the builder and what they are looking for, but there are a few specific differences between pine and whitewood of which you should be aware.
One of the largest differences between whitewood and pine is knots. We have all heard of knotty wood pine, meaning there are knots in pine, right? Well, whitewood tends to be overrun by knots. This may need to be done by comparing the two side-by-side, but you will see a distinct difference in the number of knots.
While this is mostly covered by the Janka scale, the weight of the two kinds of wood is different. Whitewood has smaller cells but weighs less than pine wood. Again, this will likely need to be done in a side-by-side comparison, but you will notice the difference in weight for similar-sized pieces.
There are many reasons that the cost varies when looking at pine versus whitewood. Perhaps the main cause is that pine is seen as the more versatile wood. It is often used for building furniture, flooring, decks, and other structures, while whitewood is the better DIY building wood. Whitewood is typically used for common nondecorative items, such as floorboards and door jambs.
Another possible reason for the lower cost of whitewood is because it grows so quickly and largely that there is more lumber milled per tree harvested. Of course, supply-and-demand drives everything, and because of the pandemic, many people were seeking out both kinds of wood for home projects. This caused prices to rise quite a bit.
This may seem to be the oddball characteristic, but whitewood is very spongy. It will suck in moisture very easily, which causes it to warp and rot more quickly than pine. This is worth noting in case you live in humid or wet areas and plan to use the wood outdoors. Even treated whitewood is likely to rot more quickly than treated pine.
This will not be helpful when distinguishing between the two types of wood, but it may help you to understand which will work best for you. Whitewood is naturally termite resistant, while pine happens to be one of the woods to which termites are drawn. Of course, if you consider a pressure-treated pine, the chemicals used will make the wood fungus-, rot-, and bug-resistant.
Burning Whitewood and Pine
This is not so much a difference as something to note: both of these woods work well for campfires. Since these are both softwoods, they are excellent for splitting. Harder woods are denser and tend to burn more slowly. Because of this, hardwoods work better for warmth and slow burns in the winter months.
However, out in the bonfire or at camp, the huge crackling flames that are typically associated with the romantic scene can be found when using fast-burning woods, like pine and whitewood.
Pine is one of those woods that people argue about. Should you paint pine or leave it naked? Is it better to stain pine or leave it with just a covering of polyurethane?
Each person has their own opinion on this. If you’re looking for a rustic charm to a project, you’ll want to leave the pine in its natural state, using only stain and a finish to make it look its best and last longer. However, some pine projects are better painted, and there is nothing wrong with that. You should just look at the project to decide what materials you’ll need to finish the project.
Many pieces of pine that are used outdoors are pressure-treated pine. This can be both stained and painted, but you need to let it season and dry before doing either. Since this is being used outdoors, you may want to consider using oil-based paint because this is more weather-resistant and hardy than latex-based paints. Oil-based is water-resistant and provides a final hard shell, which helps to prolong the top layer of paint. Of course, before painting, you should lay down a layer of primer.
If you are painting an indoor project, your options are a bit more open. A popular project with pine is that pesky knotty pine that you find in the paneling. Do you love it or hate it? Either way, if you plan to paint over the natural wood look, consider using a shellac primer. This works great for the pine walls that have already been varnished. It will also allow you to use any kind of paint that you want.
Because whitewood is such a smooth wood, paint does not stick to it as well as it does to pine. This doesn’t mean you are unable to paint the final product if you use whitewood, you just need to be aware of the difficulties that may present. First, as mentioned before, whitewood is very absorbent. This is also a factor when painting, as it can soak in too much paint or stain, causing the wood to hold onto that moisture.
When you are ready to paint the whitewood project, you want to open up the cells of the wood and create texture for the paint to stick. To do this, you will first want to sand down the wood, even if it has already been sanded to your liking- just give the wood a light scratching (go with the grain).
Next, you’ll want to mix some acetone with whatever paint you are using. The acetone helps to open up those cells in the wood, allowing for the wood to take the paint. Allow the paint to dry before sanding lightly and applying another coat. Follow this process no matter the number of layers you use.
Staining whitewood can also be tricky. Since it is so absorbent, it will suck in that stain and cause a blotchy finish. To avoid this, it’s best if you purchase a pre-stain to apply before staining. This should help to prevent the whitewood from getting blotchy.
Once you’ve done this, follow the same method you would for any other paint and staining project. It’s worth noting that water-based paints and stains will work better on whitewood than oil-based counterparts because it is so absorbent. Of course, you can always leave the natural look of the wood and apply layers of polyurethane to protect the wood.