What is The Difference Between Whitewood and Pine?

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Wood comes in a variety of colors by name – redwoods, green wood, and even whitewood.

Redwoods get their name because of the bark and heartwood, with their reddish-brown color.  The color comes from a high tannin level in the wood.  In addition to the tannin level, redwoods have other chemicals in their leaves and bark that give the wood a high resistance to fungal diseases and insect infestation.

Green wood isn’t necessarily green.  It’s more like the “greenhorn” from television western lore, the new guy, inexperienced in the ways of the west.  Green wood is new, also wood that has only recently been cut and hasn’t had the time yet to cure (dry out) and its inner moisture to evaporate.

In that same vein, whitewood does refer to color, but not necessarily to the color of the wood.  It’s closer to white than other woods, but still not white.  Let’s examine this a little more closely.

What is Whitewood?

The big DIY home improvement stores and lumber yards use whitewood as a generic term and not for any specific species of tree.  In those stores, whitewood is more likely to be spruce, pine, or fir, and the species will change depending on availability and price.

Each of those species of tree grows quickly and is plentiful in the marketplace.  For this reason, these stores and lumber yards will keep in stock whatever they can source and sell it simply as “whitewood.”

However, true whitewood does refer to a specific species of tree.  The technical name is Liriodendron tulipifera and is known as the tulip tree, or American tulip tree, or tulip poplar, in addition, to simply whitewood.  It is the tallest eastern hardwood, reaching upwards of 160’ in height, and can be found from New England to northern Florida but not west of the Mississippi.

Don’t be confused by its designation as a hardwood, though.  We’ve written about hardwoods and softwoods in the past, and you will find one of those articles here.

Hardwoods come from angiosperm trees, trees that flower, like oak and walnut; softwoods, on the other hand, come from gymnosperm trees and evergreen conifer trees (they make cones) like pine and spruce.

Hardwoods are the better choice for furniture and flooring or anything that needs to last, grow more slowly and costs more; softwoods represent about 80% of all lumber, grow quickly, and are less expensive.

Whitewood is a hardwood and a good choice for furniture projects.  Notwithstanding its name, it is not white, but it is light in color and with a creamy or light brown tinge to it.  It is a valuable hardwood that grows relatively quickly, although not as quickly as pine.

Is Whitewood Pine?  

Air Dried Lumber

No, as we have just told you.  However, that does not prevent lumber yards or the big DIY home improvement stores from selling pine as whitewood.  

When that happens, though, you will see the sticker on the lumber say something like Whitewood SYP.  This will mean it is actually southern yellow pine (SYP), one of the most common lumbers sold.  They are very similar in appearance and sometimes can be hard to distinguish from one another.

Is Whitewood Durable?

Whitewood is not especially durable on its own and, if being used for an outdoor project, will need to be sealed.  It is not naturally rot-resistant as other woods are, like cedar or the aforementioned redwood.  

Frankly, you would be wiser choosing pressure-treated lumber for your outdoor projects or a naturally water-resistant wood like cedar.  While not completely resistant to rot, cedar is considered a durable wood as long as it does not come in direct contact with the ground.  

We’ve written about cedar in the past, also, and you can find some information about our cedar writing here.  

We mention this because just like cedar benefits from sealing, it is essential to treat and seal whitewood if its use will be for outdoor projects.  

Pine tends to be more durable than whitewood, also.  As a result, pine will tend to be more expensive than whitewood, too.  We mentioned using pressure-treated woods for your outdoor projects before you consider whitewood, and much of the pressure-treated wood available at your local lumber yards and the big DIY home improvement stores is pine.  

Because pine is the more durable of the two woods, it’s a better choice for home building and even flooring.  Whitewood, on the other hand, is often chosen for more common projects and will be less expensive than pine.

Does Whitewood Stain Well?

Although whitewood is not actually white, it is lighter in color than most other woods.  Its lighter color is the attraction for woodworkers.  As such, it does take to stain fairly well.  While darker woods like cherry and walnut can make a room feel a bit heavy, the lighter color of whitewood can brighten a room when it is used to make furniture.

As a lighter-colored wood, whitewood can take a light shade of stain very well and look great.  It can even take some color in its stain and retain its overall lightness to brighten any room when used for the room’s furniture.

Both whitewood and redwood season well, but you will find that whitewood is more apt to distort – bow or warp.  This is especially true when it’s been used for an outdoor project and has not been treated and sealed.  That first rain is going to ruin it, frankly.

Because of its color and desirability for it, whitewood is often left natural by woodworkers or, if treated, will be finished with a clear coat.  When finishing whitewood with color, though, it’s important that it has some texture to it.

This can be achieved by roughing up its otherwise naturally occurring smoothness.  Swiping the wood’s surface with a little acetone to open up the wood’s pores will result in better stain penetration.  

However, in that open-pore condition, a stain can be absorbed too quickly and unevenly, resulting in a blotchy finish.  A pre-stain product like a Minwax Pre-Stain conditioner will be very helpful in filling some of those pores and allowing a stain to penetrate more evenly without being sucked up quickly here and there for that blotchy appearance we want to avoid.

As an interesting aside, the whitest natural wood is actually holly.  There are over 200 species of holly, meaning it is easily sourced for any project calling for true white wood.  

1 qt Minwax 61500 Clear Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner
  • PRE-STAIN TREATMENT FOR ALL WOOD – Ensure wood projects look great with Minwax Pre-Stain Wood…
  • PREVENT BLOTCHES – By Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner prior to staining with oil-based wood…
  • ASSURES EVEN STAIN PENETRATION – Wood is porous, and tends to absorb stain unevenly. But this wood…

How Can You Tell Whitewood from Pine?

Both whitewood and pine are similar in density and color and are relatively easy to work with on your projects.  However, it really is necessary to have them side by side to note very subtle differences if your eyes are keen.

  • Color.  Whitewood will be more apt to have a creamy hue to it, while pine will be just a little bit darker.
  • Knots.  Knots are another distinguishing feature between whitewood and pine.  Whitewood will tend to have more knots.  Knots will make smooth and even cuts problematic, and some saws will end up snagging on knots.  A handsaw might not be the best choice, and we would recommend a power saw, perhaps a band saw, with which you can also make batch cuts.
  • Pine, with fewer knots that would otherwise require a workout when cutting and project planning, can be the easier option and better choice if you need a more knot-free wood for your project.
  • Density.  Pine will tend to be a bit denser than whitewood.  While the difference can be minimal depending on the type of pine you choose, it is a real distinction.  However, it can also be a distinction without a difference depending on your particular project.
  • Uses.  For the most part, whitewood and pine can be used interchangeably.  Whitewood may be the better choice for simple projects like cabinet components, doors, handles for knives, furniture, and small pieces.  But, if the slight difference in density and knot frequency is a concern for your project, pine is the better choice.
  • Lasting.  Both whitewood and pine are considered durable woods.  Each should give your project upwards of 15 years of good use.

    However, whitewood is a bit more porous than pine and will absorb moisture and water more readily.  This will lead to bowing and warping.  Whitewood, therefore, will require more ongoing maintenance and care that water and moisture be gone.
  • Cost.  With its greater density and fewer knots, and richer color as compared with the more creamy color of whitewood, pine is the more expensive of the two.  Whitewood will run between 50% and 80% of the cost of pine, depending on quality and grade.  

For smaller projects or projects requiring a more careful cut or an ornamental touch, whitewood will suit your project well.  For something requiring more heft and sturdiness, pine is the better choice.

How To Tell If You Are Buying Whitewood or Pine

The easiest way to tell, of course, is to ask the lumber yard attendant.  But, you can also verify easily.

Lumber comes with labels attached to tell you what you are getting.  Depending on what the label says, you might be getting:

  • SPF – meaning you’re getting Douglas fir, spruce, or white pine
  • SYP – meaning you’re getting southern yellow pine
  • SYF – meaning you are getting pine or fir

So, check the labels to know what it is you are buying and make sure it is what you actually want.

While we were unable to find a video specifically on point distinguishing between whitewood and pine, we did find an interesting video on staining whitewood.  

The differences between whitewood and pine may seem somewhat subtle, but there are nonetheless differences.  Which one you choose for your project will depend on the project itself and the use to which your project will be put.

Whitewood is probably a bad idea for outdoor use, even with a sealant.  Pressure-treated pine is a much better choice.

But for indoor projects, whether furniture or ornamental work, whitewood will be the better choice – less expensive, creamier color that takes to stains well with some extra care in application, a nice grain that cuts well with a band saw.  Because it is so porous and susceptible to moisture damage, even for indoor projects, treatment with a sealer is a wise idea.

Red, green, white…wood can be distinguished by color, yes.  Here’s one piece of trivia that has nothing to do with wood but also involves red, green, and white.  The following countries have flags with those three colors in them, most notably Italy.  However, so do Mexico, Bulgaria, Algeria, Hungary, Oman, and more.

We want well-informed woodworkers with us here at Obsessed Woodworking, and in addition to whitewood and pine, you now know a few things about national flags, too.

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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