What is heart pine?

History and how heart pine is defined today. October 30, 2003

I see the word "heartpine" used quite often in recycled wood. What are the classification differences in:
-Antique yellow pine
-Southern yellow pine
-Longleaf pine
-Heartpine (What is heart pine?)

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
Heartpine is the actual heartwood of the tree. Since pine used to be quite large when it was logged some hundred years ago, the pine trees were able to grow large enough to develop heartwood. Now that is not the case, as pine trees do not grow as big because they are harvested at an earlier age.

The "heart" is dark colored. It is decay resistant and more stable than the white/yellow sapwood.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

Heartpine is generally considered to be recycled timber from first generation trees (trees that were standing when the first settlers landed in the 1600s). I believe most of the trees were long leaf pines, many as old as 300+ years. There were probably some other pine species mixed in, but the predominate tree was the long leaf. There were approximately 80,000,000 acres of these trees and almost all were gone by 1900. This wood was the primary building material for homes and factories. It is now being recycled as heart pine. Most structures built after 1900 were from second generation trees and do not exhibit the very tight rings associated with the first generation timber. So here in North Carolina heart pine being recycled is usually first generation timber with tight growth rings (I have seen as many as 30-35 per inch) and a large heartwood (usually red to yellow to orange).

To answer your other question, southern yellow pine could be any number of southern pine species, such as loblolly, long leaf, pond pine, shortleaf pine, Virginia pine and probably others. Many of the pines have local names. I really think that many wood recyclers use the pine name that they feel will sell their product.

Anyway, if you are interested in purchasing old recycled original pine, be sure what you are getting. Prices can vary widely but, nevertheless, be prepared to pay between 5.00 to 12.00 per board foot.

Heart pine does not have to be reclaimed or centuries old. It can be the heartwood of the southern pines. Often, the reclaimed or "old" pine is called antique heart pine, while pine sawn from trees today is called new heart pine.

Incidentally, the name southern yellow pine, when referring to graded lumber, includes only the four major species. Including Virginia pine and other minor species is not proper unless the species name is changed.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

From the original questioner:
The reason for my questions is I was wondering if I can legally call antique southern yellow pine "heartpine" if it also has some sap stain. It seems as if some of the bigger name buyer/sellers do.

I have never seen a specification about the amount of heartwood required to call the wood heartpine. If there is none, then it would seem that over 50% and maybe over 75% would be reasonable. Some people might be expecting 100% heartwood; more reasonable would be 100% heartwood on one face.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

The logs we get from the rivers in Florida are "heart pine". They are not exceptionally large (approximately 40" dbh). They are very heavy, even after drying out. They are hard, for pine. They are also very gummy on the blade. A lot of the old pine trees were tapped for turpentine. They smell like turpentine, even after being submerged for over 100 years.

Heart pine as it is commonly called today is really older long leaf pine often salvaged from older structures, and reclaimed from rivers. It is extremely dense with tight growth ring counts compared to the pine that is commonly seen today. I have heard it referred to by many names, but the most common name seems to be "heart pine". It is not the true name of this type of pine, but the one most often used to describe it.

I've sawed a bit of reclaimed pine and there is a lot of "heart pine" in the old buildings. But pine having come from an old building doesn't make it "heart pine". A lot of the wood is no different than you see on today's shelves.

The old mills treasured the heart because of its insect and rot resistance. There were two markets - heart pine and the less desirable sap pine. Because there were some applications where sap wood was wanted, there was still a small market for it.

The trees they were sawing were, many times, filled with heartwood. Timbers and lumber were marketed with ten percent or less sapwood. The sapwood is creamy white to orange and the heartwood is reddish brown, getting darker with age. It wears better in a flooring situation too.

You can still cut heart pine from trees growing today. It is just that there is not as much to go after. All you have to do is provide a board with a goodly portion of heartwood in it.

Calling pine "heart pine" only because it is old and dragged from a river or because it came from an old building is just marketing. To actually be heart pine, the board must contain the heartwood of the tree.

Here is something I wrote a couple of weeks ago on another forum to answer "What is long leaf?" It's actually a species of pine, pinus palustris.

That's the "el primo" pine in our neck of the woods. Georgia/Florida. It is a slow growing dense pine with properties to self prune. It's fire tolerant because of its grass stage (the only pine that has one). The first 3 to 5 years of its life, it looks like a short clump of grass and is generating roots. Fire doesn't get to it very good. It's bark protects it as it reaches maturity. Other pines are not as fire tolerant and woods fires set by Indians and settlers caused pure stands in the 1800's. It's growth is slow and the great stands of those years have never re-developed. Slash and loblolly have taken over because of their faster growth.

Long leaf is still the prized wood of the southern woodworker. It's orange sapwood and red heartwood looks like "streak-o-lean" in younger trees and the all-heart boards are searched in old buildings. The heart wood is slow to develop and is found in the forest of yesterday which resides in buildings that are being dismantled today.

Long leaf has a strength approximating red oak and wears like iron on floors. Its large cones are used for ornaments by Christmas decorators.

The bud of the tree is called a "candle." Long leaf's candle is long, fat and white in comparison to the other pines. You can tell a long leaf at a distance because of the white candles during the season when there are growing spurts.

Pictures of old show the tree as being a prime source of naval stores. "Cat-faces," which are turpentining wounds cut on the side of the tree, would be opened up as far as a man with a pole could reach. Once the tree produced all the sap that could be harvested (usually 3-10 years) it was cut for lumber and the bottom of the tree used for firewood. You can still see many of these cat-faces in the woods with all the wood rotted away and the only thing left is the large plate of resin.

Because of their ability to self prune and because the tree grows so straight and tall, it was prized as mast for sailing vessels. Many commercial fishing boats today have keels of long leaf.

To use pine successfully in woodworking projects in today's artificially heated homes, the wood should really be kiln dried and the pitch set. Setting the pitch is just a procedure where the wood is heated until all the liquids that are volatile at that temperature boil off. Usually a temperature of 160 degrees is the hottest used and that protects it from heats generated by sitting under a window pane. The hotter the wood is gotten the fewer volatile liquids remain. Age will do the same thing, but it takes lifetimes.

I love pine.

I have never heard that heart pine was only from long leaf pine. I have seen it from loblolly pine in Virginia.

Dense growth results from competitive forests and not from plantations. You can find close growth in loblolly as well if it is forest grown.

The pitch is set at 180 F and hotter. Usually 160 F is not hot enough.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

I guess any pine can develop "heart". I've seen tight ringed loblolly and slash which was the result of competition for light in the forests as you describe, Gene. I've never seen grain in a long leaf develop the width that occurs in the other pines, though. Density of grain really has nothing to do with whether it is "heart pine" or not. Long leaf seems to grow slowly enough that it could produce the dense growth even in a plantation. Since plantations of long leaf are now being attempted successfully, I guess we will find out in 70 or 80 years.

Thanks for correcting me on the temperature to set pitch.

160 F works kinda, in some cases, so it is not wrong. But with "pitch pine" you would find that 169 F is not as good as required. So, this is certainly a special case.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

Doesn't growth ring count, per inch, merely mean that - more rings mean less girth growth and, possibly, more height growth (as you would expect in an old growth forest) and fewer rings in a fast growing plantation or reforestation situation?

You're pretty much right, though plantations can be planted thickly too.

A growth ring represents one year of growth (except for false rings when a tree may have more than one growth spurt in a year). If the tree is growing slowly in girth because of lack of nutrients or lack of light, then the growth rings will be dense. If the tree is growing in ideal situations like you may find in a plantation, then it should put on maximum girth and the rings will be wider and the wood less dense.

Lots of blanket statements about forests, trees and silviculture are "rules of thumb" so you have to use what you hear to back up your own experiences.

Long leaf pine is an example. The long leaf is a notoriously slow growing pine. It does grow faster in some environments than others but not as fast as most of the other pines in the same environment. A long leaf in a plantation will still take longer to reach marketable maturity than a loblolly growing right next to it. Loblollys are quick, generally, and I've seen growth rings in the center of a tree that exceed an inch. They are sure difficult to saw straight when they do that.

I have installed and done restoration work with thousands of dollars worth of heart pine. The minor discrepancies demonstrated here in this discussion have been reflected in the quality of product that I have received over the years from lumber brokers.

There are no national grading standards for this product, with every small reclamation mill setting their own denominations and marketing their own grades. As a result, I have learned to write my own buyers specs in requesting quotes and on purchase orders.

I include things like:
Straight red heart grain at least 85%
Growth rings no less than 12 per inch with a preferred goal of 18 or more.
Long lengths of flooring. At least fifty percent of order must be 12' to 18' usable lengths.
(Acceptable flaws defined as to pin knots and nail holes in recycled.)

I accompany these quote requests with photos of floors I have installed and of those I am attempting to match for clarity.

My customers are very discriminating and a wait of two or three months for good wood is not uncommon, but infinitely preferable to finding that 30% of an order is culls or cabin grade economy flooring. I even received an order that was clearly 90% new sapwood from loblolly and refused to accept it once. On another order that had over 30% wide grains and knots, I used those culls at my own home.

I have seen quite a lot of radiata pine, always white sapwood, but recently I was trudging through H Depot and saw a flooring display that claimed to be "heart pine." It did have nice red heartwood approximately 3" to 4" wide on a 6" board, sapwood on the edges. Small pin knots only. Sure looked liked radiata pine.

Comment from contributor A:
"Heart pine," as it is referred to, is only long leaf pine. It was the main type of pine found in the old growth forests from Virginia to Texas. This type of pine is called "heart" because when it reaches maturity the tree is mostly heartwood. This is not true of other lesser specie of pine such as loblolly and slash. The original old growth long leaf pines grew to be 300-500 years old. It contains almost twice the resin content of other types of pine and had much much higher structural strength. It was used for the tall masts of sailing ships and was referred to as "The Kings Pine" when this country was owned by England. Much of this information and more is contained in historical record of the Great Southern Lumber Company in Bogalusa, LA. This mill was opened in the early 1900's and was the largest sawmill in the world at the time, producing 1 million bdft of long leaf pine per day.