Until a few years ago, I thought longleaf pine was just a regional nickname for some sort of “real” pine — you know, like Norway or white pine. (For example, in the South, where longleaf hails from, a “coke” can be Mountain Dew, ginger ale or, heavens forbid … a Pepsi.) Then I hooked up with Tim Knight and Rhett Johnson, two foresters who at the time were located in southern Alabama. While we were engaged in an entirely separate pursuit (quail hunting), they educated me about the long and romantic history of this sovereign species, which (of course) piqued my curiosity about the possibility of using it for fine woodworking.
Hardwood or Softwood?
When you compare longleaf pine to most of its cousins, it actually has more in common with hardwood lumber — in terms of density, durability and workability — than softwoods (say, Norway or white pine, for example). In addition, its resinous nature makes it extremely rot-resistant. It grows straight and tall with tight annual rings. When cut in quarter-sawn fashion, it presents a lovely figure that evokes old-growth Douglas fir, but with a creamier background, offset by rich reddish and orange hues. In short, it is a stunningly beautiful wood to look at. While it is a true softwood, to think of it in terms of its more common pine lumber cousins would be a serious disservice to this unique wood, akin to comparing a Ferarri to a minivan — simply because they both have wheels.
A Glorious Past
Historically, longleaf was used to build everything from fine furniture, barns and cabins, flooring, beams and rafters to the tall ships of the Gilded Age. Recently, reclaimed longleaf lumber has become a much desired commodity in Britain. Vast supplies of it were shipped to England by the antebellum South, and now it has become all the rage. In the Northeast U.S., piers that accepted the Atlantic trade ships of our Colonial days were mostly made of longleaf pine — because it is so rot-resistant. It’s fair to presume that the Boston Tea Party was carried out on longleaf pine planks.
Building a Sustainable Future
While the vast majority of longleaf pine’s original range has been lost, the species is being actively managed and responsibly harvested in its remaining acres. Organizations like the Longleaf Alliance www.longleafalliance.org) and Tall Timbers (www.talltimbers.org) are working to increase longleaf acreage and lumber production.
Presently, most newly harvested longleaf lumber still goes into the building trades. Flooring and structural uses (where extreme strength is required) are its main products. But woodworkers are beginning to rediscover the beautiful nature of longleaf and use it more and more in furniture making. Until recently, most of the furniture made from longleaf came from reclaimed sources. Because of its limited nature, this wood tended to be expensive, but it was the easiest way for woodworkers to get their hands on high quality stock. Now, longleaf is becoming easier to come by in kiln-dried, newly harvested lumber. (The easiest way to find it today is at Rockler Woodworking and Hardware — visit rockler.com for locations.)
Because my Alabama friends sent me home with a significant stash of lovely quartersawn longleaf, I have had the opportunity to build and work with the lumber. I have turned it into cake serving dishes, built cabinets and even made speaker boxes for my son’s car stereo components from the stock I brought home. It is a well-behaved wood that works well with hand and power tools. It glues up and sands well, and it smells wonderful as you machine it. The only tip I would offer to those of you thinking of giving it a go in your shop involves the finishing process. Because of its highly resinous nature, I use a shellac-based sealing coat on my longleaf projects. With that step as a base, my finishes have always looked wonderful. I may be overly cautious, but I don’t like my finishes going awry.
With quality longleaf stock now starting to enter the woodworking market, I would expect that it will soon find a new and comfortable place in home workshops. This is sure to be a pleasant chapter in the storied and romantic history of this king of the pines.