Whitewood is a term that you will hear bandied about in woodworking supplier circles that requires some explanation, especially to the new woodworker. What makes the issue around Whitewood more confusing is that it can have different meanings in different locations. So, what is Whitewood, and how can you use it in your projects?
Whitewood can refer to any light-colored wood stocked as cheap timber by suppliers. It is usually spruce, fir, or pine but can also refer to the American Tulip tree, which is also known as Whitewood. It can be used to make indoor furniture, décor, and outdoor projects if treated correctly.
Even though Whitewood can mean different types of woods in different locations, they all generally have similar characteristics and uses, which is why they are often grouped together under this generic term. However, in some locations, the term whitewood refers to a specific species of tree, which makes for great furniture making!
What Is Whitewood?
The term whitewood is a bit confusing for many woodworkers, in part because there are so many different definitions.
For some lumberyards, it means all of the white-colored woods that they have on hand to sell, and others may only offer one particular species, which the defined as Whitewood, while still others define any piece with sapwood as “whitewood” even if it has heartwood mixed in.
In many big-box stores, Whitewood is classified as any coniferous wood such as fir or pine, and sometimes even spruce that the store can purchase in bulk cheaply and sell on to their customers.
In this particular context, it is very difficult to know the characteristics of the wood that you are dealing with unless the species is denoted on the label or you can identify it yourself. If you need help on how to buy wood for woodworking – see my article which explains how.
In many hardware stores of big-box stores, you may see some abbreviations n the labels of whitewoods. You will find abbreviations such as SPF, SYF, or SYP, which can give you a clue as to the tree that the lumber comes from.
The SPF abbreviation indicates that the wood is either White Pine, Douglas Fir, or Spruce; this is the most common lumber type in these stores. The SYF grade denotes that the wood is from a Fir tree, while the SYP abbreviation is indicative that the wood is Southern Yellow Pine.
The species of trees that are offered under this generic term can differ widely depending on the local availability of the wood.
The Whitewood Species
When a furniture manufacturer labels their creations as 100% Whitewood, they are more often than not referring to a specific tree, the American tulip tree or Liriodendron tulipifera. This tree is prolific across most of North America and is known by various common names in different locations.
This tree is often referred to as Yellow-poplar, even though it is not a poplar tree, and is also known as the fiddle tree, tulipwood, tulip poplar, and of course, Whitewood.
This tree has been named the state tree for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. It grows relatively fast, but the wood is strong and robust, which is uncommon in other fast-growing trees.
The wood that the tulip tree or the whitewood tree produces is a soft but fine-grained wood. The wood is often called poplar in the USA, which is derived from the name “yellow-poplar,” which is one of its names. When this wood is exported outside of the USA, it is marketed as American tulipwood. It is a very stable wood that works easily and is cheap because the trees are fast-growing.
The characteristics of this wood are very similar to white pine, which is one reason why this wood is included in the generic whitewood term that is used by many lumberyards and big-box stores. Best places to buy wood for your next project
Pros And Cons Of Whitewood
Most of the tree species that are marketed under the whitewood label have very similar characteristics in their wood, which is why they can all be lumped under this generic term.
For this reason, even if you don’t know the exact species of tree that you are purchasing under the “whitewood” label, the characteristics would be very similar among all the species. This implies that to a certain extent, you know what to expect from the type of wood, how it works, and what projects you can use the timber for.
We will examine some of the pros and cons of using these whitewoods, and the characteristics discussed will apply to all the species that fall under the whitewood classification because their wood is so similar.
Pros Of Whitewood
We will start by reviewing the advantages of using Whitewood for your projects and what you can expect the wood to perform like, and the quality you can expect from the end product. Sometimes, Whitewood is not used throughout the entire project but used as accent pieces of items that are made from more expensive woods.
It is also sometimes used as filler pieces to reduce the amount of expensive wood used in a project, particularly in areas of the piece that are not visible. This helps to reduce the cost of projects made from more expensive wood.
Most of the trees that Whitewood is obtained from do not have particularly hardwoods. In fact, many of them are classified as softwoods. This aspect of the character of the wood can be a pro or a con in your project.
The pro with regards to the softwood is the ease with which you can work with this wood. It is easy to cut, easy to drill, and easy to sand. Because of these features, the project not only goes faster, but the wood does gentler on your tools and abrasives.
This means that it will not make cutting tools dull, and it won’t cause you to wear out your entire stock of abrasives when sanding the wood to a fine finish.
The Light Color
The color of the wood has advantages in that it can be used to accent pieces that have dark wood, and it also can be stained to almost any color you like to match other woods used in the project.
The whitewoods accept stain very well, and because the wood is soft, the stain penetrates deep into the wood, which gives richness and depth to the stained wood. It also means that the stain will not fade as easily and will not get worn away as easily when you use abrasives on the surface to finish the project.
Whitewood Accepts Finishes Very Well
Because of the loose fibers in the wood, whitewoods accept finishes such as varnish and paint extremely well. These finishes soak deep into the wood, which provides a number of advantages.
- The finish will protect the wood extremely well because it had gone deep into the wood.
- The finish will be longer-lasting on the wood because of the deep penetrations and will thus require less frequent maintenance.
- The finish is much smoother and gives more vibrance, richness, and depth because of the way the wood accepts the finish, so your projects look good when complete.
Did you know you can stain wood to be lighter? Check out this article.
Suitability For Outdoor Projects
Because Whitewood accepts finishes so well and penetrates deep into the wood, finishes that are intended to protect the wood in the outdoors work very well on this wood.
If you have given your whitewood project the correct finish, you can expect durability and longevity for your outdoor wood project with this type of material. Of course, any wood will deteriorate in the outdoors, so you will need to do regular maintenance on an outdoor project to keep it in prime conditions and ensure the longevity of the wood.
Probably the most attractive quality of whitewood timber is its price. Because the trees that are grouped in this classification are generally fast-growing trees and often grown in plantations specifically for the timber industry, the price is generally quite low.
The American tulip tree, in particular, which is a common whitewood timber tree, can easily grow to 40-feet tall in a relatively short timeframe of 15-years. These trees also re-grow very easily once they have been harvested, which makes them a very sustainable form of timber.
Because of the rate at which these trees grow and their widespread distribution, they are common and easily grown in many environments.
These characteristics all contribute to the timber having a very low price at the lumberyard or on the shelves of big-box stores.
Trees that produce hardwoods and more exotic woods are typically slow-growing trees and also have much more limited distribution. These factors, combined with the fact that hardwood is more difficult to mill, contribute to the high prices of hardwoods. Discover how much it really costs to set up your woodwork shop.
Cons Of Whitewood
Products that are served up as bulk buys and are offered at low prices in comparison to similar products usually come with some disadvantages associated with them. Whitewood is no different, and there are some downsides to this wood that you as a woodworker should be aware of.
You Don’t Know What You Are Getting
One of the main downsides to a general classification of timber that encompasses many different trees is that you do not know with certainty what species of tree that you are buying.
This may offer some level of frustration when you are trying to match grains of wood, color variants, and other characteristics in a project or piece of furniture.
This can be a particular annoyance when you are conducting a repair on a piece of furniture, and you need to match the wood as closely as possible to make the repair as less obvious as you can.
Most of the trees that are used to supply the whitewoods to major market distributors are prone to having knots in the wood.
In some cases, knots add a level of visual appeal and a certain level of character to the wood and, thus, the finished piece. However, knots in the wood can be problematic, and if the wood has many knots, it can become difficult to work.
Knots can cause weak points in the wood and are often the location where cracks in the timber start and can cause the wood to warp because of the difference in densities between the knots and the rest of the wood.
Knots in the wood are very hard and can make the wood difficult to work and even damage and dull woodworking tools.
For this reason, many woodworkers who buy this type of lumber will take the time to select each board carefully to choose the ones that have the least knots in the wood.
The American tulip tree, a common whitewood species, will typically have many more knots in pine, which itself is well known for the number of knots that occur in the wood.
Because the whitewoods are relatively softwoods, they are very absorbent. This was listed as a pro earlier because it promotes stains, finishes, and paints being absorbed deep into the wood.
While this is a benefit for the protection of the wood, it does mean that you will often use more quantities and more coats of these products because they penetrate deeply into the wood.
This will increase the quantities of these products that you use and may increase the costs associated with completing a project out of this type of wood.
Another disadvantage of the absorbent nature of this wood is its tendency to absorb water and moisture. This can result in the wood easily warping and cracking when it is not protected properly from moisture or water.
Consequently, if you are going to use this wood for an outdoor project, it is extremely important to treat it properly with good quality sealants and finishes. This will make sure the wood will last a long time in an outdoor setting.
Because whitewoods are absorbent, if they are not treated correctly to make them more waterproof, the wood will absorb water. This can have the undesirable result of the development of mold within the wood and cause it to rot relatively quickly in comparison to other types of wood. See my article showing you how to protect wood from mold.
For this reason, whitewoods are more suitable for indoor projects, but even in this setting, you should finish the project with a good sealer to prevent moisture absorption.
However, the rotting is usually only a problem if the wood is left outside in bad weather for a long time, or the sealants and protective coatings were not properly applied.
What Can You Use Whitewood For?
Whitewood can be used for most household projects with an indoor application, and if treated correctly, whitewood can be used for outdoor projects as well.
When used for outdoor projects, it should be with the understanding that even with the right treatment, the project may not last as long as it would if you used a more robust timber such as Cedar. However, the cost of better outdoor timber may be prohibitive for your project.
Whitewood can be used for building cupboards, cabinets, coffee tables, kitchen tables, picture frames, and shelving. The wood is also strong enough to build weight-bearing structures such as beds.
It is also very popular for smaller projects such as nightstands, trays, jewelry boxes, wine racks, and cutting boards.
The versatility of the wood and the way that it accepts stains and finishes allow you to change the look of your project, even to the point of making it look like it is made from a more expensive lumber.
The wood also works great for outdoor projects such as porch benches, picnic tables, and even smaller projects such as bird feeders and planter boxes. Discover the 10 best woods for a workbench.
What many people miss is that these whitewoods also have a very attractive grain, even with the odd knot or two, and it can be finished to accentuate this beauty in the wood, or it can be finished to a rustic farmhouse look and feel.
The light color of the wood also gives the ability to use it as accent pieces on a project to contrast against darker woods and bring a different dimension to the project.
Whitewoods will be around for a long time because they are an easily renewable resource, and they are common woods that grow easily in a variety of environments.
The main factor that the wood is so popular for home woodworkers is because it is cost-effective, readily available, and the wood is attractive and versatile.
The low cost of this lumber makes it attractive to commercial ventures, and it is used to good effect for building kitchen cupboards, built-in cupboards, and even decorative pieces such as coffee tables and bookshelves.
The limits to what you can do with this wood are restricted only by your imagination. So, you no longer have any excuse to prevent you from starting your own wood project at home! Get to your local lumber yard and pick up some whitewood and enjoy making something creative from this easy-to-use wood!
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