View Full Version : what's the deal with pine?

11-03-2000, 10:26 AM
Hello all. I've been lurking for quite a while, and doing much book reading, but I'm not yet a builder. However, while doing all this reading, I've gotten very confused on the issue of pine for boatbuilding.

Hereabouts, pine seems to be largely dismissed as not durable, yet in reading Gardner's "Building Classic Small Craft," I find a couple-three articles devoted to craft he says can be built from "readily available" dimensioned pine boards. No talk of epoxy encapsulation.

I've seen plenty of mentions of pine garden stakes decomposing within a year, but untreated wood in open soil and primed/painted wood in water (esp. salt) are very different things, and I wonder about the relevance of these mentions.

Can somebody please shed some difinitive light? First hand accounts of pine used in boats would be most appreciated.

Scott Rosen
11-03-2000, 11:04 AM
What do you mean by "pine"? There's lots of different woods with widely varying suitability for boat building that some folks call "pine". Also, it will depend on what you build and how you build it. Maybe you could tell us a little more.

11-03-2000, 11:27 AM
Well, I guess I'm wondering what Gardner was writing about. Might we assume, being a native of east coast US, that he was talking about pinus strobus?

One clear mention I can recall is his advice for using it to plank a flatiron skiff for clamming. He provides the caveat that it shouldn't be expected to last much more'n 10 years, but that is a non-trivial lifespan for an amateur-built boat.

The implication I've found on the forum is that a skiff of pinus strobus would be an exercise in stupidity - with a lifespan of much much less than 10 years. That opinion is difficult to reconcile with Gardner, and is why I ask.

11-03-2000, 12:46 PM
I am no expert on wood, but I have used two different kinds of "pine" available here on the east coast, and they are so different that its amazing they have the same name. There is what lumberyards tend to call white pine or ponderosa pine, it is light in color, light in weight, always seems knotty, and I have used it for garden stakes and putting it in the ground is like dipping it in acid, you can watch the bottom eating away as you pound the stake in. Then there is yellow pine, which is distinctly yellow, very heavy, like oak, very hard, distinct grain. This wood used to be used for floors around here, and is still used for stairs, and you can buy wide clear planks of it, rounded on one end, that are meant to be made into stair treads. It is very strong and hard. I have not used it for stakes, but I have a suspicion that this is what Gardner is talking about, and following his advice I used it for the bottom of my sea bright skiff.

11-03-2000, 02:56 PM
"Western Pine aka Ponderosa Pine aka Sugar Pine aka Idaho Pine"

aka? Also Known As? Take out the aka and I would have no quibble with what you say, Dave. Ponderosa is a three needle or yellow pine. Sugar is a five needle or white pine. I've had my hands on some very pitchy and heavy Ponderosa but for the most part is is not. Still it is a yellow pine (three needled) same as "Pitch Pine", just a different species from a different part of the country.

And, what ever Gradner was talking about I bet it was old growth stuff.


Bruce Hooke
11-03-2000, 03:42 PM
Here is my understanding of the situation:

For boatbuilding purposes I would break pine down into 3 groups: Western, Southern Yellow, and Eastern White. Western Pine (Ponderosa, etc.) is the usual lumberyard stuff and, as others have said, I would consider it mostly for temporary bracing, jigs, and that sort of thing.

Southern Yellow pine, if it is good quality stock, is increadibly hard, dense, rot-resistant wood. Unfortunately the best stuff was the old-growth which is, for all practical purposes, gone; and the best stuff now being cut goes in bulk to the truss and ladder makers of the world. That said, if you can get good quality yellow pine (look for tighly spaced growth rings) it is great for planking, decking and many other boatbuilding uses.

Eastern White Pine is the famed wood of colonial days that in the larger sizes was reserved for the Kings Navy. What the King wanted it for was masts since it grows tall and straight and since it is relatively light in weight. In New England it was (and is) used for planking and such like particularly on small craft, so I think that's probably what Gardiner was referring to unless he said yellow pine. White Pine's rot resistance is very poor and it is a very soft wood so I think I would be right in saying that it was used more in workboats where cost was critical and the assumption may have been that other factors would probably kill the boat before rot had enough time to really set in. On the other hand, for a small boat that will be "dry sailed" and stored under cover it might be just the right choice since it is light and quite easy to work. On other hand, good white pine is not the easiest stuff, or the cheapest stuff, to get these days so some of its old advantage may not be there anymore.

- Hope that helps...

- Bruce

11-03-2000, 06:07 PM
Part of this debate stems from the difference between old growth and "new" growth. Old growth white pine was rated as moderately durable, old growth yellow pine, "finast kind." Old growth white pine (pinus strobus), was(is) widely used in skiffs, dories, and various carvel and strip planked craft. Old growth yellow pine is one of the best all around boat woods ever. A shame so much of it went into warehouse frames and house flooring.

So, where does it leave ya? I wonder how good some of the wide, second growth pine I've seen here in New England is. I used to work with boards 25 inches wide in the heart regularly. We used them for panelling. The old growth I've seen in wainscottin' here was up to ten inches wider. What was it, about the transitional forest (all forests are transitional), of the old growth pine that is virtually gone, that made it moderately durable?

People in New England are still using the heartwood of pinus strobus to plank dories, skiffs, and strip planked boats, with seeming good affect.

Any wood you use has to be selected for heartwood. What are you building? Best, Jack

Tom Lathrop
11-03-2000, 09:35 PM
I can't make any claim to expert knowlege on the subject of "heart pine" but I think it goes like this. In order to have pine that will be durable, the sap carrying channels must become blocked with resins that not only prevent moisture entrance to the grain but chemically resist organic growth.

If a tree is plantation grown it will grow very fast with wide growth rings (lots of soft, weaker fibers) and insufficient time for the interior of the tree to develop resin protected heart wood. A tree growm in a natural forest will grow slower since it will have to compete for sun and nutrients with other trees crowding nearby. Thus the growth rings will be narrow (less soft, weak fibers) and there will be adequate time to deposite resins in the older, dead interior of the tree.

The choice wood for keels and planking in the south has been the heavy resinous heart of old growth long leaf pine. Current yellow pine found at the southern lumberyard is mostly the faster maturing loblolly which is plantation grown. Not too bad for strength and durability but not in the same class with old long leaf. Compared to soft (white) pines or spruces, I'd rate it as much stronger and more durable.

Ian McColgin
11-04-2000, 07:32 AM
Just curious Roger: Were you having fun with the old terminology that called some bulk cargoes of pine 'deal'?

11-04-2000, 08:27 AM
Gardner is talking about eastern white pine. I have built quite a few skiffs out of eastern white pine and most of them are close to 20 years old with no rot. These boats are left in all or most of the year. I wouldn't worry about finding old growth stock or using boards with small knots, just build the boat and enjoy it. In the northeast you should have no problem locating a local mill that saws white pine, and the price will most probably be less than $1.00/ft.

11-04-2000, 04:15 PM
i've got a fifty-plus year old skiff i rescued off the ground behind a friend's barn, whence it had been sitting for a dozen years, white pine planks and bottom boards. I was able to save half of the original bottom boards and the planks are fine except for a couple of gommy spots inside where piles of pine needles sat against them. I use white pine for planking sides and bottoms, old-growth, second growth or whatever i can get, and try to pick out slow-grown pieces. in my experience, if taken reasonably good care of, it will last a good long time.

11-05-2000, 10:07 PM
Before glass and plastic boats were used much on the freshwater lakes in my area, most skiffs were made of white pine. It may have had more to do with the low cost and ease of working than the durability, but it was generally accepted as the material of choice.

Some boats did have cross-planked bottoms of tongue-and-grooved yellow pine; normally they tarred the daylights out of the bottom, anyway (in lieu, I suppose, of actually caulking it).

Wilson Fitt
12-17-2000, 04:25 PM
Styles come and go in wood like everything else. Eastern white pine is a wonderful wood to work, and reasonably available in long wide pieces. A couple of hundred years ago it was thought to be the best of the best with severe penalties for cutting the King's trees. I think I read somewhere (maybe in WoodenBoat so it must have been true) that teak was considered a poor second to eastern white pine for decks of the mighty British navy. That seems to be a stretch to me, but there's nothing wrong with it. You can spend a lot of time and money looking for the "best" according to the pundits, or you can do what people have been doing for years: buy what is available in your patch of woods and get on with the job. In the end rot will be caused by poor ventilation, standing water, or leaky decks even in the finest materials.

Ross Faneuf
12-17-2000, 06:45 PM
When I was kid (approx 50 years ago) skiffs built of second growth eastern white pine were a commonplace on NH lakes. With paint and maintenance, a lifespan of 40 years wasn't unusual.

There's a nice picture in Dana Story's 'Building the Blackfish) p. 112 with a clear view of the (structural) forecastle bulkhead, with is identified in the text as pine, and sure looks like #2 white pine, knots and all. There are also a couple of pine fashion pieces on either side of the transom (p. 132). And this was a schooner yacht - I believe the working schooners used more pine.

12-17-2000, 07:38 PM
I must weigh in on the subject of pine. Many old boats were built with yellow pine especially the frames and ribs. One big reason was the avaliabilty of it for the cost or lack of. The planking was built of juniper or cedar depending on where you lived for the weight and workability. The work boats where built out of it not worrying about how long it would last but put together and go. The pines were from old growth so as to weather the many storms and winds. As pine age it becomes very much full of the sap or oil that closes the pores of it. It was more of the ease than anything else. Most of the yellow pine now is plantation grown -15 years. Nothing in the span of long life. All of the rest is not sutible if you wish any longlife. With the porous nature it will sweel and contract.

12-17-2000, 07:44 PM
Hi folks. Here in Nova Scotia white pine has been used for boat planking just about forever.Many a fine schooner has been planked with this wood and it seems to have suited. Up here the workboats were built with what was at hand including white and red pine, yellow birch and red oak,( blasphmy),none of which are rated as durable.The point is they worked for the 10 to 20 year lifespan of a working boat. Skiffs,doreys and small pulling boats are still made of pine. Good white pine is still available if you look around or know a small mill. It's a joy to work and should provide many years of watertight planking if reasonably maintained.Similar woods are found and have been used in Maine.

Wayne Williams
12-18-2000, 12:00 AM
Maybe I'm adding to what's already been said but:

Of the commonly available domestic woods yellow pine is second only to white oak for strength, and a close second at that. It has a favorable rot resistance though not so good as white oak. It's one failing as a boatbuilding lumber is that it doesn't bend worth a flip. There's a casual mention of this fact in American Small Sailing Craft in the context of southern or gulf coast sailing craft. You may have noticed that the whitehalls, seabright skiffs, and peapods all have curvy shapes and all come from the Northeast.

If you buy larger sizes of dimensioned lumber (2X12's or 2X14's) you can find excellent close-grained stock. Bigger pieces have to come from bigger and therefore older trees.

You might use yellow pine anywhere you would use white oak except for steam bending - breasthooks, knees, sawn frames, etc. Yellow pine is heavy though so planking an entire boat, though possible if there's not a lot of twist, will add weight. Finally yellow pine has a difficult grain with tremendous variation in density. I've seen nails driven into it turn right around and come back out the side they were started from.

Lastly, all those old barns, warehouses, and factories are being recycled for flooring. The stuff sold as heart pine in magazines like Fine Homebuilding is old growth yellow pine. Don't know how it would be for boatbuilding. I swear the older that stuff gets the harder and more ornery it gets.


Steve McMahon
12-18-2000, 07:31 AM
I will second what Reddog said, except suggest that the life of reasonably cared for pine on oak framed boats lasted much longer than 10-15 years. I think the pines used are Eastern White (Pinus Strobus), aslo known in some area's as soft pine ( 5 needles per group), and Red Pine (Pinus Resinosa) or locally known in some area's as hard pine (bundles of two needles). I heartily agree that the best source for boatbuilding wood is a small mill - I try to use guys with small bandsaw mills like woodmizers etc. Even if the price is a bit higher for the wood you save big in the long run because they usually have more interest in what you are doing and cut you better stuff.

12-18-2000, 08:54 AM
I grew up on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay and file planked bottoms in white pine was the standard in my youth. The material and method can still be seen today. The skiff I sailed as a teenager was this way and long lived. After years of dragging over oyster beds and rock lined shores had it's toll taken, but repairs are a normal thing. She was finally sheathed to the boot stripe with 'glass, before a storm took her from me in my early twenties.

[This message has been edited by SailBoatDude (edited 12-18-2000).]

Frank Wentzel
12-18-2000, 08:55 AM
An addition to Wayne's comments about old growth yellow pine. My mother-in-law's house is built of this wood. With age it does indeed get harder. It is impossible to drive a nail in most of the trim-work at her place. If you don't drill a hole first the nail will just bend. The wood also becomes extremely flammable as it ages. Cut up in small pieces it is known as fat-lighter and is used to start the fireplace. One touch with a match and it burns like it was soaked in kerosene.

12-18-2000, 04:38 PM
As far as actual experience with pine planking goes,we have a salmon wherry built around 1976 in Mass., of white pine. No rot to date but some of the planks have split along the lap fastenings due to my,gasp,negligence.Left it bottom up in the sun for too long.Please don't go too hard on me as I have now joined procrastinator's ann.
Seariously,though, the pine stands up fine.Keep the stuff painted and stored under cover and it should last a long time.I intend to replace the Tidley Idley's planks with white or red pine from a local source.
Good luck.

CK 17
08-29-2002, 09:33 PM
Great discussion on pine guys!! Anybody have an opinion on vertical vs. flat grain for planking? If I choose white pine, would vertical grain be more stable? There are several local mills in my area that seem to be willing to work with me.

Joe Schena

Keith Wilson
08-29-2002, 10:55 PM
FWIW, (one data point) I'm currently replacing one of the sheerstrakes on a 40-year-old boat planked in White Pine. Rot started in the end grain at a badly sealed butt block. The rest of the planking is fine.

If you can get vertical grain without too much trouble, do. It changes shape less and more predictably when the moisture content changes.