What is White Wood Lumber and What Should it Be Used For?


Whether you are an expert carpenter or are beginning your first home project, you might be curious about the implications of various types of wood- white wood lumber as one of them. Stumbling upon this type of wood might have you curious about how to use it in your work.

White wood lumber comes from the liriodendron tulipifera (American tulip tree), but many retailers claim other softwood (pine, fir, & spruce) as white wood and mark them as SYP, SYF, or SPF. White wood can be carved easily for indoor projects but gets damaged when wet, so avoid exposure to rain.

So, as you take a closer look at white wood lumber, it is essential to pay attention to if you are purchasing and enjoying the benefits of authentic white wood, or if you are working with another variation of softwood that is light in color. Either way, this type of wood is excellent for working with on any project with the smallest details to a large showstopper. Continue reading to learn more about what white wood lumber is and what it should be used for.

What is White Wood Lumber?

As we explore what white wood lumber is, it is essential to note the difference in what white wood lumber technically is and what is sometimes sold under the pretense of white wood lumber (but with a few identifiable markers distinguishing the two). While both can be bought and sold while being marketed as the same thing, the quality of wood differs.

Liriodendron Tulipifera White Wood vs. Coniferous Sources

Technically speaking, white wood lumber stems from the American tulip tree or the liriodendron tulipifera. It is creamy in its coloration, though it can range from a milky white to a more yellowish color- closely resembling yellow pine.

Interestingly, many retailers and home improvement stores either do not have access to this type of wood (that is regional to the northeastern United States) or prefer to sell softwood with lighter wood tones under the pretense of the name “white wood”.

In this case, you will find that the white wood lumber you are purchasing is not from the American tulip tree but other types of coniferous sources such as pine, fir, and spruce. These are also softwood sources and are light in color, so it can be difficult for an untrained eye to tell the difference.

Identifiable Markers (SYP, SYF, and SPF)

If coniferous sources of wood are being sold as white wood lumber, they will have various markers indicating the differences here. These identifiable markers include SYP, SYF, and SPF.

SYP indicates that you are purchasing southern yellow pine hardwood rather than wood from the American tulip tree (authentic white wood). SYF indicates that you are purchasing pine or fir hardwood, while the SPF marker, in this case, shows that you are buying Douglas fir, spruce, or white pine.

Grades (Common, C & Better, and Select/Clear Grade)

When purchasing white wood from a lumber yard rather than a home improvement store, you will more likely see “grade” indicators demonstrating the quality of wood you are receiving. Considering that even trained professionals have difficulty noticing the difference between authentic white wood and other sources of white wood, paying attention to the grade or markers will help you to gain a more accurate picture.

The grade identifiers tell you the quality of the wood with the lower grades indicating that there is “more character” to the wood and less evenness. (Character in wood is often seen in markings, knots, streaks, and other types of natural differences that are less aesthetically pleasing than more expensive, clearer options.

Common or C & Better grade markers identify a lower quality of wood with higher numbers of “character” markings. These will be the least expensive types of white wood that you can purchase at a lumber yard. Select or Clear grade markers identify a higher quality of wood with fewer “character” markings. These pieces will run a bit higher, but they will be free from marks.

Is White Wood Lumber a Softwood?

Specifically looking at white wood lumber that comes from the American tulip tree, there are many advantages that this type of wood can offer you. Regardless of if you are a trained professional or are just beginning your woodworking adventures, white wood lumber can be a unique choice for indoor pieces (and outdoor pieces that will not be exposed to rain).

Whitewood lumber is a softwood. This has a few implications including that it is easy to work with (carving is less strenuous), it is highly absorptive, and it can be prone to rot if not properly cared for and treated.

You will find that white wood lumber is an amazing source of wood to work with on a variety of projects. In fact, it is some woodworkers’ go-to for wood sourcing on general projects. But, because it is so highly absorptive (as a softwood), this can indicate a few potential problems that you might run into. My article here on wood finishing has some good tips. (Link Here)

Softwoods, like white wood lumber, that are highly absorptive, can immediately soak in any moisture that they are exposed to. While this likely will not cause an issue if you were to drag a damp cloth over a stained and sealed piece, it can have drastic implications if the piece is exposed to much more water.

The highly absorptive components of white wood lumber mean that exposure to water can cause a serious warp- one that is strong enough to affect the overall shape of the wood. It will damage the appearance as well as structural soundness of the piece- even though white wood lumber is more typically a solid choice for structure.

Additionally, if the white wood absorbs much water, it can be prone to rotting. This means that even though white wood lumber can be used for outdoor pieces, it should never be used on projects that will receive much exposure to rain and other elements. Otherwise, the piece could be ruined in a short amount of time.

However, although you have to be careful with how much moisture you allow to penetrate your projects made from white wood, they can still be very advantageous. Primarily, when working with softwoods, woodworkers are able to add more distinguishable details to their pieces. This allows for man-made characteristics to embellish any piece and take it from an ordinary structure to a showstopping masterpiece.

Best Practices for Using White Wood Lumber?

Working with a softwood like white wood lumber might seem simple at first, but the softness of the wood causes it to become a bit more susceptible to scrapes, water damage, and warping among other issues. Because of this, it is important to follow a few additional precautions when working with this type of lumber.

A few of the best practices for using white wood lumber include the following:

  • Choose the right piece. When working with a softwood like white wood lumber, it is important to select the best piece for the project that you will be working on from the start. Because this type of wood is so malleable and can easily be shaped, it is important to select a piece that you appreciate the look and overall dimensions of from the start.

Of course, because this is a softwood, you will have the possibility of carving it a bit more easily to conform to the image that you have in your mind about what this piece will become. But, you can save yourself energy by selecting a piece that you like how it looks naturally before you begin working on it.

  • Keep the wood flat before use. As white wood lumber is a softwood, it is essential to keep the wood as flat as possible before using it. While this might not be entirely possible as you transport the wood from the lumber yard or local home improvement store to your home, you will need to find a flat location to place the wood once you arrive home.

This is essential to helping prevent unnecessary warping caused by the strain on the wood from sitting in an unsupported position. Warping the wood will create a bend that could ultimately ruin your wood and your project. It is best to find a flat location to place your white wood lumber on so that it can remain flat before you begin working with it.

  • Avoid exposure to water. As mentioned above, exposure to water is one of the quickest ways to ruin your white wood lumber. Since this is a highly absorptive type of wood (considering it is softwood), water will damage your wood in a variety of ways and can do so quickly.

Avoiding exposure to water applies both in the beginning construction phases of your creation as well as choosing a project that will not place your white wood in a spot where accidental water exposure could occur. To make this clear, you should not expose the white wood lumber to water before or after your project is completed.

  • Use sharp tools. If you are just beginning your woodworking hobby or trade, then you might only have a few handy tools that have been in your garage for years. And while you do not need the most expensive tools to be able to make an impressive project with white wood lumber, it is essential that your tools are sharp.

Since white wood lumber is softwood, it more easily acquires knicks and scrapes. Along with this, you will be able to notice jagged cuts significantly more quickly on this type of wood. Because of these factors, it is essential that the tools you are using are able to quickly and efficiently cut through the wood without leaving signs of a struggle on the wood.

  • Remove jagged edges. Along with the same line of using sharp tools is one of the tasks that you will need to complete with the sharp tools you use when working with your white wood lumber. Before you are able to begin your project, it is essential that you remove jagged edges.

On wood that is much more malleable and prone to jagged edges and knicks, it is important to remove these before beginning your project. You can use a sander or another type of tool depending on the details of the jagged edge. This is important to be able to maintain the integrity of the wood and the project that it is being used for.

  • Stain or finish your wood with thin layers. Again, because white wood lumber is highly absorptive, it requires precision when working with it to keep the piece finely intact and not at risk of moisture damage from the finish that you use. In this case, it is like painting any other type of piece, but the implications are much higher.

Not only will thinner layers of finish/paint applied over a few different layers prove to be much more appealing in their smoothness, but the risk of applying a finish that does not dry all the way through diminishes when using thinner layers. So, you can be confident that the finish is not destroying the wood by using multiple thin layers instead of globbing it on in one thick layer.

Is White Wood Lumber Good for Staining?

Whitewood lumber is highly sought after for its lighter appearance than other types of wood that are commonly used for indoor projects. So, it is understandable that you might want a light finish or stain– but applying something to finish the wood is important.

However, white wood lumber can take a bit of work to stain. While it is a good piece of wood to stain (considering its lighter palette allows you to perfect the color choice with the stain you use to meet your design preference), it does take some work to maintain the integrity of the wood.

Particularly, when working with white wood lumber, be sure to use a water-based stain or finish, but do not apply the stain or finish directly to the wood in high concentrations. Since this type of wood is highly absorptive, it is important to apply it in thin layers.

Additionally, you will need to add texture to the wood by sanding it so that the color can “stick” to the wood rather than just seeping through its porous surface. You can choose to use a piece of sandpaper and do this manually, or you can use a sander, depending on the project that you are working on.

Along with this, you will want to apply a base coat or a pre-stain to set yourself up for success. This will help to create an even surface as well as allow for the appropriate contact between the wood and the stain itself. In this case, the pre-stain will act as a sort of buffer that prevents the sponge-like softwood from taking in all of the paint or finish.

Just be sure to pay attention to the paint strokes, the amount of stain or paint that you are applying at one time, and how you are working with the wood. White wood can make for a beautiful piece of wood when stained, but you will just need to be mindful of your technique.

Can White Wood Lumber Be Used for Outdoors?

When working with white wood lumber, you might be tempted to bring it into many new projects. After all, it is a sturdy type of wood, but it also is easy to work with as you carve out your design on the softwood. However, while this type of lumber is great for indoor projects, you might be curious about what it would do in outdoor conditions.

So, can white wood lumber be used for outdoor projects? White wood lumber is highly absorptive and consequently greatly affected by exposure to water. While it is a structurally sound type of wood that can withstand many elements, it should not be used on outdoor projects where it could become exposed to rain or other forms of moisture.

There are many mixed opinions about this, but if you take a look at your specific scenario, the odds are high that using any type of lumber for outdoor projects would risk the exposure to outdoor elements. This is only natural. Even if you are using it to build your own outdoor furniture in an enclosed setting, the morning dew or high humidity can cause moisture to begin to seep into the wood.

Consequently, the exposure to water with rain, dew, or any other type of moisture can significantly harm the wood and, therefore, the piece that it is used to create. You will likely notice warping, sagging, and weakness to the wood- even when the wood has been finished and sealed. So, unless you can prevent exposure to water, it is best to use white wood lumber for indoor projects.

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