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I am referring to the broad category of SPF or "Spruce/Pine/Fir". Although easy to come by and cheap, these seem to have more disadvantages. Bleeding sap for one and a large tenancy to all kinds of warping.

Does SPF, in general, have any redeeming qualities besides just being cheap wood in both sense of the term?

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    It looks more like pine than any other wood! I'm not sure about this question. I think if you scoped it to structural, aesthetic, chemical, etc. advantages it would be much more answerable. – lars May 4 '15 at 0:15
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    I think what you intend to use it for heavily influences where the advantages are – Steven May 4 '15 at 1:00
  • @lars You make an interesting point. I would think the structural advantage is price. Aesthetic is subjective so I am not sure about that.... I will try and narrow the question. – Matt May 4 '15 at 1:08
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    Well, they're cheap, abundant, and you can buy them in every store. If those aren't advantages... I wish you could buy oak or chestnut or teak or khaya with the same ease (and at the same price). Sometimes (e.g. for "building"), it just doesn't matter if the wood is crap, availability and price is all you need. Surely you wouldn't want your garden shack that stores your lawn mower to have a 5-digit price tag. – Damon May 4 '15 at 8:46
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I assume you're probably more thinking of what is commonly labeled "SPF," which stands for "Spruce/Pine/Fir." Cheap wood used for dimensional lumber; however, pine is a pretty broad category. This Wood Database article handles it well, dividing into "soft pine," and "hard pine."

Soft Pine
Is very soft with regular grain; it might be good for a beginning whittler/woodcarver to practice on. This category includes Western and Eastern White Pine species.

Hard Pine:
Can be categorized into two subgroups: Western Yellow and Southern Yellow.

Southern Yellow Pines
Are moderately dense. Shortleaf Pine, for example, has a density similar to red oak. These have an irregular grain which may be good for turning? I would have to defer to someone with experience in the area to validate that notion.

Western Yellow Pines
Not as dense as the southern yellow pines, and a more regular grain. A characteristic species here would be Jack Pine, which is one of the species commonly labeled as "SPF" in dimensional lumber; this has the qualities you're probably thinking of when you think of pine.

Lodgepole pine has a very straight trunk and is good for log cabins.

Ponderosa smells very nice when I'm hiking, like vanilla, though I'm not sure how useful that is to a woodworker.

Uses
I don't think you'll find very many redeeming qualities for the woods in general, but of note (aside from the cost) they are very soft, and because of this are easy to work with. This, combined with their cost, makes them great for beginners, and I like to use 2x4 lumber as test pieces before I make cuts on more expensive hardwood.

Pine is good for little projects that aren't expected to last long (unless well cared for: it's soft and easily dented/bruised), and aren't expected to be very pretty (unless you use good quality pine, not the construction grade SPF you'll find at a box store). Additionally, as Caleb mentioned, It has a good strength for its lower density and is thus useful in situations where you want a strong but light product (this, aside from the cost, is part of why it's common in construction).

  • I've also seen spf referred to as "white wood", which emphasizes that iit's considered a generic product. – keshlam May 4 '15 at 2:53
  • Thanks for the info. Great answer. Updated my question using your terminology – Matt May 4 '15 at 3:11
  • "Pine is good for little projects that aren't expected to last long, and aren't expected to be very pretty." There are 200-yr-old Welsh and Irish dressers lining up outside with who would like to take issue with this point ;-) – Graphus May 5 '15 at 8:37
  • @Graphus by "last long" I meant durability-wise. They get dinged up easily because of how soft the wood is. – Daniel B. May 6 '15 at 15:25
  • @Graphus Better? :p – Daniel B. May 6 '15 at 15:29
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Does SPF, in general, have any redeeming qualities besides just being cheap

Weight. Fast-growing woods like soft pine, fir, and spruce have densities between about 20 and 30 lbs/ft3. Hard woods like hard maple and oak are upward of 40 lbs/ft3.

The combination of strength and light weight makes spruce the standard choice for certain applications. Sitka spruce is the go-to wood for use in aircraft. Spruce is also the wood used for the tops of stringed instruments like violins and cellos. We're obviously not talking about the SPF you'll find in your local home center, of course -- unlike the stuff they use for 2x4's, wood for instruments and airplanes is carefully selected. Nevertheless, the stuff at your home center has a similar combination of strength and weight, and these uses might inform your own decision to use SPF when you need something that's strong but light.

Growth rate: The SPF at your home center is cheap because it grows quickly, so there's plenty of it. If we built all our buildings out of slow-growing hardwoods we'd surely be out of forests (or have far fewer buildings). The price itself is an important factor, the fact that SPF woods are so quickly renewable is the thing that really makes them useful.

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    That is a property that answers my question. Thanks. – Matt May 4 '15 at 12:12
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Does SPF, in general, have any redeeming qualities besides just being cheap wood in both sense of the term?

Low cost is one of the main advantages of pine and other softwoods but it's best considered not in isolation, rather in concert with its physical properties.

a large tenancy to all kinds of warping.

This is more about the quality of the wood available from certain vendors than inherent to the species themselves. The usual rule applies: careful stock selection is the first step.

So assuming good raw material to start with, it is strong enough and resilient enough for many jobs that some modern woodworkers don't consider it suitable for. But looking at historical pieces made in pine and spruce is informative, showing just how suitable the wood can be in furniture applications.

Bearing in mind the weight, densities and strengths of various hardwoods in comparison, in order to have equal strength pieces made in softwood species must by necessity use thicker material which can of course be a disadvantage. But that can be turned on its head: if what is desired is a thicker, chunkier piece you can specifically make it from softwoods in order that the finished item is not excessively heavy.

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    Note that historical pine was slower growth compare to modern fast-growth pine, hence denser and stronger. Compare the studs of homes built 100 years ago to modern studs. – Eli Iser May 5 '15 at 5:34
  • @EliIser, yes I'm aware of the difference in modern stuff versus historical woods, that's partly covered by the careful stock selection I mention early on. Spending the time to select stock with long, straight & clear runs of grain and close ring spacing will pay dividends. It's just unlikely that you'll find that sort of thing in the home centre softwood bins (although occasionally guys do get lucky as I've seen in a few posts on woodworking forums). – Graphus May 5 '15 at 8:30
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Mostly, pine is fast-growing and hence inexpensive.

And its relative softness is occasionally an advantage.

And it can have interesting grain, though staining it requires some tricks to avoid blotching; in that regard it may sometimes have an advantage over poplar, which is one of the fastest-growing of the hardwoods (and which in fact is generally a bit softer than pine).

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