Wood 101 - What Is Heart Pine?

Longleaf PineThese days, I post a LOT about wood, and floors, and tongue and groove. We throw around terms like “heart pine” or “quarter sawn” or “old growth”, and never stop to think that everyone may not know exactly what we’re talking about. So…I thought I’d post a weekly Wood 101 installment to bring you into the coveted inner circle here with us. :)


This week: What is “Heart Pine”?


The reclaimed wood world has two Holy Grails. One is Wormy Chestnut (a story for another day), and true Heart Pine.


Before the American Revolution, the Longleaf Pine tree…the source of Heart Pine…dominated the landscape in the South. Once the largest continuous forest on the North American continent, the longleaf ecosystem ran along the coastal plain from Virginia’s southern tip to eastern Texas.


Where there was once approximately 60 million acres, less than 10,000 acres of “old growth” Heart Pine remain today. Put another way, what was once 41 percent of the entire landmass of the Deep South now covers less than 2 percent of its original range. 


A lot of folks today sell a wood called Heart Pine, but what is regarded as true Heart Pine comes from very old Longleaf pine trees. The only way to get the real deal is with time. And the older, the better. As the tree ages, the wood transforms and takes on a reddish, amber color. That color comes from the resin. That’s why Longleaf is “the” Heart Pine tree…it contains more resin than any of the other 200+ species of pine.


After 200 or more years of growth, the tree develops more and more “heartwood”, which is dense and golden and strong. We’re too impatient to let a tree grow for 200-300 years these days, but the early settlers landed in a country that was full of massive, old, untouched timber. Those old trees grew slowly and undisturbed, for centuries, and today they’re prized for their durability and beauty.


How do you know if you have real Heart Pine? Well it’s hard to say. Identifying it is more of an art than a science. One standard method is to use growth rings to help ID the wood. The more growth rings, the stronger the wood. Each pair of light and dark rings is from one growing season, and when pairs of rings are very close to each other it means the tree grew slowly and the wood had time to become dense and strong. Longleaf pine trees usually grew only an inch in diameter every 30 years and lived 400 to 500 years. It’s no wonder the wood is so hard and durable. True antique heart pine has at least 6 growth rings per inch. Four or less indicates new growth trees.


Generally, any pine over 75 years old will have percentages of heartwood and could be called “heart pine”. Technically speaking. But as the years pass, the percentage increases, and the more heartwood, the redder the color and the heavier and tougher the wood will be, and the more authentic the Heart Pine becomes.


My rough rule for “on the fly identification” is, if it’s old pine, reddish in color, has tight growth rings, and feels heavy to the touch, then it’s Heart Pine, to some degree.