One of the most beautiful things about historic homes is the incredible virgin woods that were used to build these structures that have stood for 100+ years. Huge forests of pine covered the southeastern United States until they were harvested beginning in the early-1800s and running until they were almost completely depleted in the mid-1900s.
In this post, I’ll teach you all about this incredible type of wood, how to identify it, repair it, and why it’s one of the best parts of historic American architecture.
Where Does Heart Pine Come From?
Most commonly found in the southeastern United States longleaf pine forests covered the landscape for centuries before colonists and early Americans discovered this incredible resource. Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, as well as Alabama, Mississippi, and parts of Louisiana and parts of Texas contained the bulk of the historic Longleaf forests.
Longleaf pine trees are some of the longest lived species of pine, living in excess of 250 years with some trees documented to be over 450 years old. The slow growth of these trees in their undisturbed environment before mechanized logging cleared these forests meant that the wood at the center of the tree, the heart wood, was extremely dense and resinous, which made for not only a very durable wood, but also one with beautiful color and graining that can’t be found today.
Longleaf pine was the preferred wood for builders at the time because of the tree’s tall, straight growing pattern. Towering as high as 60 feet the lumber yards could deliver long straight heart pine floor boards as long as 30 feet! Compare that today where finding any board beyond 16 feet is almost impossible.
What’s the Difference Between Pine and Heart Pine Flooring?
There are many species of pine that have been used in home building over the years. Southern yellow pine, loblolly, shortleaf pine, slash have all been used in one way or another over the years. But due to their extremely long life, Longleaf pine trees are the greatest source of heart pine flooring in the world.
According to the Goodwin Company, who rescues centuries old longleaf pine trees from Florida’s rivers to turn them into heart pine flooring.
“The only way to get heartwood is time. It takes 200 years for a longleaf pine to become mostly heartwood and to be considered antique. Scientists say any wood from a tree less than 200 years old is ‘new heart pine.’ A 75-year-old tree will average only 30% heart, and even a 130-year-old tree yields wood that is not as hard or rich in color as antique heart pine. U.S. Forest Service specialists report that even a 200-year-old tree will average only 65% heartwood.”
Standard pine flooring today and cheaper grades in the past have a greater concentration of sap wood than heart wood. The sap wood has a yellow color and lacks the stability and hardness of the heart wood which is found only at the center of very old trees.
Is Heart Pine Flooring as Hard as Oak?
There is a common misconception that pine flooring is softer than oak flooring, and for standard pine flooring that is actually correct, but for heart pine it’s a different story. The hardness difference between heart pine flooring and red oak flooring is almost imperceptible. Heart pine clocks in at 1225 vs. 1290 for red oak on the floor hardness scale.
Heart pine flooring is also 29% more stable than oak according to the NWFA. Stability is key when it comes to flooring. Unstable flooring bows, twists, and warps seasonally potentially opening up gaps in the boards so a more stable wood floor is key to longevity and peak performance.
Why Did They Stop Using Heart Pine?
In the early 1900s the old-growth longleaf pine forests were harvested into extinction and finding heart pine ceased to be feasible. The lumber industry switched to new options like red and white oak.
At the time, whole towns were deforested and clear cut to provide the saw mills with enough wood to keep churning out almost every element used for home construction.
The pine was used for much more than just flooring. Almost everything was made from these old-growth pine trees including framing, sheathing, beadboard soffits, siding, and trim and casings. Surprisingly, most wood windows in the southern US were not made from pine, rather for these heart cypress was used which is a softer and lighter wood though similarly beautiful.
The Invention of Tongue & Groove Flooring
It wasn’t until 1885 and the invention of the side-matcher, a machine that would cut a tongue on one side of the board and a matching groove on the other side of a board that homes were able to utilize tongue and groove flooring. Until this time heart pine flooring was simply face-nailed to the joists.
The invention of tongue and groove flooring provided more stable interlocking floors that also allowed for blind nailing through the tongue so that once installed none of the fasteners were visible. This created a seamless appearance and also prevented those annoying snags on proud nail heads.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.