If you shop at Home Depot or Lowe’s, and possibly other home improvement stores, you will hear or see the phrase whitewood. What is whitewood at Home Depot and what does it mean?
What is whitewood made of?
Whitewood is a generic term that Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other US home improvement stores use for inexpensive lumber. Whitewood is usually spruce, pine, or fir. The exact species is subject to change, and it’s generally based on price and availability. These three species are very plentiful and grow quickly. And they can grow in a lot of different parts of the United States. If you hear the term SPF, that’s what that stands for. It means it’s one of the three.
Whitewood means that it is something similar to those three, but not necessarily one of those three.
What is whitewood good for? What is whitewood used for?
Whitewood works well in construction, especially framing, like wall studs. What your framing looks like doesn’t matter, because it will be covered in drywall. It just needs to be strong enough to support the weight above it and hold the walls that you attach to it. Other species are stronger, but not enough to justify the additional cost. Whitewood 2x4s are surprisingly strong.
Whitewood tends to be soft and dent relatively easily. That can be a liability in other applications, but it’s not a big deal in framing because the lumber will be covered.
Sometimes you’ll see memes raging about how buildings used to be made of stronger, denser wood. That’s true, we used whatever trees were available on the property at the time, and frequently, some of those were hardwood. It’s more sustainable to plant trees for specific purposes, harvest them when they’re ready, then plant more.
Uses for whitewood outside of construction
When I need something that will be more durable than particle board covered with veneer, but I still want it to be inexpensive, I will make a shelf or a desk out of whitewood. You can sometimes stain it to look like a more expensive type of wood, and the result won’t fool an experienced woodworker, but it can look surprisingly good. And let’s face it, veneer over particle board doesn’t fool anyone who knows woodworking either.
There are lots of plans online for simple furniture that you can knock together with a few tools. The results will be at least as durable as Ikea furniture, comparable in effort to put together, and probably a bit less expensive.
If you have a miter saw and a good drill and have enough patience to do your own measuring and cutting, making furniture from whitewood you bought at Home Depot or Lowe’s is rewarding. And once you have a bit of practice, the results can be surprising.
There will be times you build something that doesn’t pan out. But if you assemble it with screws, disassembling it and reusing the lumber on a future project is always an option.
Tips for buying whitewood
Whitewood comes in standard dimensions for common uses. 2x3s and 2x4s are generally used for framing walls. 4x4s are used for beams, fence posts, or mailboxes. 1×2, 2x 2, 1×3, and 1×4 boards are commonly called furring strips, and used to hang ceilings from rafters. You screw or nail the furring strips perpendicular to the rafters, and then screw the ceiling to the furring strips.
Grades of whitewood
Whitewood comes in various grades. Indoor grade meant for framing tends to be the least expensive. They are cut to a standard dimension, but without paying much attention to how smooth the boards are, or how interesting or attractive the grain is.
Outdoor grade is pressure treated to hold up to rain and moisture and extreme temperatures. The treatment costs more, so the boards cost more. You do need to use this grade indoors when finishing a basement. The bottom plate on your basement framing should be pressure treated since it sits against the basement floor.
You can get common board sizes in what they call appearance grade, or they sometimes call them common boards. These boards have squared off edges, and will be much smoother. And they at least make some effort for the boards to have a visually interesting grain pattern.
Even within any given grade, some boards will be straighter than others, some boards will look nicer than others, and some boards will be smoother than others. Some days, there isn’t a lot of selection, and you have to take whatever you can get. Other days, they have a thousand boards of the type you need in stock. So you can be a little bit picky.
Try to buy straight boards if you can. It’ll make your life easier, because straight boards are easier to work with. You may find one store tends to have straighter boards than another.
Sometimes you can get whitewood furring strips that don’t look bad. They may have a good side and a bad side. But with a little luck, you may be able to find furring strips that look good enough to use in projects where you can see them. I used furring strips to make a rustic plank ceiling in part of my basement. I didn’t have much selection when I did it, so the result wasn’t as nice as it could have been. But I still like how it turned out.
Improving boards yourself
If you have a table saw and know how to use it safely, you can cut the rounded edge off lumber intended for framing and make it look more like an appearance board. Some people do this routinely. I generally don’t, because it is an extra step, and an extra step involving a tool that can injure you several different ways. I’m sure you already know a blade can cut you. But the blade spins with enough force that it can throw the lumber at a very high speed if you lose control of it.
You can also make a rough board smooth by planing the surface. If you do a lot of woodworking, a powered plane may be worth the cost.
Then again, if you pay an extra dollar per board for the sake of convenience and safety, I don’t blame you.
Boards that are split, not very straight, ugly, or otherwise below average frequently end up at the back of the store in a pile where they’re sold at a steep discount as cull lumber.
This practice nearly went extinct during 2020 and 2021 due to supply chain issues, but in normal times, it’s a good way to save money. Whether the type of lumber you need is available there or not depends on luck as much as anything, and appearance boards turn up there more than framing type lumber, but it is possible to acquire even small quantities of 2×3 and 2×4 type boards with a little luck. What I typically do, even if I don’t have a project going on, is to check the pile anytime I am there to buy anything else. If I see anything that I know will be useful, I buy and store it. When lumber is plentiful, I have been able to build an entire desk just using cull.
When you have to cut boards to length, frequently the defect will be on just part of the board. So if you’re careful how you cut the board, you can use the good part where appearance counts. The off cut may still be useful somewhere that it won’t be visible.
And of course, if you are going to paint the project rather than stain it, as long as the board is straight, it doesn’t matter if the wood grain is unsightly. The paint will cover it.
It may not just be Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menards
I sometimes get taken to task for overlooking some regional store or a store outside of the United States. I am not intentionally trying to exclude anyone, but I can’t know what every regional home improvement chain or international home improvement chain calls things.
My metro area is dominated by Home Depot and Lowe’s, with Menards providing a bit of competition but coming in a distant third. The three of them use the term.