Spruce and pine are typically considered structural lumber. Domestically, they are grouped together with about 25 other structural species, because they share similar properties. Subtle differences do exist between spruce and pine and breaking them down based on durability and aesthetics can be informative.
Hard or Soft Pine
Pines are commonly distributed in two categories: hard and soft. The hard pine group is in a different class. shortleaf, longleaf and loblolly pine are significantly harder than Eastern, Western and sugar pine. Yellow pine, one of the hardest pines, rivals hardwood for strength and density. The soft pine group is less dense and more widespread, and because the soft pine group shares similar properties and applications with spruce, only soft pines are suitable for comparison with spruce.
Pine, Spruce and Fir
Pine, spruce and fir are grouped together for the applications calling for softwood lumber. Pine and spruce are so closely related in strength and uses with fir that they are often milled, distributed and marketed generically as spruce-pine-fir, or SP&F.
Hard Comparisons, Pine and Spruce
Pine is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the wood species. It's considered inferior by some because it's cheap and soft, widespread and effortless to work with because it mills so easily. But on the Janka hardness scale, soft pine and spruce have similar hardness ratings averaging about 400. For the sake of comparison, varieties of hard pine rank over 1,200.
Spruce has exceptional tonal value, and has one of the highest strength to weight ratios of all wood species. This is important when used on musical instruments, because strings exert a tremendous amount of stress to the wood. If it weren't for spruce, generations of guitars, violins and other stringed instruments would not exist. Spruce is used for the vast majority of musical instruments. Pine is typically reserved for cheaper guitars, and used only structurally on musical instruments.
Color, Grain and Knots
Spruce and pine are virtually the same weight. In appearance, pine is amber to reddish brown, alternating with yellow and white, with occasional bold grain, or streaks of brown. Spruce is cream to white in color, with fine, consistently straight grain lines. Spruce may contain small knots, but pine may display large knots, and is less consistent than spruce.
- Cheaper than spruce
- Darker in color
- More availability
- Has a rustic appearance
- Not as exclusive as spruce
- Not as strong as spruce
- Slightly decay resistant
- Straighter than pine
- Less likely to warp or twist
- Even, white color, more consistency than pine
- Better strength to weight ratio than pine
- Tonal qualities for musical instruments
- Low resistance to decay
- Preferred for molding and trim
For all structural applications, pine and spruce are interchangeable. This includes studs and beams, struts, braces and framing for shelf supports. Because spruce has a higher strength-to-weight ratio, it may have a slight advantage over pine for structural applications.
If you're going for open beams or natural wood appearance on cabinets or trim, pine is more likely to show visual character than spruce.
If you're building a fence, spruce boards are less likely to warp or twist, and more likely to be delivered in long, straight pieces than pine.
Spruce is better for trim and moldings because of its straight grain, and is less likely to contain knots.
Overall, pine is used more often for bookcases, shelving and cabinets, basically because it's more aesthetically pleasing than spruce.
Pine and spruce will not stand up to hardwood when it comes to flooring, and just like hardwoods, manufacturer's often mill it with tongue and groove profile. Pine and spruce may be cheaper to use, but unless you're going for a distressed look, may not not be the best choice: both dent and scratch easier than hardwood. Overall, pine is probably the better choice for flooring. It has more character, and can hide dents better than spruce. If you're going for a pine appearance, but still require durability, use yellow pine -- it's about four times harder than soft pine.
- the Wood Database: Pine Wood: An Overall Guide
- The Wood Database: Ponderosa Pine
- The Wood Database: Engelmann Spruce
- Western Wood Products Association: Western Species and End Uses
- Guitar Tips: Some Woods Used in The Making of Acoustical Guitars
- Workshop Companion: Grain Direction and Strength
- Warner Robbins: Yellow Pine
Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.