I saw a sign in a woodworking shop once that read: “Life’s a birch,” and it made me smile. You may not have worked with solid birch wood before, in birch flooring, for instance, but you may have worked with birch in the form of Baltic birch plywood. It’s a favorite of woodworkers when making something that will be seen – the birch top ply is appreciated for its beauty and hardness.
Birch Trees and Wood
Birch wood is native to North America, with over a dozen species found in forests in many places, but we’re used to seeing white birch or yellow birch in woodworking shops.
Among those species are:
Yellow birch. Found in Canada and eastern US
Northern birch. Found in the northern New England states – Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Sweet birch. Found in the eastern US, Quebec, and Ontario.
River birch. Eastern US.
Water birch and red birch. Eastern US.
Gray birch. New England states and eastern Canada.
White birch. Northern New England States, the Adirondacks in upstate New York, and eastern Canada.
While yellow birch is the tree of my youth in New England, Silver birch is what we often see in photographs of birch, with that distinctive white bark with black patches. The bark peels off like paper. It is sometimes called European white birch and grows not only in Europe but also in Asia.
It was a popular type of wood in the 1950s and 1960s, used for making furniture and kitchen cabinets, but is today not as popular with woodworkers and craftsmen, having been replaced by other woods like oak and maple for those purposes.
Its sapwood, the outer ring of wood, is the most favored and is a creamy white color that sometimes can be almost pure white. Over time as the wood ages, it can turn a yellowish-red color. The heartwood is more of a reddish-brown hue and is less popular than the sapwood.
Uses of Birch Wood
Yellow birch, scientific name Betula alleghaniensis Britt, is a hardy variety of tree and wood, and today is used in more utilitarian projects that include:
- Crates and boxes. For the wood’s strength and durability, it’s a good choice for these uses.
- Gun stocks. Its strength and durability serve the guns well.
- Flooring. Durable and hard, birch is sometimes a choice for hardwood flooring, along with maple and oak.
- Musical instruments. Birch has an inherent resonant quality to it that works well in musical instruments and speaker cabinets. Birch plywood is used in speaker cabinets because of the deep bass resonance it produces.
- Butcher blocks. Durable and hard, birch works well as butcher block materials.
- Specialty furniture. Because birch is a hard and durable wood, it is often used in frames for specialty furniture but is most often covered by upholstery rather than the star of the furniture pieces.
Birch tree sap is gathered at the same time maple sap is and is boiled down into a syrup just like maple. It’s not as sweet, but it does have a following. It’s not unusual to see birch syrup along with maple syrup in Vermont stores where birch is a common wood.
The bark of birch trees is used as kindling for starting fires. The wood of birch trees does not burn easily, but the bark is useful. It is even possible to distill oil of wintergreen from the bark, a versatile part of the birch tree.
Birch wood’s grain is generally straight and has a fine and even texture to it. Sometimes you will see a curl in the grain like that in cherry, but mostly you will find the grain straight.
Birch trees can be long-lived if left alone, and 300 years is not out of the realm of the impossible. Most, though, will be around for 150 years. They’ll grow to a height of between 60 – 80 feet, with an occasional 100 feet in the mix.
They are mostly an eastern tree and can grow as far south as Georgia. They are not commonly found beyond the mid-west, though, preferring New England, upstate New York, and up into eastern Canada.
Woods Comparable to Birch
While birch is used in the construction of cabinets, it is most often supplemented in their construction with other woods that are less expensive to keep the cost of the cabinets reasonable. Alder is one such wood, and we’ve written of it in a past article here.
The brown of alder wood will match up well with the latent brownness of the birch and give the appearance of a single type of wood in the cabinet. This makes the cabinets more easily affordable, too.
Sometimes, maple will be used as a supplemental wood in cabinet construction, along with birch wood. Maple is a comparable wood to birch in terms of its strength and durability. Each can make a good hardwood flooring choice.
Birch’s Hardwood Rating
We’ve written often about the distinction between hardwoods and softwoods, and if you follow us here, you know it has nothing to do with the degree of hardness that determines which column a wood falls under. Rather, it has to do with the type of tree produces the wood.
Hardwoods come from deciduous trees, flowering and producing fruits/nuts; softwoods are conifers, and evergreens, producing cones and needles. The list of common hardwoods making their way into your woodworking shop includes oak, maple, walnut, and alder. Examples of softwoods include pines, spruce, fir, and cedar.
Yes, birch is a hardwood. Its Janka rating is 1260, which puts it in the medium range of hardwoods. It’s resistant to dings, dents, and scratches, and this is what makes it a good choice for flooring.
The Janka Scale measures the amount of pressure required to embed a small steel ball, about a half-inch in diameter, halfway into the wood. The greater the pressure required, obviously, the harder and denser the wood. At a Janka rating of 1260, birch is a hardwood.
Another hardwood, also a good choice for flooring, is maple. We’ve already mentioned it as being comparable to birch in use and application. Maple has a Janka rating of 1450 on the hardness scale, making it harder than birch but nonetheless comparable. Its resistance to dents, dings, and scratches is a bit higher than birch, but both make a good choice for hardwood flooring.
Another comparison of wood hardness would be oak. White oak’s Janka rating is 1360, a bit higher than birch, while red oak’s Janka rating of 1290 is very close to that of birch’s 1260. Oak is another common hardwood used in flooring.
Because of its hardness and nature, you’ll want to be using a carbon-tipped saw blade to cut it effectively. Don’t be surprised by a little smoke while cutting it, and be sure to wear a mask covering your mouth and nose to avoid the fine sawdust that will linger in the air after cutting.
Other Facts About Birch Trees
We watched a video as a part of our research about birch trees and want to share what we learned from it. The video is not long, but it is interesting, and you’ll learn more than we have written in this piece, including five (5) facts not covered yet.
You’re likely to use birch plywood in projects, and now you have a good idea why birch veneer makes such a good choice for plywood, whether simply as a top ply or as a 3-ply sheet. It’s hard, durable, strong, and with a pleasant grain that takes stain very well.