As a woodworker, your primary concern would be to source the most suitable wood for your woodworking projects. Unfortunately, the countless varieties of wood can confuse you, with every lumber yard claiming that their wood is the best!
In this post, we take a close look at one of the most popular wood species in the world of woodworking – birch. We discuss the different types of birch that you can get and what you should look for while procuring it. We also feature the uses of this wood and the pros and cons of this versatile wood.
Birch is hardwood, and the tree comes from the Betulaceae family that includes hazels and alders. There are between thirty to sixty species of birch. However, eleven are on the endangered species list.
The sapwood is creamy-white, and the heartwood is golden brown. The grain pattern differs between the various types. There is a tendency to compare birch with maple as they both share similar properties.
You need to take particular care while processing birch lumber. It has a fine, closed grain with a uniform texture, and it is odorless. The wood loses about 15% of its volume during curing. It tends to warp if it is not kept under adequate pressure while drying.
Birch is stable but prone to insect attack, decay, and fungus. A characteristic feature of birch is “spalting” caused by certain fungi. It creates some interesting patterns in the wood grain and adds to the aesthetic value of the wood.
Types of Birch
As we mentioned above, there are thirty to sixty types of birch. But in this post, we will discuss eleven of the most prominent species:
Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)
Other names for this wood are European birch and white birch. It grows in Asia, Iceland, Northern Europe, and Greenland. Downy birch trees grow to a maximum height of 65 feet with a trunk diameter of up to 0.6 meters.
Downy birch is soft with a Janka hardness number of 930 lbf, so it is easy to work with. All other features fall in line with the general features of birch.
The outer layer of bark, when removed intact, makes canoe skins, water vessels, and roofing tiles. The inner bark goes to make rope. Finally, the timber makes plywood furniture, matches, toys, and coffins.
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta)
Sweet birch grows in North America in the northeast region. The trees are high and grow up to 100 feet, and the trunks have a diameter of up to 1 meter. It is a hardwood with a Janka hardness rating of 1,470 lbf, making it a preferable choice for making indoor furniture and indoor structures.
Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
You will find the trees of this wood growing in North America in the northern and central regions. The trees grow to a maximum height of 100 feet and develop trunks of up to 1 meter in diameter.
The wood of paper birch is fairly soft, similar to downy birch with a Janka hardness rating of 910 lbf, making it an easy wood to work with. The softness of this wood makes it suitable for making paper and firewood if dried properly.
However, it is also used for making furniture, flooring, and popsicle sticks. It also forms a component in the manufacture of engineered wood.
Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
Yellow birch grows in North America in the northeast region. The trees are tall, growing to a maximum height of about 100 feet with a maximum trunk diameter of 1 meter. The wood is fairly hard with a Janka hardness number of 1,260 lbf.
Due to its relative hardness, yellow birch makes good flooring, furniture, doors, veneer, cabinetry, gun stocks, and toothpicks. In addition, it played a prominent role in making wagon wheels once upon a time.
Gray Birch (Betula populifolia)
Gray birch grows in the northeast region of North America. The trees are of medium height and only grow up to 40 feet, which thin trunks of a maximum of 0.3 meters (thirty centimeters).
The wood is very soft with a Janka hardness rating of 760 lbf, which makes it useful for making high-grade plywood, furniture, drum shells, spools, and firewood.
River Birch (Betula nigra)
You can find river birch trees growing in the eastern region of the United States. The trees are tall and grow up to a height of 10 meters with a maximum trunk diameter of 1 meter.
It is a fairly soft type of birch with a Janka hardness rating of 970 lbf. Due to its heavy knotting, river birch doesn’t have much commercial use. However, the local people use it for making basic furniture and structures, and fuel.
Alder-leaf Birch (Betula alnoides)
Alder-leaf birch grows in Myanmar, India, and Nepal. The trees grow up to a maximum height of 100 feet with a trunk diameter up to 1 meter. The wood is soft with a Janka hardness rating of 830 lbf. It finds extensive use for making plywood and some other varieties of engineered wood.
Alaska Paper Birch (Betula neoalaskana)
As the name implies, Alaska paper birch grows in Alaska as well as in Northern Canada. The trees are quite tall, up to 65 feet, and the trunks grow to a diameter of 0.6 meters (60 centimeters).
Alaska paper birch is rather soft with a Janka hardness rating of 830 lbf. The wood being soft is used for making paper pulpwood and firewood.
Silver Birch (Betula pendula)
This wood is native to Europe and southwest Asia. The trees are tall and grow up to a height of 100 feet, with trunks up to 0.6 meters (60 centimeters) in diameter. The wood is quite hard, with a Janka hardness rating of 1,210 lbf.
Silver Birch makes furniture, plywood, veneers, parquet blocks, skis, kitchen utensils, and turnery.
This wood is not a particular species at all. But the grain structure is similar to that of downy birch or silver birch. Therefore, it also goes by Karelian birch, as it grows abundantly in Karelia, which lies between Finland and Russia.
Masur birch has a unique grain pattern that makes it resemble a burl. The knotty nature of this wood renders it suitable for turned objects like knife handles and in decorative veneer.
Here again, we have a wood that isn’t a specific species but one that comes from the countries around the Baltic Sea like Russia and Finland which explains its name. Of course, the quality varies, but this wood generally makes excellent plywood, so it is a preferred form of plywood by woodworkers.
Uses of Birch
Birch is a useful wood in more ways than one. It is a light but strong wood, making it versatile for making plywood. It also makes good skateboards thanks to the stability of the wood that gives a smooth ride to the skateboarder.
Birch is a reasonably priced wood due to its ready availability. You will find it easy to work on birch with hand tools and power tools. It also holds screws and nails well and glues together perfectly. It is good for turning for making toys, toothpicks, paper pulp, and even high-end furniture.
Some Interesting Facts About the Use of Birch
Some birch species like silver birch give off a pungent odor, making them useful in the leather industry. In addition, the bark finds use in the cosmetic industry in the manufacture of soap and shampoo. Due to its waterproof characteristics, the native Americans used birch extensively for lining their canoes and making water bowls.
Another interesting fact about birch is that engineers used it to construct airplanes due to its lightweight but sturdy structure. For example, the largest flying boat during World War II, the Spruce Goose with the largest wingspan in history, was made of aluminum and birch wood.
Birch: Pros and Cons
Birch offers several advantages, but there are a few downsides as well. Let’s take a good look at the pros and cons of birch:
- Highest quality plywood, especially Baltic birch plywood
- Lightweight and soft
- Easy to work on with hand tools and power tools
- Takes screws, nails, and glue quite well
- Mechanically strong wood
- Cost-effective material
- Easily available
- Wide variation in thickness
- Commercial birch plywood veneer can be difficult to work with as it is extremely thin
- Finish not as good as woods like maple
- Can be difficult to stain – the tendency to blotch
- Tends to warp if not pressed adequately while drying the wood
- Prone to rot, decay, and insect attack
Having read so much about birch, now, you should be more confident while procuring and handling this wood in the future. First, we gave you a brief background of this versatile wood and all its variations.
Then, we went into details of the major types of birch wood you can get in the market and their uses thereof. Now, you have seen how this wood can benefit (and some of its drawbacks). So, go ahead, get some birch and start working on it for your next woodworking project.