The process of woodworking involves dealing with different types of wood. As a woodworker, it is always desirable to know about various woods, how to identify them, and use them. Two commonly used types of wood in the United States are walnut and birch.
Walnut and birch are both hardwoods that have gained popularity over the years for being versatile, and durable types of wood used by woodworkers and construction workers alike. While walnut is well-known for its deep, rich brown color, birch is not as good-looking or durable as its rich relative.
Walnut vs Birch
We identify walnut wood by its straight-grained striated pattern. It is chocolate brown if sourced from the heartwood or light-brown or yellowish shades if it comes from the sapwood.
Walnut is an ideal choice for making headboards, ornate mantels, dining room tables, and chairs. We usually apply a clear finish or oil to the surface of walnut wood to enhance its looks.
Walnut is known for its strength and dimensional stability. It also carves nicely and the bonus is its rich deep brown color. The downsides of this wood are that everyone doesn’t like the stark contrast of light and dark brown of the walnut grain, and it is a somewhat expensive variety of wood.
Coming to birch, there are several varieties, yellow birch, (Betula alleghaniensis) being the most popular. The trees grow up to 100 feet and the diameters of the trunks reach 3 feet.
Yellow birch is a pale yellow to reddish-brown wood. It is moderately hard and is commonly available all across the United States. Birch exhibits some interesting grain patterns which make it a suitable and more cost-effective wood for making furniture than walnut.
Another key feature of birch wood is that it makes fine plywood. Some of the high-end forms of birch plywood can turn out to be even more expensive than walnut.
Of the numerous varieties of walnut trees, you will find only a few growing in the United States. Of all the types, eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra) is the most popular. We usually call it American black walnut, abbreviated to American walnut.
Walnut trees bear edible nuts which are quite expensive and considered a delicacy. The trees grow up to 100 feet tall and the tree trunks are up to 5 feet in diameter.
The wood is a deep, chocolate-brown color with lighter streaks in the wood grain. Walnut is a moderately hard type of wood but you will find it easy to work with. The price of walnut ranges from expensive to highly expensive.
The birch tree comes from the Betulaceae family which also includes hazels and alders. You will find birch growing in the northern hemisphere, especially in Europe, the United States, and Canada.
There are between 30 to 60 species of birch, 11 of them being listed as threatened wood species. Birch has a higher hardness level than many other hardwoods, making it more durable but difficult to work with.
However, birch has a fine grain structure and pale color which makes it suitable for furniture. And if you find the solid wood cumbersome to work with, you can use birch veneer overlaid on softer wood. Birch also makes high-quality plywood.
The high flexibility and durability of birch wood make it suitable for skateboards.
Walnut vs Birch: Appearance
Walnut comes in dark brown but lighter shades also exist. The wood grain could also exhibit shades of purple, red and gray. The sapwood is lighter and may seem almost white.
It has a straight wood grain pattern interspersed by figuring patterns sometimes. Walnut is a smooth wood with a natural luster. It doesn’t need staining because it would conceal the natural brown color and striking grain pattern.
Birch is a light, reddish-brown wood in the heartwood with light, almost white sapwood. You will find figuring in birch as well, and the curly patterns bear resemblance to the patterns exhibited in cherry wood.
The wood grain of birch is a bit dull. There is not much distinction in color contrast between the annual growth rings of the logs.
Walnut vs Birch: Durability
Black walnut is a wood that we use for indoor applications. Even though it resists rot and moisture, it is prone to attack by insects. So, we don’t use it for outdoor applications.
Birch comes under the category of perishable wood. It decays and rots easily if left to the elements, and the wood does not withstand insect attack. Like walnut, we use birch for indoor applications only.
Walnut vs Birch: Maintenance
You may find walnut wood a bit challenging to maintain without prior experience. Basic cleaning of course, with a cloth, soap, and water is easy enough to do. But when it comes to reapplying the finish, a bit of technology goes into the job. If you oil, wax, and polish walnut frequently, you can extend its life considerably.
Birch is easy enough to maintain, but using a stabilizer helps to stabilize the wood and it gives you the best results. You can wash birch with a mild detergent and water, but avoid using stiff-bristled brushes, as they can damage the surface of the wood.
Walnut vs Birch: Workability and Uses
Both walnut and birch are fairly workable woods. You can easily work on straight-grained sections with hand and machine tools. However, you might find it a bit challenging to cut sections with interlocking wood grain.
Walnut and birch accept stain, finish and glue comfortably, but walnut will usually only have a transparent to semi-transparent finish. It is to highlight the beauty of the grain pattern.
Walnut makes some of the finest furniture you can find. You will also find a lot of flooring in walnut, and it also makes fine cutting boards, cabinets, and kitchen counters.
Birch is best-known for the plywood that it makes. We also use it for turned objects, boxes, interior trim, crates, and specialty wood items.
Walnut vs Birch: Price
Walnut is among the most widely used woods in the United States and an easy wood to procure. But the width of the boards is restricted to the size of the tree trunks, so you won’t find very broad boards in walnut. It is more expensive than birch.
Birch is considered to be a cost-effective type of wood. However, if you consider figured birch or some of the higher grades of birch plywood, it can even be more expensive than walnut wood.
Walnut vs Birch: Sustainability
Neither walnut nor birch features in the CITES Appendices or the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are both considered to be sustainable types of wood.
Walnut vs Birch: Comparison Table
|Botanical name||Juglans nigra||Betula alleghaniensis|
|Color||Chocolate to dark brown||Pale yellow|
|Durability||Moderately durable||Not durable|
|Hardness (Janka Scale)||1,010 lbf.||1,260 lbf.|
|Strength||Strong wood||Moderately strong|
|Maintenance||Low maintenance||Easy to maintain|
|Price||Medium to high-priced||Cheap|
|Suitability for outdoors||Not suitable for outdoors||Not suitable for outdoors|
|Suitability for wood carving||Suitable for carving||Yes|
|Workability||Easy to work with||Easy to work with|
|Smell||Faint odor while cutting||No characteristic odor|
|Availability||Easily available||Easily available|
|Special features if any||No special features||Makes excellent plywood|
Put walnut and birch side by side, and you will see a lot of contrast between the two types of wood. But there are many similarities between the two. Each of them has its advantages and disadvantages.
If you want your project to have a high-end look, then you can happily use walnut. But it might be that you can either not procure it easily or you don’t have the budget for walnut. Don’t be too concerned, because birch comes as a viable and cost-effective alternative.
Try either of these two types of wood, walnut or birch in your next woodworking projects to get some interesting results.