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Birch basics

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Chair by drawers
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Flame, birch's prized figure, often
finds its way into high-end veneered
furniture, cabinetry, and musical
instruments.

While America's native northern tribes preferred the white, or paper, birch (Betula papyrifera) for their extraordinarily engineered, lightweight canoes, it was Betula alleghaniensis, the yellow birch tree, that greeted colonial settlers and quickly became a staple for furnituremaking. The hard, close-grained wood found its way into Windsor chairs, tables, and any other furniture that was destined to see hard, daily use.

With a nearly white sapwood and cream-to-tan heartwood, yellow birch is nearly as dense as hard maple, but can prove brittle. So take care to back up cross-grain cuts, routed profiles, and drilled holes. Because birch can be prone to blotchiness when dyed or stained, test your finish on scrap before you start your project.

The use of solid yellow-birch in North America has slowly succumbed to hard maple's superior hardness and soft maple's superior workability. Reduced availability outside of birch's northeastern region has subsequently raised its price to a point on par with hard maple. Although you'll still find it regularly stocked at hardwood retailers and lumberyards, it is not always commercially milled to sizes other than the most-profitable 4/4 thickness. But because birch is rarely sorted, you can sometimes score highly figured wood, right below, on the cheap just by picking through the bin.


Continued on page 2:  Baltic blurs the birch lines

 

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