Mention birch and most people tend to think of the woodland Indians' lightweight bark canoe. But whoa there, partner for woodworkers, this is the wrong birch!
It was the yellow birch and related species, not the canoeists' white birch, that first charmed colonial New England craftsmen for use in Windsor and Hitchcock chairs. Later on, in the 1920s, a European variety caught the eye of Scandinvaian designers of furniture with contemporary flair.
Even into the 1950s, U.S. homeowners looked upon yellow birch kitchen cabinets as the epitome of quality. Today it has yielded in popularity to oak and darker woods.
While up to 50 species of the lanky birch grow around the world, the one you'll find labeled as "birch" lumber and hardwood plywood is most commonly the North American yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Other native species often interspersed and sold with yellow are river birch (Betula nigra) and sweet birch (Betula lenta).
Yellow birch, identifiable by its gray to bronze-gray, almost metallic, bark color, grows abundantly in the northern U.S. and Canada. Its range stretches west from Newfoundland to Hudson's Bay on the north and from Minnesota through the Great Lakes states into Pennsylvania on the south. The yellow birch can reach 75' in height and 3' in diameter.
Sweet birch basically calls New England home, but spreads its roots down into the Alleghenies. River birch likes the bottomlands of the southeast, and can be found west through Missouri and down to the northern part of Florida.
Birch contains very little sapwood-what there is of it appears nearly white. The heartwood color varies from cream to light brown tinged with red and has a distinct but not overwhelming grain pattern. A wavy figure becomes prominent in veneers.
Birch weighs about 43 pounds per cubic foot dry and has great strength, rigidity, and shock resistance. It has low decay resistance, however.
Birch's hardness makes working it with hand tools extremely difficult, though it shapes readily with power and machine tools.
This staunchness gives birch high nail- and screw-holding power. It also sands and finishes well, taking paint and varnish admirably. However, birch has a tendency to blotch when stained unless a penetrating sealer is first applied.
Birch takes abuse, and has long been favored for flooring, chairs, chests, tables, and cabinets. While its popularity for furniture has declined, birch's color and toughness still make it a viable alternative to other hardwods.
Due to its toughness, birch isn't favored for carving. On the other hand, it does turn well and can be used for intricately designed posts, balusters, and furniture legs. Small accessory items, such as dowel rods, shaker pegs, finials, and toy wheels, are usually made of birch.
Birch lumber and plywood, both readily available, cost more than hard maple but less than red oak. You'll pay about $1.65 per board foot for 4/4 stock.
Most birch veneer is rotary-cut, and sold as either "natural" color, which includes heartwood and sapwood, or "select white" from sapwood.
Photographs: Hopkins Associates
Illustration: Steve Schindler