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, below, on the cheap just by picking through the bin.
Baltic blurs the birch lines
In modern woodworking circles, birch's standing has seen a boost from the good reputation of Baltic birch plywood. Named after its region of origin (near the Baltic Sea) rather than any specific species of birch, the premium plywood is created from ultrathin, void-free birch layers. Sporting a nearly white, even tone, the plywood provides consistent quality and has become a mainstay in shop jigs, drawer boxes, and utility projects.
Don't confuse Baltic birch plywood with birch hardwood plywood. The domestic version, usually made from yellow birch, saw a popular resurgence in the 1920s when European varieties gained prominence through Scandinavian designers and their modernist designs. At about 60 percent of the cost of the premium Baltic birch plywood, it remains a low-cost favorite for cabinets.
As with other plywoods, a flood of Far-East imports has lowered the cost and quality of both of these plywoods. If possible, ask your hardwood retailer to steer you away from those. Can't find birch locally? Search for "birch" at woodworkerssource.com.