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The Way Wood Works: Birch


The Way Wood Works: Birch

This affordable wood is great for both high-end and utilitarian cabinetry.

By Tim Johnson

Birch is a hot item at the lumberyard these days, and birch veneer is the all-time most popular hardwood plywood.This isn’t a fad.Despite changes in taste and fashion, birch has been in demand for furniture and cabinetry for almost a century.

Birch lumber has a handsome appearance. Because of its fine texture and straight grain, it machines well and routs beautifully.Though hard,birch is easy to sand,and it turns like a dream. Birch plywood is available in a wide range of grades.

These characteristics make birch a great choice for all types of cabinetry.But the best thing about birch is that it looks good with a variety of finishes—it’s a great impostor for more expensive woods. I’ll show you how to make the most of this durable, versatile and budget-friendly hardwood.

Yellow birch rules

Although the birch family Betulaceae contains over a dozen domestic species, between 80 and 90 percent of the lumber you’ll find at the lumberyard is yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). Three other species are also commercially harvested and may occasionally be mixed in with yellow birch. Paper birch (B. papyrifera) is whiter,but softer.Sweet birch (B. lenta) is a bit harder and has a deeper color.River birch (B. nigra) is more likely to contain knots.Birch boards average about 6-in.wide, and are available in lengths up to 12 ft.Lumberyards usually stock birch in 1- and 2-in. thicknesses.Home centers carry birch plywood,but may not stock birch lumber.

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Birch burl is prized by turners.

Birch lumber is graded for color

Birch logs contain quite a bit of sapwood. It ranges in color from creamy-white to golden tan (with occasional pink tones), and is distinctly different than the reddish- brown heartwood (photo, at left). Commercial demand for light-colored wood is so strong that birch, like maple, is often graded and sold by its color. You’ll pay about a 20-percent premium for colorselected birch.

At the lumberyard, birch boards marketed as “sap” or “white” have been color-selected. Sap birch refers to boards containing at least 85 percent light-colored sapwood.White birch refers to paper birch. Some lumberyards carry it separately from yellow birch, specifically for its white color. Paper birch boards are usually narrow (about 4-in.wide), short (6- to 8-ft. long) and thin (1-in. thick). They’re best used to make face-frames and moldings.

Most birch lumber is sold as natural or unselected. There’s no difference in the quality of the wood—it just hasn’t been sorted for color. Most natural boards contain a combination of sapwood and heartwood, but you’ll find lightand dark-colored boards as part of the mix.While light-colored birch grabs all the attention, its deeper toned heartwood (red birch) can be just as attractive. Thick stock (over 1 in.) is likely to contain considerable heartwood. Lowergrade No. 1 common birch lumber contains more knots and other natural defects.

Birch is famous for its light-colored sapwood, but its deeper-toned heartwood, which is known as red birch in the lumber industry, can be even more appealing.

Birch is a great impostor because its figure patterns closely resemble those in cherry, mahogany and walnut. You can dress it up or down just by staining it different colors. Furniture manufacturers have used stained birch in lieu of more expensive hardwoods for decades.

Birch plywood has many faces

Birch plywood is graded by its color, just like birch lumber. The highest grade is white, followed by uniform light and natural. Lower paint and shop grades cost less.Hardwood lumberyards usually stock most grades.

The faces of white birch ply (here white refers to color, rather than species) are made of top-grade (zero defects), color-matched sapwood veneers. This architectural- quality plywood has a handsome appearance, but it’s expensive; around $75 per sheet.

Uniform light and natural birch ply have top-grade veneer faces, in terms of natural defects, but they’re not pristinely white in color. In the past, these grades were distinctly different. Today, they’re virtually identical in appearance (they’re both light colored) and in price; about ten percent less than white ply. Paint and shop grades of birch plywood are worth looking at if you want to save money. They cost about $50 per sheet. Paint-grade birch ply has face veneers that vary in color and pattern match. Shop-grade sheets have some kind of damage or manufacturing defect, but must be 85 percent usable.

It’s smart to shop for birch plywood at a home center.They typically stock a mid-level grade, similar to the paint grade at the hardwood lumberyard, but at home center prices. This plywood will vary widely in appearance from sheet to sheet, and will contain minor natural defects, varying amounts of heartwood and slightly less uniform core material, but you’ll save up to 50 percent, compared to the top white grades at the hardwood lumberyard. You’ll also be able to look through the stack for the best-looking sheets. Take a friend along to help you look, be careful, and leave the stack neat for the next customer.

Top grades of birch plywood are white and uniform.They’re the best choice if you want a clean, pristine look.

Middle-grade birch plywood sold at home centers offers lots of creative possibilities.The veneers may show attractive figure patterns, occasional spectacular curly figure, rich colors, and any combination of sap- and heartwood, including all of one or the other. Staining will minimize contrasting colors, but the only way to make these sheets white is to paint them!

Seal birch before you stain

Curly figure is common in birch and occasionally it’s spectacular. Flame birch can look as cool as tiger maple.Usually, though, figure is a big nuisance because it’s randomly located and hard to see. If you’re not careful, a piece with hidden curly figure can end up in the wrong place on your project. One curly board in a tabletop will stick out like a sore thumb, especially if you use stain. It’s a good idea to check every board for figure. Just wipe on some mineral spirits; any figure will jump right out. If you’re stuck with curly figure in the wrong place, using wood conditioner before you stain helps camouflage it.

Brush on water-based wood conditioner, let it dry and sand lightly before you stain.This process helps the wood absorb water-based stain evenly. Each coat of stain adds a little more color.You can tweak the color by using different colored stains, one over another.Water-based stains dry fast, so you can put on several coats in a day.

Stain makes the curly figure of birch look blotchy.

Curly figure is subdued when you apply water-based wood conditioner before you stain. In our experience, two coats of conditioner may be needed for best appearance.

Four great birch finishes

Birch’s chameleon-like nature makes it a finisher’s dream wood. It looks good with a clear finish, accepts all colors of stains and dyes, and has a smooth surface that’s great for painting.

1. Keep it light. Waterborne polyurethane adds no amber color, so it keeps birch as light as possible. Lacquer finishes are also clear. Oil-based finishes add an amber tone.

2. Imitate expensive hardwoods like mahogany, walnut or cherry.To simulate the open-pored appearance of mahogany or walnut, use a single coat of water-based conditioner before staining.You’ll get an evenly colored finish and some stain will darken the pores, just like the real McCoy.To imitate close-pored woods like cherry, use two coats of conditioner.When you stain, the pores won’t show up at all.

3. Match old birch cabinets or trim moldings that have aged to a uniform honey color by sealing new birch with two coats of water-based conditioner, just as if you were matching a closepored wood.Then add color, using a golden-oak colored water-based stain.

4. Paint it. Because of its uniform texture and tiny pores, birch provides a smooth surface for painting. It’s tougher than pine or poplar, and unselected grades cost about the same. For cabinetry, even the ugliest birch plywood will look great when it’s painted.

Birch or hard maple?

Yellow birch and hard maple look so much alike it’s often tough to tell them apart. Plainsawn boards have similar figure patterns.They both have pale sapwood and distinctly darker heartwood. Manufacturers have used them interchangeably for decades.

How do they compare?

- Hard-maple sapwood is whiter.

- Hard maple will make a better cutting block or countertop, but yellow birch is tough enough to stand up to normal dings and dents.

- Both show considerable seasonal movement.

- Both yellow with age.

- Birch machines better. Hard maple is particularly prone to tear-out during edge jointing, and burn marks from dull blades and bits are tougher to remove.

- Birch accepts stain better, although both are prone to blotching.

- Birch costs less. Although demand for lightcolored wood continues to push up the price of both species, birch is usually about 30-percent cheaper.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2001, issue #89.

October 2001, issue #89

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