European birch is one of those woods that is very plain — except when it isn’t. Some of the distinctive patterns yielded include flame and curly figures. Another figure of note is Karelian birch, known also as Karelian burl and Masur birch.
Fritz Kohl GmbH is a major supplier of Karelian birch in Europe. Gunther Mees is responsible for the procurement for the company and is considered an expert on this species.
Mees said Karelian burl grows in a fairly small area in mid- to east Finland. “Although birch in general grows all over Finland, the burl figuration is due to certain landscape features and very unique soils, which are limited to small area of Karelia. It grows among plain birch as well as mixed with spruce, pine and elder. It is never found in complete stands or in plots.”
Mees said it is necessary to wait for the winter season to harvest the trees. “The leaves have to turn yellow, red and brown to show that sap has left the trunk completely. Otherwise, logs will have sap-discolorations after peeling. Also, the ground has to be deeply frozen in order to extract the logs from difficult landscape with small trucks and machinery or, what is still a usual procedure, with horses,” he added.
Although there are cases where the Karelian burl can be completely burled in the full length up to 10 feet, Mees said that is very seldom. “Mostly the logs have got parts of 2 feet to 3 feet burled, then plain again, then burled again.” Careful examination of the bark can help determine the amount of burl prior to cutting. “The bark shows a kind of bursting and cracking, as if the burl-character forces the volume out of the logs,” he explained.
Felling is tightly controlled, according to Mees, and Finnish authorities “insist on strict felling quota to only a special number of listed farmers and timber men in Karelia. Because of this careful system and continued replanting, then a healthy environment is maintained and supplies can indeed be called sustainable.”
Doug Newhouse, owner Connecticut-based Newhouse Wood & Veneer, also noted, “It is a slow growing, short tree and its trunk is covered by distinctive bumps and ridges that conceal a wood with a marble-like pattern.” The beauty of Karelian birch is apparent by the fact that Peter Carl Faberge used the species in 1917 to make an egg for the Tsar, he said.
In addition to specialty items, other uses for Karelian birch include high-quality architectural woodwork and furniture.
Rich Soborowicz, a Washington-based custom woodworker and owner of Natures Fine Woodworking, has used Karelian birch in many designs, working with solids as well as veneer. “I like figured veneer and Karelian offers a wonderful figure and it has a beautiful texture. To me, it is luminous,” said Soborowicz. “Light reflects off the piece and gives you lightness, darkness and shadows.” Soborowicz said a friend described the figure like the bubbles you would see floating up in a champagne flute.
Soborowicz often works with bookmatched Karelian birch, teaming it with other woods, such as walnut or sapele, for contrast. “I like working with Karelian. It is a very beautiful, benign wood and it works well. If I need a good 90-degree edge, I can get it from Karelian birch, unlike woods like rosewood that can be a pain to work.”
Rick Banas, vice president of Kentucky-based Interwood Forest Products, said that while the first thing that comes to peoples’ minds when talking about Karelian is birch, “there are other species found with the similar type of figure in different parts of the world such as maple, walnut, cherry and oak. These rarities are often described as ‘Karelian’ due to the sound ingrown bark, which creates a pleasing figure type that is much more common with the birch found in the special areas of Finland.”
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