Wood of the Month:

European Birch Offers a Variety of Textures

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Betula pendula, Betula alba, Betula pubescens and Betula odorata of the Family Betulaceae

COMMON NAMES

European, Karelian, masur, ice and flame birch, as well as English, Finnish and Swedish birch, according to country of origin

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Trees average 60- to 70-ft tall with diameters of 2- to 3-ft. Average weight is 41 lbs per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.66.

PROPERTIES

The wood dries fairly rapidly with a slight tendency to warp. It is moderately stable and works well with hand and machine tools, but can be wooly. There is a moderate blunting effect on cutting surfaces. Experts recommend pre-boring for nailing or screwing, especially on material with irregular grain. Experts also recommend using reduced cutting angles to avoid tearing when the material is planed. Wood glues well and is easy to finish. Heartwood is moderately resistant to preservative treatment. Sapwood is permeable and liable to attack by the common furniture beetle.

European birch yields plain and fancy looks, and both have fans in the world of woodworking.

Ben Clift, sales manager for Danzer Specialty Veneer in Ediburgh, IN, says his company produces a lot of European birch veneer.

"We carry the plain white birch, which is a general volume wood, and we also carry the highly figured ice birch veneer, which is a very flashy figure used for high-end applications," Clift says.

While plain, white birch is known for its creamy, white-to-tan color and faint grain, masur birch is the name for wood that has been affected by insects.

According to The Encyclopedia of Wood, "The larvae of burrowing insects create pith flecks, which show as irregular dark markings and local grain disturbance."

The veneer from the infected logs is sliced and marketed.

Other popular grain patterns for European birch include flame, ice and curly birch. All are believed to be the result of grain deviations.

There is also Karelian birch, which is a birch burl. It is used in specialty furniture and airplane interiors.

Clift says plain European birch is typically used in kitchen cabinetry, panels and residential doors.

"It was popular for kitchens in the 50s and it remains popular today. Plain birch’s appeal is that it is a creamy white with a subtle figure and very easy to stain," Clift says. "European birch also yields some very flashy and dramatic figures, and is also popular for architectural woodwork and high-end uses."

The white birch from Europe and the natural white with dark heartwood that grows in the United States are also used frequently to make doors.

Clift says adequate lengths of the figured material can be hard to find because the logs tend to be short. Creative cutting can give the dimensions needed.

Varied Uses

Historically, European birch was used to make canoes, and Laplanders used it to make cloaks and leggings. Norwegians covered bark with soil to create roofs. Russians used birch bark to tan leather and it is sometimes used to burn fuel.

European birch is often used for plywood in Finland and other countries. It is also used for high-end joinery, flooring, general turnery and cabinetry. The highly-figured material is cut for expensive veneer and used in high-end applications.

Betula species most often marketed as lumber include Betula pendula, Betula alba, Betula pubescens and Betular odorata. European birch trees yield lumber that is a creamy white, with the heartwood and sapwood hard to distinguish. The wood is lighter than the North American species.

The commercial birches of note in the United States and Canada include yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and paper birch (Betula papyrifera).

Hardy Species

The birch family includes alders, hornbeams and hazels.

"Both birches and alders, the closest cousins, are lightweight trees of the forest’s edge, adapted to poor land and extremes of either drought or damp," writes Hugh Johnson in The Encyclopedia of Trees.

Johnson writes there are some 60 species of birches, and they are hard to identify. "In collections, they lose no time in hybridizing – which only makes matters worse."

Birches are found around the globe in higher northern latitudes. "The birches are the hardiest of all the broadleaves; the only trees native to Iceland and Greenland."

European birch trees do thrive where other trees will not, and do well as far north as Lapland. The average trees are known for their ability to withstand extreme heat and cold.

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