A bundle of beauty - Yellow birch yields an array of colors: red, white and two-toned veneers.

Yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis, is one of some 60 species of birch from around the world, and grows in Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England, and as far south as North Carolina. Readily available as lumber and veneer, it is probably the most commercially used of the North American birches for furniture, millwork, interior and exterior doors, paneling, store fixtures, institutional furniture, kitchen cabinetry, flooring, turnings, toys and accessories.

The Architectural Woodwork Institute’s Guide to Wood Species, has high praise for yellow birch. “Yellow birch has been, and continues to be, one of the prominent wood species used for architectural woodwork. This is due not only to its attractive appearance, but also to its general availability both as lumber and as veneered products, its adaptability to either paint or transparent finish and its abrasion resistance.”

The guide also explains the sometimes confusing terms used with yellow birch. “The term ‘natural’ or ‘unselected’ birch means that the lumber or veneer may contain both the sapwood or white portion as well as the heartwood or dark portion of the tree in unrestricted amounts. The term ‘select red’ birch describes the lumber or veneer produced from the heartwood portion of the tree and the term ‘select white’ birch describes the lumber or veneer produced from the sapwood portion of the tree.”

Ben Barrett, president of Berkshire Veneer Co. in West Barrington, MA, said he believes that the majority of birch logs go to rotary veneer mills. Barrett explained that with the yellow birch species, there is often a high percentage of red heartwood in any given log. “So if one were to flat slice the flitch, you end up with the first few bundles white, or sap, and as you go deeper into the flitch, the red starts to develop, netting two-toned veneers. If you peel the flitch full rotary, you get nice big sheets of all white, which are graded out, then two-toned, so-called natural birch, and then all red heartwood or red birch. This is three different products from one log and there are markets for each one,” he said.

Barrett added that some mills slice yellow birch and sort the grades out. “Those flitches only produce so many bundles of white veneer. The goal of the log buyer is to try to secure logs with very small hearts. Unlike hard maple, where some of the logs can be quite large and the hearts quite small, clipping the sap quarters out of the back birch logs is rarely an option due to their size.”

According to the AWI guide, “To obtain ‘red’ or ‘white’ birch exclusively requires selective cutting with corresponding cost premium, as well as considerable restriction on the width and length availability in lumber form.” Birch in veneer form, it said, is readily available in all selections, usually rotary cut.

Doug Newhouse, president of Newhouse Wood & Veneer in West Hartford, CT, said red birch, the common name for yellow birch heartwood, has colors ranging from yellowish-white or reddish-white to light brown. “The tree develops a darker color heartwood that can be 90 percent of the diameter,” he said.

Paper and Other Birches

Betula alleghaniensis, the preferred name for the species known as yellow birch, loosely translates to birch of the Allegheny Mountains. In older reference books, the tree might be listed as Betula lutea, now generally considered a synonym for the species. Most American school children are likely familiar with the species, as it is widely used for classroom chairs, cupboards and other school furniture. Rotary cut yellow birch can yield a variety of figures, some very dramatic.

Other commercial birches of note from North America include black, sweet and cherry birch (Betula lenta), which grows mainly in the Adirondacks, and river birch or red river birch (Betula nigra).

Paper birch, (Betula papyrifera) also known as white birch, canoe birch and mother tree, grows predominantly in the northern and western United States. Like yellow birch, it yields wood that is hard, strong and very close grained. Paper birch enjoys another birch trait — it finishes very well. Its uses include veneer, baskets, toy canoes, spools, bobbins, toothpicks, and pulpwood.

Paper birch also is an ornamental tree. It is sometimes called mother tree because it is often planted in memory of mothers. It earned the name paper birch because its white bark can be peeled and used as paper. Albert Constantine Jr., in his book Know Your Woods, said paper birch is the tree which furnished Native Americans with wigwams, various utensils and canoes. The bark from paper birch also makes an excellent source of kindling and can be lit when wet.

Family Name

Betula alleghaniensis of the Family Betulaceae

Common Names

American birch, yellow birch, hard birch, betula wood, Canadian yellow birch, Quebec birch, grey birch, silver birch, swamp birch

Height/Weight

Average height is 70 to 80 feet. Average weight is 44 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.71.

Properties

The wood is heavy, strong and hard with a close grain and even
texture.

Yellow birch dries slowly, with some shrinkage.

The wood has very good bending properties, with good crushing strength and shock resistance.

Yellow birch works fairly easily. It glues well with care and takes a stain extremely well. It also takes nails and screws satisfactorily, although pre-boring might be necessary.

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