Balsam fir (aka True Fir)

The true firs, called true firs to distinguish the wood from Douglas-fir, consist of more than 40 species in North America, but only seven species produce commercial lumber. In eastern North America, there is one main species...balsam fir (Abies balsamea) ranging from Alberta to Newfoundland, south to Wisconsin and New York. The majority of the timber is in Canada; balsam fir is the official tree of New Brunswick.

In the western side of the continent, the commercial fir lumber species are subalpine fir (A. Lasiocarpa), California red fir (A. Magnifica), grand fir (A. Grandis), noble fir (A. Procera), Pa-cific silver fir (A. Amabilis) and white fir (A. Concolor). Although the trees can easily be separated into separate species, once cut into lumber, the wood of all the firs looks alike.

Balsam fir is the most symmetrical of northeastern coniferous species, with a narrow pyramidal crown that terminates in a slender spire-like tip. The typical balsam fir tree is about 60 feet tall and 1-1/2 feet in diameter, although much larger trees (90 feet tall and 2-1/2 feet diameter) are seen especially in good growing sites. Some balsam fir trees are 200 years old. Balsam firs are a popular choice for Christmas trees as the needles stay fresh for a long time. For Christmas trees, the trees would be sheared yearly rather than be allowed to grow “wild.”

The wood is used for used for furniture, construction lumber (2x4, 2x6), particleboard, and pulp. Oftentimes when construction 2x4 lumber is purchased at a local lumber yard in North America, the lumber grade stamp will indicate that the species is SPF, which is a combination of spruce, pine and fir; the fir in this grouping is balsam fir, also called Canadian fir or eastern fir.

The wood itself is somewhat impermeable to liquids. This can affect finishing, especially with water-based stains.

There are some reports of contact dermatitis from the resin from the true firs. In spite of this, balsam fir resin is also reported to have certain medicinal properties (which we do not guarantee): painkiller, antiseptic and a healing salve. Tea brewed pitch is suppose to cure coughs, heart problems, colds, ear aches, rheumatism, and headaches.

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Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.