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American birch: a furniture favorite.

Birch is the common name for some 40 trees and shrubs indigenous to North America, Europe and Northern Asia. The most important commercial species in the United States and Canada include yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and sweet birch (Betula lenta), of the Family Betulaceae.

The North American birches have certain things in common, including a very thin bark that peels off in horizontal layers. The constantly shedding bark has a variety of uses, according to Hugh Johnson in the Encyclopedia of Trees. "The Lapps used it to made cloaks and leggings. Norwegians used it on their roofs, covering a layer of bark with a foot of earth and Russians tan their leather with it."

Birches are also identified by their long catkins, which resemble scaly-looking spiked flowers and, in fact, produce tiny flowers. Birch trees tend to grow in pairs and clusters.

They are generally thought to be graceful looking trees -- the poet Coleridge called them "The Lady of the Woods" -- although one birch does resemble the so-called black sheep of the family. North American river or black birch, shaggy looking with crackly dark brown bark, thrives in wet areas.

The sapwood or rotary birch is sold as selected white veneer, while the heartwood is sold as selected red veneer. The biggest volume of birch produced, according to the Fine Hardwoods/American Walnut Assn.'s "Selectorama," is natural birch, which is a "normal combination of color tones."

Birch's "pleasing grain pattern and an ability to take a high polish" make it widely used in the furniture industry, according to the association guide.

Of the three commercially prominent trees, paper birch averages 60 to 80 feet, yellow birch ranges in height from 60 to 100 feet and sweet birch grows to between 60 to 80 feet.

A shockingly hard wood

Also known as American birch, yellow birch grows plentifully in the eastern United States and Canada. It has white sapwood and a light reddish-brown heartwood. Its strength properties are above average and its toughness and shock resistance are on par with ash.

Yellow birch has a variety of uses including high-grade plywood and flooring. It is also used for: furniture, upholstery frames, interior finish, doors, store fixtures and accessories. Other uses include: turnery, bobbins, shuttles, spools, boxes, crates and cooperage. Decorative veneer is used for cabinets, marquetry and paneling.

A lesser known use for birch is in distilled products. Yellow birch is one of the principal woods used for hardwood distillation to produce wood alcohol, acetate of lime, charcoal, tar and oils.

A sweet surprise

Birch trees yield sugar when tapped like maple trees. Sweet birch has light-colored sapwood and a much darker heartwood with a red cast. Sweet birch and yellow birch account for much of the lumber and veneer. Wood from these trees is heavy, hard, strong and possesses good shock-resisting ability.

Other names for sweet birch include cherry birch and black birch. Sweet birch ranges from Maine to as far south as Georgia and west to Michigan with most lumber produced in the Adirondack and eastern Appalachian areas.

Paper birch: It's not a write-off

Paper birch, so called because you can write on the peeled-off bark, is lower in weight than the other two birches. It is also softer and lower in strength properties than sweet or yellow birch.

Paper birch is also called white birch and canoe birch dating to the times when native Americans used its waterproof bark to make canoes. According to Donald Culross Peattie, author of A Natural History of Western Trees, "Formerly the Algonquin Indians used to make canoes of paper birch, sewed with the long tough cords of Tamarack root and stretched over a frame of white cedar, while the thread holes and the seams were caulked with resin of pine or balsam or Balm-of-Gilead."

Peattie added that while canoe birch may seem "frail" to us, the "Indians trusted their lives to it as they shot the rock-fanged rapids."

Birch wood was also used to make snowshoe frames and as a covering for some tepees and lodges. Hunters used it to make moose calling horns and it was used to deter mosquitoes. Native Americans still use paper birch bark to make crafts such as baskets and ornaments. Paper birch bark also makes excellent kindling and provides a waterproof material for weatherproofing.

Noteworthy relatives

Other birches of note include river birch, also called red birch, Betula nigra and gray birch, Betula populifolia. River birch has a distinctive salmon pink bark which can mature to black. Gray birch is used for firewood, to make spools, shoe pegs, and wood pulp. Another North American birch, water birch, Betula occidentalis, grows from Canada to California, thriving in wet areas.

Family Names

Betula alleghaniensis, Betula papyrifera and Betula lenta of the Family Betulaceae

Other Names

Yellow birch: American birch Sweet birch: cherry and black birch Paper birch: white and canoe birch


43 pounds per cubic foot Heights range from 60 to 100 feet with 3- to 4-foot diameters

Mechanical properties

High bending, shock resistance and crushing strengths. Works well with hand and machine tools. Dries slowly with little degrade; considerable movement in usage.
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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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