Birch is a native hardwood that comes from the genus Betula. There are over a dozen species of birch trees native to North America, but the most common are white birch, yellow birch, and black birch. Yellow birch and white birch are the two most commonly found in woodworking.
When birch is mentioned as an option for fine furniture in the United States, it’s typically yellow birch wood, sometimes called golden birch, being referenced. Yellow birch wood is light in color and smooth-grained, not unlike maple wood, although birch tends to yellow more visibly over time.
Going back to the 1960s and 1970s, birch wood was used quite a bit in home furnishings and cabinetry. Nowadays, it’s largely used for utilitarian purposes like shelving, crates, and plywood. Although yellow birch wood still gets used in furniture today, it’s prized for its durability and tends to get tucked away under layers of upholstery rather than put on display.
Betula alleghaniensis - Yellow Birch
Native to eastern Canada and the eastern US.
Betula Borealis - Northern Birch
Native to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Betula Caerulea, Betula cordifolia - Blue Birch, Mountain Paper Birch
Native to the northeastern US and eastern Canada.
Betula Glandulosa - Resin Birch, American Dwarf Birch
Native to the mountain regions of the western US and New England, as well as Canada and various parts of the world.
Betula Lenta Sweet Birch, Cherry Birch, Black Birch
Native to the eastern US, Quebec and Ontario.
Betula Minor Dwarf White Birch
Native to the mountains of northern New England and the Adirondacks as well as eastern Canada.
Betula Murrayana Murray's Birch
Native to the Great Lakes region.
Betula Nana Dwarf Birch, Bog Birch
Native to the northwestern US, parts of New England, eastern Canada, and other parts of the world.
Betula Neoalaskana Alaskan Paper Birch, Alaska Birch, Resin Birch
Native to Alaska and most of Canada.
Betula Nigra River Birch, Black Birch
Native to the eastern US.
Betula Occidentalis Water Birch, Red Birch
Native to Alaska and the western US as well as most of Canada.
Betula Papyrifera Paper Birch, Canoe Birch, American White Birch
Native to the northern US, Alaska, and most of Canada.
Betula Populifolia Gray Birch
Native to the northeastern US and eastern Canada.
Betula Uber Virginia Round-Leaf Birch)
Native to Virginia.
Although birch wood was used quite a bit in the 1960s and 1970s for furniture and cabinetry, it isn’t used much today by craftsmen. However, because many people remember it being in their homes all those years ago, it’s something that gets researched with regularity. A few of the most common questions about birch wood are answered below.
The most prized part of the tree where birch is concerned is the sapwood or outermost section of the tree. It’s usually more of a creamy white, but can be almost a pure white in some cases. It develops a yellowish-red tint with age. The innermost portion, or the heartwood, also gets some use. It’s more of a reddish-brown.
Yellow birch wood has many uses. It’s one of the more robust varieties, which is why it was initially used in furniture. Nowadays, yellow birch wood is mostly used for utilitarian purposes. It’s still incorporated into furniture because it’s strong, but typically only in parts that are not seen, such as the frame of an upholstered chair or in shelving.
It’s also worth noting that the trees have other uses. For example, they produce a sap which can be made into syrup. It’s not quite as sweet as maple, but it has a following none-the-less. The papery bark gets used as kindling too. Although the wood, itself, doesn’t burn easily, the bark works well to get fires burning and will even ignite while wet. Oil of wintergreen can be distilled from the bark as well.
Birch wood is typically straight-grained with a fine and even texture, though some pieces have more of a wavy grain and others may possess a curl quite like cherry.
The term “hardwood” refers to wood which comes from a dicot tree, such as a broadleaf variety, while the term “softwood” means the wood comes from a gymnosperm, such as a needle variety. It doesn’t necessarily relate to how durable the wood is, but it’s often an indicator.
Those familiar with what a birch tree looks like can then easily identify it as a dicot or hardwood based on its leaves. Others in the same group include cherry, oak, walnut, and maple. On the flip side, options like fir, cedar, and pine, have needles. They’re gymnosperm trees, and thus are softwoods.
To identify the actual hardness or durability of any given wood type, wood is assessed on the Janka Scale. During a Janka Test, a small metal ball is pressed into the wood until its halfway embedded. The amount of force needed to do so is recorded and the wood will then have a “pounds of force” rating or “Janka” value.
In the case of Yellow Birch wood, it takes 1,260 pounds of force to embed the ball, so it’s rated 1,260 lbf or 1,260 Janka. It would literally take the weight of several grown adults to cause significant damage to a piece of yellow birch wood, so it is incredibly durable. That said, it only beats out black cherry and black walnut by a small margin. Red oak, ash, white oak, and sugar maple all top it.
Although there are many varieties of birch across the globe, most birch in the United States comes from the yellow birch tree, also known by the scientific name Betula alleghaniensis Britt.
Yellow birch trees grow across the eastern side of North America. They’re native as far north as Quebec and as far south as Georgia, but stop growing in a western direction at Minnesota and Iowa.
It’s common for yellow birch trees to reach 60-80 feet tall, though a few will hit 100 feet. They can grow to have a 3-foot diameter as well. That being said, if left to their own devices, these trees will live for 150 years or more, with some surviving as long as 300 years.
Particularly where the light sapwood is concerned, yellow birch wood has a unique color that makes it a bit easier to distinguish. The lack of luster is often a dead giveaway too. When these features are paired with a wavy or curl grain, it becomes even more apparent.
The difficulty, however, is that yellow birch wood is not an expensive wood, so chances are nobody is going to try to pass off another wood type as being birch. The inverse is not necessarily true, so it’s always better to get wood furniture straight from the craftsman or a reputable retailer to ensure authenticity.
It’s never a good idea to put solid wood outdoors. Even if it does have a protective coating, the elements will eventually cause damage and maintaining pieces requires a considerable amount of time. When it comes to yellow birch wood, it’s even more important to keep it indoors. It is highly-susceptible to rot and infestation.
Those hoping to create a comfortable outdoor living space would do much better with a wood-look product, such as the Polywood collection offered by Vermont Woods Studios. While it has the appearance and feel of natural wood, it’s actually made of all-weather recycled high-density plastic. This means it can withstand the elements without any maintenance. We’re so confident it will last and maintain its beauty that we offer a lifetime quality guarantee.
Yellow birch trees fall into the lowest-risk endangerment category. The species, as a whole, is secure. However, the state of Illinois considers it to be endangered, meaning their yellow birch counts are dwindling. This is not seen in other parts of the country.
Beyond this, it’s safe to consider birch wood to be eco-friendly. The trees grow in abundance throughout North America and, in choosing any kind of local robust natural wood product, consumers are preventing “junk” furniture from winding up in landfills and minimizing their carbon footprint.
Again, most craftsmen have moved away from using birch wood because other wood types can deliver similar coloring or grain patterns. However, those searching for natural wood furniture of any type should always look for the following:
True, some people are simply drawn to yellow birch wood because it evokes nostalgia, and in these cases, it’s quite likely alternatives simply won’t do. However, those attracted to it for the color and durability will likely be even happier with maple, while those drawn to some of the more uncommon grain patterns or reddish hues will appreciate cherry. Oak can be on the lighter side as well, so it may be a good alternative for some too.
Learn more about our wood types on our wood page, or use the links below to read about specific types: