Throughout North America, about 12 varieties of birch trees grow native. Only three of the varieties are widely used for their wood production: the paper, the sweet and the yellow birch. The trees belong to the genus Betula, within the family Betulaceae. Birch trees are usually found in temperate areas. They often grow in large stands together. The trees have a distinctive papery bark that often splits and peels away from the trunk. The trees rarely exceed 80 feet in height.
Birch wood played an important part in ancient Celtic lore. Branches from a birch tree were suspended beside an infant's resting place to protect him from evil spirits. A red ribbon would also be tied around a birch tree to protect the home against spirits. Both witch's brooms and runes would be manufactured from birch wood due to the wood's believed psychic ability and its ability to contact spirits. The wood of the paper birch tree was widely used by Native Americans to manufacture canoes, according to the U.S. National Arboretum.
After birch trees are logged, the lumber of all species resembles each other. The growth rings of the wood are barely visible and the wood's pores are minimal. This uniformity of the wood causes it to lack any distinctive grain appearance. Sweet and yellow birch wood is often harder and tougher wood but it is indistinguishable from other birch varieties in appearance.
Sapwood and Heartwood
In the lumber industry, the sapwood of the birch tree is the most coveted part of the tree due its its appearance. The sapwood is usually thick and very white in color. Unfortunately, the white of the sapwood can quickly discolor and stain when exposed to weather. The heartwood of the tree has a reddish cast and also holds value in the lumber industry, according to the University of Purdue.
Birchwood and Maple
Maple wood tends to be a high value wood. Items manufactured from maple wood also command a high price but birch wood can also be substituted for the more expensive maple wood due to its similar appearance. When birch wood is completely finished it is very difficult to tell the difference between it and maple wood. Close inspection will reveal a few more pores in finished birch wood but that is the only noticeable difference between the two woods.
Uses and Workablity
Birch wood is an extremely hard hardwood. The wood dries quickly. It offers excellent shaping for use in furniture, cabinets, doors and toys. Birch wood is the most widely used wood for the production of tooth picks due to its tasteless qualities. The wood finishes with a pleasant texture and appearance. It is also an odorless wood, which makes it valuable as a wood used for interior home pieces. The demand for birch wood in the United States makes it a valuable wood to import from regions such as Russia to be used in the lumber industry.