Paper (white) birch

Category: Hardwood
Region: Interior
Title: Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)

Paper birch, also known as white birch, is used for lumber, veneer, plywood and pulpwood, and its smooth uniform texture makes it a popular choice for household items, toys and products such as wooden spoons and toothpicks.

Paper birch is a small- to medium-sized deciduous, broadleaf tree found throughout the interior of British Columbia. It is easily recognized by thin, white to reddish-brown bark that peels in papery strips. Its high-value lumber is used for furniture, cabinets, flooring and other millwork items. Since the wood has no odour or taste, it is ideal for short-use recyclable items such as disposable plates and cutlery.

Where it grows

Paper birch is intolerant of shade, so it thrives in open clearings and younger forests resulting from disturbances such as wildfire and insect infestations. It grows on a variety of soils and is found across most of BC’s interior and in a few scattered places on the coast. It can be an important winter food for many forest animals, including deer and moose, and its litter contributes nutrients to the forest floor.

Identifiable characteristics

Paper birch often has many stems and can be up to 40 metres tall. In forests, the slender trunk often curves before extending to the narrow, oval-shaped crown. In the open, the crown is pyramid shaped. The leaves are triangular, or egg shaped and doubly toothed, dull green on top, paler with a soft down underneath. The bark is thin, white to reddish-brown, with dark horizontal slits (lenticels) that act as pores so gases can pass from internal tissues to the atmosphere. The bark peels in papery strips, exposing reddish-orange inner bark which will gradually turn black with age. Paper Birch mature at about 70 years of age, with few trees living longer than 200 years.

Flowers are either male or female, and both are narrow catkins that appear before or at the same time as the leaves. Female catkins are two to four centimetres and stand erect at the tip of the branch. Male catkins are longer and hang below the branch. Each tree produces thousands of wind-dispersed seeds

Common uses and applications

Paper birch is widely used for lumber, veneer, plywood and pulpwood. Furniture, cabinets, flooring and other millwork are made from high-value birch lumber and veneers. The species is a favourite of the wood turning industry for everything from broom handles and dowels to toys and crafts.

Paper birch has a uniform texture, smooth, white appearance, and no odour or taste, making it a good choice for short-use recyclable, biodegradable items such as ice cream sticks, toothpicks and disposable plates and cutlery.

Many Indigenous peoples use birch bark for cultural and practical uses such as making baskets, cradles and canoes.

P’Egp’Ig’Lha Community Centre, Lillooet
Photo credit: Martin Knowles

Commercial availability 

Appearance and millworking grades are produced according to National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) rules. Common grades include Select and better, #1 shop, and frame grade.

Did you know?

Birch sap can be used to make syrup but 80 to 100 litres are needed for one litre of syrup—two to three times as much as sugar maple. Undiluted birch sap can be used to make vinegar or birch beer, and Indigenous peoples drank the sap as a medicine for colds.

Paper (white) birch – physical properties

Density (kg/m3)Green506
Air dry571
Specific gravity (12% m.c.)Standard0.51
Hardness (N)Side4320
End4350
MOE (Mpa)Green10000
Air dry12900
MOR (Mpa)Green47.2
Air dry34.8
Compression parallel (Mpa)Air dry44.7
Compression perpendicular (Mpa)Air dry6.87
Shear (Mpa)Air dry11.27
Cleavage (N/mm width)Air dry84.9
ShrinkageRadial (OD)5.2%
OD = oven dryTangential (OD)7.2%
air = air dry 12%Volumetric (OD)13.8%
Volumetric (air)10.5%
Tang / rad ratio1.4

Paper (white) birch – visual properties

Colour
HeartwoodAsh-gray colour. Dark or reddish-brown discolouration occurs naturally in heartwood.
SapwoodWhitish-yellow.
Heartwood / sapwood contrastFrom very little to marked contrast.
Latewood / earlywood contrastGrowth rings are indistinct in this diffuse-porous hardwood.
Grain
Straight-grained with a fine and uniform texture.
Figure
Plainsawn lumber or rotary-cut veneer: faint growth ring.
Quartersawn lumber or quarter-sliced veneer: none.
Other: growth ring figure is faint. Pith flecks are usually numerous.
Knots
N/A
Other
The wood has no characteristic odour or taste. White birch is moderately hard, heavy and strong. It is generally lighter than yellow birch.
White birch does not have the superior figure and colour of yellow birch and is much lower in resistance to suddenly applied loads.

Paper (white) birch – working properties

ProcessPerformanceComments
Machining
PlaningExcellent planning qualityRecommended planer settings: 12° or 20° hook angle and 12, 16 or 20 kmpi (knife marks per inch).
TurningExcellent surface quality
SawingEasyGood working qualities. Easy to work with hand tools.
BoringExcellentExcellent boring quality when either brad point or single twist bits are used.
MortisingExcellentExcellent mortising quality when using a hollow chisel mortise.
ShapingGood to excellent shaping quality
VeneeringGoodSlight tendency to split during drying.
SandingVery good
Fastening
ScrewingExcellent holdingPoor resistance to splitting. Average screw retention: 723 lb.
NailingGoodHas a tendency to split. Once nailed, the wood holds nails well.
Nail HoldingModerate
GluingModerately easyBonds very easily with adhesives of a wide range of properties and under a wide range of bonding conditions.
Finishing
StainingSatisfactoryVery smooth finish achieved. Natural finish is best. Uneven colours become apparent as stains become darker. Could have pigment finish applied very easily with good results.
PaintingGood to excellent
LacqueringGoodPerformed well in the tape test.
WaxingExcellent
Heartwood durability
Natural decay resistanceNot resistant
TreatabilityTreats well