Flame Birch – Update

I have previously posted about working with flame-patterned Yellow Birch.  More recently, I have had occasion to work with additional Yellow Birch with a flame figure, which prompted me to provide an update to the previously published post.  The update follows:

“Flame” Patterned Yellow Birch

Geographic Distribution

Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis, is native to the Northeastern areas of the North American continent.  Specifically,  Betula alleghaniensis ranges from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Anticosti Island west through southern Ontario to extreme southeastern Manitoba; south to Minnesota and northeastern Iowa; east to northern Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania to northern New Jersey and New England; and south in the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Tennessee and northeastern Georgia.  Southward yellow birch grows at higher elevations, appears more sporadically, and finally is restricted to moist gorges above 3,000 foot elevation.

The largest concentrations of Betula alleghaniensis timber are found in Quebec, Ontario, Maine, Upper Michigan, New York, and New Brunswick.  About 50 percent of the growing stock volume of yellow birch in North America is in Quebec.

From this point forward, for the sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to Betula alleghaniensis simply as Yellow Birch.

General Characteristics

The heartwood of Yellow Birch tends to be a light reddish brown, while the sapwood is nearly white.  Occasionally figured pieces are available with a wide, shallow curl similar to the curl found in Cherry.  In addition, on occasion a “flame” pattern is discovered.  As is true of all figured woods, there is no way to know if such figure is present until the tree is felled and the raw timber is cut into lumber.

As there is little color distinction between the annual growth rings, some viewers find Yellow Birch to have an uniform appearance that some consider to be dull.

The grain of Yellow Birch is generally straight or slightly wavy.  There is most often a fine and even texture.  Yellow Birch displays a low level of natural luster.

Yellow Birch end-grain tends towards the diffuse and porous with medium pores in no specific arrangement.

Yellow Birch is perishable and will readily rot or decay if left exposed to the elements, so it is not suitable for outdoor applications.  In addition, Yellow Birch is susceptible to insect attack.


Flame Birch Interior

Flame Birch Interior

Figured Woods

Different figures occur in some species of wood, perhaps most familiarly in maple, which has multiple different recognized types of figure.  Cherry also sometimes has a figure to the grain, and even more rarely Yellow Birch will have a “flame” figure.  The figure shows up as lighter colored wavy bands that appear to move through the grain of the wood and appear best under carefully directed light.  When this figure occurs, a log moves from utility wood to high appeal worthy of auction by itself to wholesalers and retailers of high-end woods.

No one knows exactly why some logs will feature a figure and others won’t, but it is theorized that it may have to do with disease, drought, or other stressors, but these are simply theories, the actual cause, or causes, remain unknown with any certainty.  There is no way to tell if any one log will feature figure until the tree is felled and sawn.  Trees growing within feet of each other can vary widely in their figure, or lack thereof.  Quarter-sawn pieces often show figure better than others.

The flame figure in Yellow Birch shows best in large pieces such as a table top.  While some flame figure Yellow Birch finds its way into small turned items such as the dish I made, the flame figure is much harder to see on a small scale and it helps to know what you are looking for to best see it.

Working Characteristics

To the delight of wood workers, Yellow Birch is generally considered easy to work with both hand and machine tools.  However, boards with wild or curly grain can have issues with end-grain tearing during machining, especially plane, operations.  This tendency is common with all figured lumber and the risks and means of mitigating those risks are well established elsewhere.

Yellow Birch also turns, glues, and finishes quite well.

Yellow Birch is not known to have any characteristic or distinctive odor when being worked.

Pricing and Availability

In terms of lumber pricing, Yellow Birch is likely to be a rather economical choice in most instances. That said, boards displaying any type of figure, such as curl or flame can be much more expensive.  It is also unusual to find Yellow Birch in sizes suitable for bowl making as most of the lumber harvested is cut into dimensional lumber, or peeled for the manufacture of plywood or veneer if figure is present.

By way of comparison, Yellow Birch should be priced similarly to Maple or Oak, provided the wood is plain.

I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods.  I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.

At this time, I am unable to locate additional supplies of Flame Birch bowl blanks.  As noted above, while Yellow Birch is a commonly used and sold wood, it is not commonly prepared and sold in turning blank sizes.

Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers.  In your search for Imbuia, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings.  I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.

Flame Birch Exterior

Flame Birch Exterior


Yellow Birch is most commonly thought of and used as a utility wood used in the manufacture of plywood, boxes, and crates.  However, figured pieces of Yellow Birch are more commonly used to make turned objects, as interior trim, or in the making of other small specialty wood items such as knife handles, game calls, etc.


Yellow Birch is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Yellow Birch is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.

I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby.  I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon.  I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Yellow Birch sourced their material legally and responsibly.  In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors.  I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price.

I also realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations.  This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store.  Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.

Health Hazards

Other types of Birch that are also in the Betula genus have been reported to act as sensitizers.  The most common reaction usually involve nothing more severe than skin and respiratory irritation.  In addition, the long-term negative effects of exposure to sawdust of any species are well documented.

Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.

Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database.  Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.

Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with Yellow Birch.

My Personal Experiences

The piece turned quite easily although being a softer wood, about the same hardness as white oak, it did have some pretty rough end grain issues on the flat sides, but this was mostly absent wherever cut at an angle.  Therefore, the sloping sides of the outside of the bowl were easy to smooth, but the outer most edges both inside and out required considerably more work.  The wood cut easily and mostly cleanly provided that light cuts were made to clean up after the larger cuts, but this is true of most woods.  Sanding was quite easy since the wood is relatively soft and any problem areas were quickly removed.

I wanted a simple finish that wouldn’t drastically alter the basic plain yellow color of the wood, so I chose my standby Shellawax which kept the yellow color of the wood quite nicely and yet provided a decent shine.  Yellow Birch isn’t dramatic in appearance, especially not this piece of sapwood and I didn’t want to attempt to “dress it up” to appear fancier or more colorful than it actually is.  I chose to let the wood speak for itself on its own merits.

Overall, I am pleased with the outcome.  This Yellow Birch bowl is relatively plain when compared to bowls made from many of the more colorful tropical woods, but I think there is a place for a plain wood bowl that can still be attractive while being simple.  This is just such a plain but beautiful piece in my opinion.  I would work with Yellow Birch again, especially if it featured figure since it was quite easy to handle.

As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!