Flame Birch Bowl
Yellow Birch is a common utility wood that is most often seen in plywood form where it is commonly used in cabinetry, especially for kitchens. The wood is usually quite straight grained, uniform in color, or lack of color, and is incredibly easy to work. Large veneer sheets are peeled off of logs and then glued on to even cheaper backer sheets to form birch plywood. However, rarely, a Yellow Birch log will be found with grain that isn’t straight and boring, but which instead, for reasons unknown, is twisted and formed into a figure known as “flame.” This bowl was made from a piece from such a log.
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.
Yellow Birch Basics
Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis, is native to the Northeastern United States and is in no danger of being decimated at this time, so there should be no environmental qualms about using it aside from any feelings you may or may not have about the damage that logging causes in general, but if you are quite concerned about that, you might want to choose a different hobby! To be sure, there are multiple other species of birch available, at least 10 should be available, but figure seems most common in Yellow Birch.
While Yellow Birch is a utility wood most often found in plywood form, when figured Yellow Birch appears, it is more likely to find its way into custom furniture. This is especially true because unlike some other figures, such as bird’s eye maple, that show to great advantage in small pieces, 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.
My Experience with Yellow Birch
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 despite the figure and tiny bit of bark present, 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.
However, having said that, I think a very good case could be made for experimenting with tinting, or dyes, on a wood otherwise so uncolored. Maple is often dyed to dramatic effect, especially when figure is present, as a good dye tint will not obliterate the figure, but instead can have the effect of highlighting it quite wonderfully. I have only limited experience with dying wood and have not been overly pleased with the results, so I didn’t want to ruin this piece as an experiment. I have some other wood blanks that are more intended as “practice” pieces and perhaps someday I will work on developing some wood dye skills, but today wasn’t that day. For what it is worth, TransTint dyes come highly recommended and are readily available.
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 and it might provide a cost-effective means of experimenting with some new coloring techniques as opposed to risking a more expensive piece of something exotic. When time and interest permit, I may use Yellow Birch to experiment with wood dyes, so stay tuned to see how that turns out.