Spectraply and Yellow Birch

Geographical Distribution

Spectraply is a brand name product that is composed of thin pieces of Yellow Birch wood that have been dyed different colors. Because Yellow Birch is the wood from which these blanks are manufactured, we will consider that specific wood in detail.

Yellow Birch is known to botanists and foresters as Betula alleghaniensis. B. alleghaniensis is a native of northeastern North America. United States Forest Service information tells us that B. alleghaniensis grows 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. The largest concentrations of B. alleghaniensis 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. In fact, B. alleghaniensis is the provincial tree of Quebec, reflecting both the large populations of the tree in that province and also the economic and social importance of the species to the province as well.

For sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to B. alleghaniensis from this point forward simply as Yellow Birch. I may also use the term Spectraply as appropriate.

Yellow Birch Detail

Yellow Birch Detail

General Characteristics

The heartwood of Yellow Birch tends to be a light reddish brown while the sapwood is nearly white. This white sapwood is often used, due to its natural lack of color and relative affordability, to make highly colored dyed wood products including Spectraply. There is virtually no color distinction between the growth rings which can give Yellow Birch a dull and uniform appearance, which is perfect for a wood intended to be dyed vibrant colors as there is no natural coloration to interfere with a uniform dyed coloration.

Occasionally Yellow Birch pieces will be found that feature some figure, usually a shallow curl similar to that which is sometimes found in Cherry, but this is not common.

The grain of Yellow Birch is generally straight or slightly wavy. The texture is fine and even. Yellow Birch, even when finely surfaced, shows only a low natural luster. These characteristics are excellent for a wood intended for treatment with intense dyes, again, as there is no natural grain, texture, or luster interference to contend with.

Yellow Birch endgrain tends towards the diffuse and porous type.

Yellow Birch should not be used for outdoor applications because it is perishable and will readily rot and decay if exposed to the elements. Yellow Birch is also susceptible to insect attack.

Working Characteristics

The characteristics of Yellow Birch form the basis of the character of the commercial product sold as Spectraply but there may be slight differences so I will address the timber and the commercial product independently.

Yellow Birch is generally easy to work with both hand and machine powered tools. That said, as is essentially universally true, boards with wild grain can cause grain tear-out during machining operations, especially plane operations, but as highly figured Yellow Birch is uncommon, this is usually not an issue. And, highly figured pieces would never be used in the production of Spectraply because they would command a premium price on the lumber market and would not be peeled for the production of laminates.

Most usefully for our purposes, Yellow Birch turns, glues, and finishes well.

Yellow Birch has no characteristic odor when being worked.

To understand the working characteristics of the Spectraply product is it helpful to not only understand the wood the product is made from but also to understand how the product is manufactured.

Spectraply is made by first peeling Yellow Birch from logs into long sheets as is typical for the production of plywood, the fate of most Yellow Birch timber. These thin sheets, or those intended for Spectraply at least, are dyed multiple different, often vibrant, colors. Differing shades, usually complementary color combinations or combinations intended to represent brand names, such as John Deere, or a sporting team, are layered one atop the other, in repeating patterns of as few as two colors up to as many as five, depending on the desired design. In between each different colored sheet epoxy is applied. Under enormous pressure, which also creates heat, the sheets are pressed together and as the epoxy cures a laminate is formed. The edges are trimmed and blanks of varying sizes are then cut from the master block. The results are Spectraply blanks.

The only differences that arise from the laminate process are the use of the epoxy, which does impart a slight odor to the blanks when turning, but unlike some earlier laminated products, the epoxy is not visible at the junction lines. Any time one is turning a laminated product the risk of breakage, especially along the joint lines is increased, so very sharp tools, patience, and a light touch will be rewarded.

Pricing

If you are after just plain Yellow Birch, it is readily available from many lumber vendors. It generally sells in the mid-range for a domestic hardwood, roughly the price profile as would be expected for Maple or Oak.

Birch isn’t a wood that you need to go to an exotic wood dealer to find. You should be able to easily locate Birch lumber at any decent lumber yard, which you should note in my book does NOT include Home Depot or Lowe’s. You should find, and routinely patronize, a REAL lumber yard in your area to help make sure that they continue to exist.

In terms of Spectraply, the first challenge in pricing it is to find it. The original supplier, Rutland Plywood of Vermont had a devastating fire that destroyed the entire business. The next company to take up the manufacturing of Spectraply has been Cousineau Wood Products. They do sell Spectraply directly, but only in very large blank sizes, and it can also be obtained, in limited quantities and limited sizes from Woodcraft, Craft Supply USA and Woodnwhimses. When looking for Spectraply, beware that colors and sizes are severely limited at this time although hopefully by the time anyone reads this the situation will have improved.

Pen blanks should be priced somewhere between $2.00 and $3.00, making them mid-range priced for a pen blank. Larger blanks, such as for bottle stoppers, pepper/salt mills, and even small bowls will, of course, be priced higher. Mill blanks will sell for almost $20.00 although Woodcraft is currently clearing their stocks of Spectraply out on clearance, no doubt a reflection of the uncertainty of this product line’s future, so some much better prices can be had, although stocks are severely limited at this time.

Predictably, there are Spectraply sellers on Ebay, so if you care to use that service, which I generally do not, then you may find some additional, although still limited at this time, supplies there as well.

However, beware shipping costs on Ebay purchases! Some wood vendors offer extremely attractive product prices and then gouge on shipping. Granted, wood is quite heavy and potentially expensive to ship, but the use of Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes is now common among wood sellers and those boxes ship for one price regardless of weight. And Spectraply is quite light, a reflection of the low density nature of the parent wood, Yellow Birch. If purchasing Spectraply, Yellow Birch, or anything else for that matter, on Ebay, always be sure you understand the shipping costs thoroughly before you agree to buy.

I should also note that a similar, although certainly not identical, product is Dymondwood. Dymondwood is also a laminate but it is most often cut along the diagonal which produces a quite different look from Spectraply and the sheets used to make it are considerably thinner. There are also straight cut blanks of Dymondwood as well. Dymondwood blanks tend to be considerably thinner than most Spectraply, so you cannot use these blanks to make larger size pens, and Dymondwood does not come in sizes any larger than pen blanks, so mills, bottle stoppers, and small bowls are out, although those are all, or at least have been, possibilities with Spectraply.

Sadly, Dymondwood is also now rare as it too was manufactured by Rutland Plywood of Vermont, the maker of Spectraply. As a result of the fire, Dymondwood is no longer being manufactured, but it is still possible to find vendors who have remaining stocks of this product if you hunt around a bit.

Uses

Yellow Birch is a utility wood through and through. It finds use in the making of such things as plywood, boxes, crates, and interior trim. Also Yellow Birch can obviously be used for turned objects as well as other small specialty wood items, however, in these applications Yellow Birch is almost always first dyed or otherwise colored (enhanced) to add appeal to an otherwise quite plain wood.

Sustainability

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 wood is not subject to any special restrictions by any United States or Canadian government agencies.

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 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

Woods, including Yellow Birch, in the Betula genus have been reported to act as sensitizers. The most common reactions include simple skin and respiratory irritation. Appropriate protective equipment is recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, wood, 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.

It is possible, although not yet reported, that some individuals could display a hypersensitivity to either the epoxy or the dyes used in the manufacture of Spectraply and other laminate products. Anyone who has experience such reactions in association with other similar or related substances should use additional caution until certain that it is safe for them to use Spectraply.

The known risks posed by prolonged and repeated exposure to dust from any wood species are still present when using Yellow Birch or Spectraply. 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 Spectraply.

My Personal Experiences

Yellow Birch, and therefore Spectraply, is a fairly soft hardwood, so it drilled, turned, and sanded quite easily overall. I have some degree of experience with laminated products so I had no difficulties with splitting or breaking as sometimes happens with new users. Because the wood is soft, it does tend to fuzz a bit when cut but this is very easily remedied with even light sanding. I used a friction polish on the blanks and am quite satisfied with the overall results. I always enjoy the unique patterns created by laminated materials, which in the case of Spectraply resemble chevron patterns of two sides while the other two sides are more traditionally striped.

I have long enjoyed working with Spectraply and am sorry to see that it has become so difficult to obtain. I have additional stocks on order and look forward to working with this material again in the future.

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!