Botanical Name: Betula
Yellow birch and sweet birch are the two forms most commonly used for flooring, although silver birch is also used to a lesser degree. These trees are generally grown in the Lake States and throughout the Northeast, although they can also be found along the Appalachian Mountains down through northern Georgia. The color of the yellow birch ranges from a light yellow to white with heartwood that is a light reddish brown with dark red accents. The sweet birch is slightly darker throughout with heartwood that is a dark brown with red accents. The grain of birch is typically straight and even throughout most of any given board, however, the slight wavy curve found periodically gives birch much of its unique charm.
Birch has long been used in the Americas for a variety of purposes. Birch bark was used by Native Americans to cover canoe frames and as the shaft of arrows. It is one of the most popular ornamental trees in America, and several were planted around the White House in honor of the mothers of the various presidents. In many historic New England homes, a variety of birch flooring can be seen. This flooring was quite popular because of its durability and easy access in that area.
Around the world, the wood of the birch tree has been used as building material, agricultural implements, cradles, handles, bobbins, spools, and flooring. The sap can be used to make a wine, the leaves to make medicinal remedies, and the bark for tanning leather.
In Celtic mythology, the birch symbolizes purification and renewal. The Celtic birch, or Beithe, is the first tree in the Celtic tree alphabet and was used during the new year celebrations of Samhain. In fact several important celebrations, including Beltane, incorporated the birch tree.
The etymology of the word birch is believed to come from the Sanskrit word bhurga. Loosely translated, this means a tree whose bark can be written upon.
The Janka rating is one of the easiest ways to determine the durability of a hardwood. The scale ranges from zero, which is very soft and not suitable for flooring, to 4000, which is incredibly strong and too difficult to work into flooring. A good compromise lies somewhere in between. The Janka rating for yellow birch is 1260 and for sweet birch 1470. The yellow birch is the most commonly used in flooring and is only slightly less strong than red oak, while the sweet birch is slightly harder than hard maple. These ratings indicate that birch flooring made from either of these species is suitable for hardwood floors that will receive moderate to heavy foot traffic.
Birch can be quite difficult to work using only hand tools; however, it has excellent machining qualities. It can be well sanded with a bit of work, although improper sanding can result in a rougher product. Birch is quite heavy and shock resistant. The smooth finish and dense texture makes birch a good candidate for paints, stains, and polishing. The sweet birch, which is slightly darker than the yellow birch, takes darker stains especially well. It can be glued, nailed, and screwed with ease and is a good candidate for pre-boring. When nailed, birch has an exceptional holding ability making the finished product sturdy for years of use.
Where to use
Yellow birch is a great choice for hardwood flooring in almost any room. It is the most common selection and is lighter than other forms. For a darker color, the sweet birch is preferred and is a bit darker throughout. However, it is more moisture resistant than many other hardwoods and is suitable for foyers and kitchens. Birch can even be used in bathrooms if extreme care is given, although as with most hardwood flooring options, birch is not highly recommended for those areas that are repeatedly exposed to standing water or excessive moisture. The light and darker colors within each plank make a lovely design suitable for both modern and contemporary settings. Because some varieties of birch are so easily stained, it is possible to achieve almost any desired look with this hardwood.
Care and Maintenance
It is important to keep in mind that no matter the relative hardness of a hardwood, proper care and maintenance are important in maintaining both the beauty and integrity of the flooring. The first step in caring for a birch floor is preventative maintenance. Entryways should have mats covering the floor to avoid scuff or heel marks. Runners or rugs should be placed in extremely high traffic areas such as hallways to limit the amount of wear and tear. Place pads underneath furniture legs to prevent gouges in the hardwood over time. If animals will be walking on the flooring, trim their nails regularly to prevent tiny indentions and scrapes in the wood.
Regularly sweeping the floors, or vacuuming on the hardwood setting, will prevent sand from scouring the floors. Promptly wipe spills to prevent stains from seeping into the flooring and causing discoloration. Additional cleaning details depend largely on the type of finish that is chosen for the flooring.
The birch family is considered a pioneer species. This means it can rapidly colonize open ground, especially in areas that have undergone a large disturbance such as fire. This quick growth makes it a great choice for preventing erosion after a natural or manmade removal of ground cover. However, the rapid growth also can be problematic in the establishment of other trees, because the seedlings can quickly overwhelm more slow growing species. In order to allow other trees to thrive, the seedlings need to be frequently thinned in order not to overwhelm other species.