Here we take a close look at the differences between the Birch and the Beech wood to determine which is the better pick for your furniture, flooring and cabinetry.
Birch and beech are related woods with similar-sounding names and many similar properties. But these two kinds of wood are not the same, and the differences between them will affect whether to choose birch or beech for furniture, flooring, and cabinets.
Beech is easier to work than birch, but both finish well. Both kinds of wood respond well to steam bending. Both types of wood are perishable and susceptible to insect attack. Woodworkers generally consider birch a more attractive wood than beech and prefer it for furniture and cabinetry.
Let’s examine birch and beech in depth to understand better which wood you should choose for which application.
Table of Contents
- What is Birch Wood?
- What is Beech Wood?
- How are Birch and Beech Different?
- Description of Birch and Beech
- Durability of Birch and Beech
- Mechanical Properties of Birch and Beech
- Seasoning of Birch and Beech
- Working Properties of Birch and Beech
- Availability and Sustainability of Birch and Beech
- Cost Differences Between Birch and Beech
- Which is Better for Furniture, Birch or Beech?
- Which is Better for Flooring, Birch or Beech?
- Which is Better for Cabinetry, Birch or Beech?
What is Birch Wood?
Species in the deciduous hardwood genus Betula are the source of birch wood. This genus is common in the more northerly temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and the boreal fringe.
The genus contains 30 to 60 species, most of which are relatively short-lived pioneer species. The main species you are likely to purchase in the United States are yellow birch, paper birch, sweet birch, and river birch.
You may also encounter silver birch or downy birch wood from Eurasia.
All these woods have somewhat similar properties, with the notable exception of weight and hardness.
This genus is part of the Betulaceae family, related to the Fagaceae (the beech-oak family).
What is Beech Wood?
Species in the genus Fagus, in the family Fagaceae, yield beech. This genus has some dozen species found across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
If you are buying in the United States, you will most likely encounter lumber from Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, which grows in the eastern United States, and Fagus sylvatica, the European beech.
These two kinds of wood are very similar in properties and price, although you will probably pay slightly more for imported European beech.
How are Birch and Beech Different?
Now that we have considered what birch and beech are, let’s look at what makes them different.
Description of Birch and Beech
The heartwood of birch is generally light reddish-brown, and the sapwood is nearly white. The annual growth rings usually do not show much color distinction, giving the wood a uniform appearance.
The grain is straight or slightly wavy. Figured wood is occasionally available with a wide, shallow curl similar to that found in cherry.
The texture is fine and even, and the end-grain diffuse-porous.
Some woodworkers compare the appearance of birch to that of maple.
Beech is generally a light yellowish color with a fine, plain texture on flatsawn surfaces. Quartersawn surfaces show a silvery fleck pattern. Beech has conspicuous rays and tiny pores, and straight grain. Woodworkers generally consider it a plain, unattractive wood.
Neither birch nor beech has any characteristic odor.
These woods are all comparable weights. River birch weighs 37lbs per cu. ft., paper birch 38lbs per cu. ft., yellow birch 43lbs per cu. ft., and sweet birch 46lbs per cu. ft. European beech weighs 44lbs per cu. ft. and American beech 45lbs per cu. ft.
Durability of Birch and Beech
Both birch and beech are perishable and will rot quickly. These woods are also susceptible to attack from pests. The woods are permeable to preservatives.
Mechanical Properties of Birch and Beech
Both birch and beech have high crush strength. Both kinds of wood have low stiffness and high bend strength and respond superbly to steam bending.
Beech’s Janka hardness is 1300, higher than paper birch at 910, whereas yellow birch has a Janka hardness of 1260 and sweet birch’s hardness is 1470.
Seasoning of Birch and Beech
Birch dries slowly, with little degradation. It shows significant movement in service.
Beech dries rapidly but shows a tendency to split and check. It is also liable to warp. It also tends to move a lot in service.
Working Properties of Birch and Beech
You can work birch fairly easily with power tools, although it has something of a dulling effect on cutters. It is pretty challenging to work by hand. You can work beech easily with hand and power tools.
Both kinds of wood nails, screw, glue well, and take stain and polish very well. Birch is excellent for white enameling.
Availability and Sustainability of Birch and Beech
Both birch and beech are readily available. Neither the CITES Appendices nor the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species list these various species as threatened.
Cost Differences Between Birch and Beech
Both birch and beech retail at around $6.29 per board foot.
Which is Better for Furniture, Birch or Beech?
Woodworkers use birch for all aspects of furniture making, as it has a pleasing appearance and works well. Woodworkers have historically used beech as a secondary wood, using it for the backs and sides of dressers or the legs of tables and chairs.
Which is Better for Flooring, Birch or Beech?
Most species of birch used in the United States are hard enough to be suitable for flooring, and woodworkers have historically used them for this purpose in the North-East. Beech is usually more costly when used for flooring, but it is easy to work and holds up reasonably well to traffic.
Which is Better for Cabinetry, Birch or Beech?
Birch is a suitable option for cabinetry, but you must adequately protect it against moisture. Some cabinetmakers consider cabinets made with birch to have a dated look, as the distinctive figure of birch was in fashion in the 1960s and 1970s.
Beech does not impart odor or flavor to food and does not dull knife blades. However, you must properly seal it to avoid warping from humidity.
When choosing between birch and beech for furniture, birch offers a more pleasing appearance and is the wood of choice.
Both kinds of wood are highly suitable for flooring or cabinetry applications, provided they are appropriately protected against moisture and pests to compensate for their perishable nature.
Hunker: The Pros and Cons of Birch Wood
Learning Center: What is Birch Hardwood Flooring?
How Stuff Works: Guide to Furniture Woods
The Wood Database: Sweet Birch
The Wood Database: River Birch
The Wood Database: Paper Birch
The Wood Database: Yellow Birch
The Wood Database: European Beech
The Wood Database: American Beech