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Quality figured birch is an elusive prize


Figured birch, also known as curly or flame birch, can be a rare gem in the lumberyard, at least to some buyers who cherish its wavy pattern that resembles glistening ripples of water in bright sunlight. Lou Irion of Irion Lumber Co. in Wellsboro, Pa. describes figured birch as a reasonably priced “American exotic” that hardly anyone seems to be carrying these days.

“The thing is, it’s a very unusual wood. It’s very pretty, it’s hard to work with, and the figure makes it very prone to tearing the grain. But it’s very dramatic, too. It’s probably the most dramatic of all figured woods in this country because some of the figure is so big it can be 1” to 1-1/2” wide,” says Irion.

Irion is building his inventory of figured birch to give customers another offering and because he enjoyed using it as a period furniture maker in the past.

“We had a couple of different sources, but they dried up, so we decided we wanted to add it to our lineup and started buying logs in northern Maine and cutting it ourselves in matched sets. The problem with a wood like that is if you don’t have a matched set the figure’s all over the place in terms of broad and fine figuring, so you’re better if you have a matched log to work with.”

While all birches offer some figuring, Irion prefers yellow birch as it has the strongest figure and has the largest diameter of the birch trees.

Carl Mahlstedt of Goosebay Sawmill & Lumber in Chichester, N.H. keeps a decent inventory of figured birch as well, primarily yellow species, offering boards with the reddish-toned flame heartwood, yellow curly birch, as well as two-toned pieces. He says it’s a beautiful but forgotten wood that gets overshadowed by curly maple.

“There’s nothing like it when you get the really dramatic flame. Getting the highly figured is difficult because you can usually find the lesser figured birch and it’s not as dramatic and not as popular. The highly figured birch can be more rare, but we seem to have a pretty good supply of it. It can be hit or miss, but right now we actually have a pretty good supply of it,” says Mahlstedt.

With birch commonly sourced from northern New England and Canada, Michael Mastin of McKinney Hardwood Lumber in McKinney, Texas has had his share of difficulty finding a source for quality figured birch, particularly in the past few years. A true fan of the species, Mastin says he only acquires it to sell when he finds pieces that suit his prerequisites.

“I love the kind of figure that’s prevalent and just beautiful to look at. I’m looking for quality, consistency, and quantity of the figuring itself across an entire board. A lot of mills that I run into will package up things they can’t sell to cabinet shops or somebody because it has a little bit of figuring in it. They lump it together and it really doesn’t meet the demands of somebody that’s specifically looking for figured birch. The same happens with figured maple for that matter,” says Mastin.

Figured yellow birch (4/4) retails for about $5/bf for standard widths and $10-$12/bf for wider stock and matched sets. 

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.

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