Friday, January 15, 2010

Red Birch - A NorthWoods Gem

Here's an oxymoron for you wood fans out there: "Red" White Birch.  That's the mineral center of the Paper Birch tree.  (Betula papyrifera).  We manufactured floors for two customers this week from this unique wood.  We also provided matching lumber and plywood to a local cabinet maker who will manufacture the kitchen cabinets for one of these homes.  

Only a small percentage of the Paper Birch trees are of large enough diameter to produce a mineral center big enough to yield a piece of flooring.  But through skill and careful attention, the Rajala logging crew and the staffs at the Rajala sawmill in Bigfork and the Rajala millwork plant in Deer River select this color and grade of wood on a regular basis.  

Many times the guys asked me why we were doing this, because for nearly a century the Red Birch lumber was considered "low grade" and simply went into industrial grades of lumber (pallets, boxes, etc.)  Red Birch lumber from the more traditional Birch lumber species, Yellow Birch, (Betula alleghaniensis) has long been a highly sought-after lumber item.  Over the past 10 years we have put a lot of effort into kiln drying "center cuts" from the Paper Birch, for use in tongue and groove paneling.  It was hard not to see that the reddest of these center cut boards were quite striking, in a way that is similar yet different to the traditional Red Birch from the Yellow Birch species.  So our marketing folks decided to show it off, and see if the consumers would respond.  At first the response was tepid, but it has steadily grown, and now we can hardly keep the product in stock.

Admittedly, the most valuable lumber that we can yield from a high quality Paper Birch is the clear, white sapwood that comes from a large diameter tree with a very small mineral center.  The size of the mineral center is a good indication of the amount of stress to which the tree was subjected as it grew.  A large mineral center (commonly called the "heart") thus indicates a tree that has endured and survived stress during its life.  Not to get too philosophical here, but maybe part of the appeal of the Red Paper Birch is that it is a metaphor for life's stresses.  Maybe using the full product of the forest and of the Paper Birch tree in our homes, puts us (imperfect) humans in better harmony with the forest in which we live and on which we depend.

But if you simply like the flooring for the way it looks and performs, that's OK too....

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