When purchasing wooden furniture there are many options to which wood is the best choice. Birch and Walnut are some of the most popular woods to make furniture from, both kinds of wood are strong, durable, and sturdy. Whichever wood is chosen the piece of furniture will last a long time.
When creating furniture, each type of wood has its strengths that are used to create great furniture. Birch and walnut are two of the strongest and most popular for creating furniture. These two types of wood have been used on furniture for generations, due to their reputation for strength.
This article will detail what makes both birch and walnut furniture excellent quality. Similarly will detail how to pick which is the best for your home.
What Makes Good Wooden Furniture?
Furniture has been a symbol of wealth for centuries, wooden furniture was created out of rare woods; many times with ordnance designs to show class. Throughout centuries different woods because of the desirable type, for example from 1600 to the 1730s, there was an “Age of Walnut” (History of Furniture).
During this time people discovered how to cut thinner pieces of wood allowing more design. Walnut became the most popular wood of this time, and many of these pieces are still persevered today, showing it’s longevity. While birch grew in popularity in the 20th century due to its appeal in cabinet making.
Birch has been used throughout Europe and North American for centuries, commonly being used for boxes, canoes, writing material (Birchbark). The dried birch can be used to make birch oil, which was virtual in colder climates to be used to waterproof leathers. This oil can be used as an antiseptic, showing the importance of this wood.
When shopping for wooden furniture, make sure the piece is solid wood meaning it’s one piece of wood. Rather than having multiple layers of plywood glued or resin applied together to create one piece. You can tell this by looking at the sides of the piece, if there are visible layers this is plywood and will be much cheaper than solid wood.
When it comes to making durable and strong furniture there are some key things to consider when picking out furniture, regardless of the type of wood.
Both birch and walnut trees are considered to be hardwood, these types of trees traditionally are stronger and more durable; ideal for making furniture. Due to their strength, they tend to last much longer and can be passed down through generations; they are also less likely to break down with age.
To achieve the greatest level of strength following the natural grain is key. Wood is made up of cellulose fibers and these fibers hold the wood together giving it strength. The fibers keep the wood strong, by spreading the weight across the wood and not having all the weight in one spot (Wood Strength).
When looking at furniture, making sure the pieces of wood follow the grain, is one of the best ways to ensure your piece is as strong as possible. By looking at photos of birch or walnut grain before purchasing a piece can help you understand what it looks like, it is a great trick before buying.
Woods strength is actually measured in multiple ways, but to get a general strength following the ‘specific gravity’ or the density of the wood. Birch has a specific gravity of 0.62 making it one of the strongest hardwoods in North America. Walnut’s specific gravity is 0.55, also very strong (Wood Strength). There is also the universal scale of the Janka which tests the wood also.
Color and Stain
The appearance of the furniture is almost as important as the piece before it’s stained. Different types of wood have a range of natural colors, with stain enhancing the color. It’s important to choose a color that fits your room, given it’s very difficult to change the stain of the wood after applying.
Look for an even, uniform layer of stain on the wood, if the wood looks to be stained poorly it was probably made poorly also. But woods like birch do not take to dark stain well and will have blotchy spots.
Walnut wood has a wide variety of colors from light brown to dark chocolate brown it can even have darker brown streaks throughout it. Woodworkers enjoy using walnut because it absorbs
stain well, and has a smooth finish (Walnut Stain). The grain of walnut grows straight throughout the center of the tree, allowing for straight cuts and near-symmetrical pieces.
Birchwood is naturally a light shade of wood but within the birch family, there are color variants. White birch is a light shade with more brown towards the center, yellow birch is a light golden brown, and red birch is similar to white birch is color, just with a red hue (Birch Wood).
Almost all types of wood will have natural lightening of its color over time, walnut does take much longer to lighten. One easy way to help slow this process now is using oil and all-natural cleaners on the wood. Never should harsh treatments or oils be applied to natural wood finishes.
Regardless of the type of wood if the piece is assembled poorly then it won’t last. Some of the most important things to look for in quality made wooden furniture is the joints. Good joints are important to the appearance of the piece and also the durability of the piece (Wood Furniture).
If the joint looks to be not fully joined or when moving the piece around it wobbles or feels like it might break. The piece was poorly made and will break, it’s not worth your money.
Poor assembly of furniture can result in it breaking and can also alter the appearance of the work. Many times if purchased from a master craftsman they will be experts in joint assembly, but modern mass-produced furniture can have poor joints. Resulting in a poor quality of work.
Similarly, if the completed furniture feels wobbly, or moves around easily, it probably was not made properly and you shouldn’t purchase it. Also if you notice the piece of furniture has noticeable scratches or dents, it might not be hardwood or was damaged after it was made.
A good test when looking at furniture is to draw and scratch a line with your fingernail in a non-visual spot, look to see if it leaves a dent. Make sure to do this test where it won’t leave a visual line in it, for example behind a table leg.
Many times poor furniture is made with plywood and veneers, if purchasing a solid birch or walnut piece of the future, make sure it’s solid. Not a walnut veneer across the top, this will not last for years. Also, if the piece is heavy in weight, it’s likely to be a solid wood piece.
Hard vs. Soft Woods
There are two different types of trees: deciduous trees, and evergreen trees; these trees makeup hard and softwoods. These terms are used by craftsmen to describe the characteristics of each, hardwoods tend to be harder and softwoods tend to be less hard.
One of the biggest differences between the two is its growing time, which also factors into the price of the wood. Hardwoods take much longer to grow and mature, resulting in higher prices; while softwoods grow faster and can be harvested sooner, making them cheaper.
The easiest way to tell the difference between soft and hardwood is when the tree drops its leaves in the winter. Trees that lose their leaves in winter are hardwoods, and trees that keep their needles on year-round are softwoods.
Deciduous trees (hardwood) take longer to grow which creates them to be stronger and more durable, and even more fire-resistant (Furniture-Expensive). There are also forests that are made up primarily of deciduous trees, with three main regions in the world. Temperate deciduous forests, tropical and subtropical forests (Deciduous Forest).
The tropical deciduous lose their leaves during a dry season and will regrow them in the rainy season. While temperate deciduous forests lose their leaves in the fall season and regrow them back in the spring (Deciduous Forest). Almost all hardwoods will come from one of these regions
Some of the most common hardwood trees used in furniture are:
- Beech Trees
Hardwoods also can handle denting and scratching better than softwoods, this allows them to maintain a higher quality throughout time.
Softwood is made from Evergreen trees, these trees grow much faster and are more available in forests. Due to their fast-growing nature, it’s easier to obtain these trees and bring the price for this wood down.
Evergreen trees are located throughout the world in regions with high amounts of rain, and extreme temperatures throughout the year (Evergreen Forest)
The most common softwood trees are:
- Fir (Douglas Fir, Spruce-Pine-Fir)
The light-weight of the wood makes this ideal for lumber and building, but also makes them less durable than hardwoods (softwood). This wood is less durable but still strong, which is why it is commonly used for construction, also because it’s much cheaper.
Why Buy Birch Furniture?
With birch being widely available throughout the Northern U.S. and Canada it is much cheaper than using walnut. The most commonly used birchwood is yellow birch, this is due to yellow being a little harder than the other types.
The strength of the wood also helps prevent nicking and scratching easily. Its high flexibility makes it easy to work with, and a favorite for woodworkers. Birch is ideal for furniture because of its strength, it holds screws well together allowing for a steady assembly. Cabinets are one of the most commonly built items from birch, but benches and tables are also very popular (Birch Wood).
But in many cases birch is used as the base or support for items, it tends to not be the ideal visible wood, due to its yellowing and changing of color over time; which is not favorable to some buyers. This is why some of the most common uses for it are in plywood, shelving, and cabinets.
Similarly due to birchwood being vulnerable to outside elements of fungi, insects, and rotting it’s not ideal to be used for outside furniture. Birch trees can be easily attacked by bugs that eat away at the tree. This is also true for birch furniture, it’s possible for bugs to burrow holes into the piece.
Yet birch canoes have been created for centuries, due to their waterproofing and lightweight. These canoes show how impressive birch wood is, some canoes can last and be used for almost 100 years (Birchbark). Birch wood is also used in food packaging because of its low odor!
When purchasing a birch product it’s important to be able to tell if the product is actually a block of solid birch wood. When looking at a piece of birch furniture, the color should help tell if it’s real. If the color looks dull or the grain is curly, these are key signs it’s not birch (Birch Wood).
Due to the cheaper nature of birch wood, many times birch is used as veneers and stained to mimic other woods such as oak and walnut. Normally this is done with baltic birch because it’s much thicker and can handle being cut thin.
The main reason that woodworkers like to use birch is that it stains well, the close grain of the wood allows for an even stain, which walnut doesn’t do well (Birch Wood). But when trying to stain it a darker shade it tends to not absorb evenly and can result in blotching (Birch).
Birch furniture is a great option for anyone that wants strong and durable wood without paying a lot of money. This wood is especially great for anyone that wants to have light-colored wooden furniture.
Why Buy Walnut Furniture?
There are two very popular types of walnut, English and black walnut, the main difference between the two is English tends to be lighter in color. Woodworkers love to work with walnuts because of their hardness, density, and tightness of the grain, it also polishes well, with a wide variety of color; it’s the ideal wood for furniture (Walnut Wood).
Some of the most common uses for walnuts are in cabinets, natural wood flooring, and different types of furniture, especially walnut desks are popular. Walnut is also the only naturally dark wood found in North America!
When cutting and preparing the walnut tree there are two main parts: the center and the output of the tree. The center or the heartwood has the darkest hues with natural browns, purples, greys, and reddish coloring at the center (Walnut Wood).
Similar to other woods, and birch, walnuts also can lose some of their colors over time. Luckily walnut’s aging is minimal and the wood’s lighting is hard to visibly see over time. With proper maintenance and using an oil finish the color loss can be minimized and help maintain the quality of the piece over time.
Unlike birch which is sensitive to outside elements, walnut typically does not warp in humidity and is rot-resistant. Walnuts can deteriorate when exposed to outside elements but handle it better than other woods (Walnut Wood). It’s important when buying furniture for the outside that it’s treated with a protective coat, and not using indoor furniture.
One of the most important factors when buying is making sure this is authentic walnut, not another type of wood that is stained to look like walnut. Purchasing from a woodworker is a great way to ensure its authenticity. Looking for straight grain will also prove it’s genuine walnut, not another type of wood stained to mimic walnut.
Due to walnut being a very expensive wood to create furniture with, some stores will claim a piece is walnut due to its color. This is a big issue with online shopping and not being able to look at the piece first hand. Buying directly from a craftsman or a legitimate retailer is the easiest way to ensure you’re getting authentic walnut.
Overall walnut is an excellent wood to use in furniture, while it’s more expensive the quality is worth the price tag. Quality made walnut furniture last for generations with the right care.
What is The Janka Test?
When looking for wood furniture the term “Janka Test” might have appeared when researching. This test is used to identify the hardness or durability of wood, there is a Janka Scale that measures how hard the wood is. Invented by Gabriel Janka in 1906, he was an Austrian wood researcher and wanted a universal way to measure hardness (Janka Hardness).
The test is run by having a small metal ball press into the wood until it’s halfway into the wood, it’s measured with “pounds of force”. The amount of force it takes to embed the ball into the wood is the hardness of the wood.
When yellow birch was tested it was able to withstand 1,260 pounds of force, giving it a 1,260 Janka rating. While North American Walnut measures around 1,010 making birch stronger than walnut wood (Janka Hardness).
The hardness of wood is important when considering how much this piece of furniture will be used, and if there is a high chance it will be stretched or worn out. But the Janka test only determines how the wood reacts to force.
Meaning that wood will scratch and get dented, wood with a higher Janka score is less likely to get scratched as much, but still can. This is an important factor for people getting natural hardwood floors, they have to consider pets and high trafficked areas (Wood Hardness).
The demand for high-quality wood is increasing but with deforestation, forest fires, and trade disputing, the prices are rising. Woods like birch and walnut are also in demand and are much higher priced than softwoods.
Another major factor is that when manufacturing the wood to be used for furniture, only the “best” part of the tree is used (Furniture-Expensive). The heartwood is the central core of the tree, this is where the strength and color come from.
The price difference between birch and walnut is due to two factors: the availability of the tree and the natural tones of the grain.
The first reason is that Birch is cheaper than walnut because it’s naturally more available than walnut which is rarer to find. Birch grows throughout the United States and into Canada, while walnut grows in a much smaller area.
Another reason for Birch being less expensive is because of the wood’s natural tones, and the grain tends to not be even. If looking for a natural wooden option birch will not have an even color; this wood is good to be stained and even painted (Furniture-Expensive). Walnut has a better natural grain, which makes it an excellent wood for decor and furniture.
One of the major reasons for walnut being such an expensive wood is the demand, it’s a high requested wood for furniture. It also takes much longer to mature in the wild, which results in lower quantities.
Due to the expensiveness of walnut furniture, sometimes veneer is used as a substitution to achieve the walnut look without using solid wood. A veneer is used to reduce the cost of production, but will not last for as long as using solid wood (Walnut Wood).
When shopping for both solid birch or walnut furniture it can be very expensive, a great cheaper alternative is shopping at an antique store. Here you can find real authentic pieces, that are over half the price of a new piece. While this furniture might have scratches or stains, researching how to fix these can have you with a near brand new piece.
With mass deforestation of trees to be used in modern furniture markets, the rate of trees will continue to decrease in the coming years, which will further raise prices. Purchasing furniture from companies that are making strides to address issues such as deforestation and ethically sourcing woods is the best option for the Earth.
These programs and councils were created to help preserve forests and work with wood manufacture to help preserve future trees.
- Forest Stewardship Council
- The Sustainable Forestry Initiative
- The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification
The basic mission of these organizations is to inform the customer where the wood they purchased is from and how it was harvested. Purchasing from a sustainably-sourced supplier or a local supplier is some of the best ways to assure it’s eco-friendly.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has created a relationship with both the business side and helping the forest (FSC About). By creating a standard for supplies the consumer can be assured their labor is ethically sourced. The FSC works to protect forests, waterways, and wildlife in the region.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative also works directly with manufacturers and suppliers, because of this customers are aware of where their product is from. By supporting forest management the initiative can help assure that forests are being taken care of, and helping to end mass deforestation (SFI).
Similarly, The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification works around the world to help educate about maintaining and caring for forests and the limber. There are over 220 million hectares of certified forests, and this program helps maintain its survival (Forest Certification).
There are many programs that were created to
Both birch and walnut are strong and long-lasting pieces of wood, regardless of which one is purchased the furniture will last. With both having their own characteristics and unique features, it comes down to preference and appearance. Buying through a craftsman’s workshop can assure the piece is authentic and built properly in order to last for generations.
With proper care and treatments of the wood, both the birch and walnut furniture will be the showpiece in any home. Although walnut is more expensive the longevity and craftsmanship that go into creating the piece will show through. Similarly, a birch cheaper price tag does not mean this piece is cheap or any less valuable.
Birch and walnut are fantastic hardwoods that have been used for centuries due to their strength, further showing their reputation of being ideal for furniture.