Birch for Cabinets

Yellow Birch (but not other Birch varieties) is widely used in cabinets. Here are some thoughts on its pros and cons.March 22, 2013

Most of the kitchens I do are maple, cherry or oak. It seems like a lot of my customers are looking for darker colors, which can be a lot of extra work when using maple. I thought maybe birch would be a better choice - easier to get darker, plus it might have less adhesion issues. My concern with birch is warping and twisting. Will the birch cause me more grief than what it's worth?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor W:
We use alder for dark finishes. It's cheaper than cherry and is easy to stain dark.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
There are several birches, so specify yellow birch only. Sometimes the birch accepts penetrating stains unevenly, giving a blotchy appearance (technical reason is tension wood). You may need color in the finish. However, yellow birch is indeed widely used for cabinets. Alder is a good suggestion, but you may notice a natural color difference from one supplier to the next.

From contributor K:
If the birch is dried properly and maintained at that moisture content, you should have no unusual problems with birch lumber. For very dark colors, consider dying the wood. I like Mohawk's Ultra Penetrating Stain which is a dye stain. You can stain light wood almost totally black if you want.

It's best sprayed and requires several hours to thoroughly dry for a recoat, if necessary. You reduce the color intensity (or darkness) by diluting the stock dye with Ultra Penetrating Stain Reducer. The blotching problem is no longer an issue because you're actually dying the wood fibers themselves instead of piling up coloring material on, and between, the fibers.

I've had best results spraying it on. If you try to wipe or brush it on it's too wet and goes beyond dying and starts acting like a penetrating oil/pigment stain. Once you get the hang of using dyes you'll feel a surge of power and pity the hapless woodworker fooling around with pigments and penetrating oil stains.

From contributor P:
Is the dye more resistant to sunlight these days?

From the original questioner:
I did consider alder, but I am concerned it's too soft for kitchen cabinets. A lot of times, my customers ask how hard or durable the wood is before they agree to a wood species. I will also experiment with some different stains.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
The softness of alder is indeed a concern.

From contributor K:
Fading seems to be no problem with the modern dye formulations. I have dyed wood samples which have been exposed to daylight for years with no noticeable color loss. These dye colors are the same as the fabric industry uses - except they're mixed with different solvent blends to control the application to wood surfaces.

From contributor J:
I've used a fair amount of red and yellow birch and find it more of a nuisance than sticking with maple. I have one client I work with off and on as I have time, and everything in his house is birch. The color of the red birch is a bit darker, but really not that much. Yellow birch is only off of white by a shade. They're pretty darn close. I find birch is a bit more difficult to work than maple, too. It tends to tear out a bit more and move after milling a little more. That's just my experience, for what it's worth. If your clients want darker, I'd go with cherry. It's darker to begin with and takes stain so easily it's a win/win situation!

From contributor L:
We've been using more yellow birch lately. Avoid the pieces with wild grain and it is fine. There is a big heartwood - sapwood color variation. To get a uniform stain we wash coat before stain. If the stain isn't dark enough we will use a toner coat after the seal coat. With some good control of the spray gun you can even out the dark/light variations that way too. Don't put too much color in the toner coat, better to make several light passes.