Staining: Maple Versus Birch

A comparison of the finishing characteristics of Hard Maple and White Birch. August 8, 2008

What are the differences between maple and birch? Does one stain up differently than the other?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
We have soft maple and hard maple. We have yellow birch and the other birches (mainly white birch). So, which maple and which birch do you want to compare?

From the original questioner:
Sorry - hard maple, white birch.

From contributor J:
In my limited experience I generally can get much wider, cleaner stock in hard maple than white birch. Maple also seems to be a little harder than birch. They both are a pain in the butt to stain, requiring similar steps to avoid blotchiness. Occasionally you can get away with substituting one for the other, but most times you can tell the difference. The birch is usually a little darker and a little gnarlier in the grain.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
White birch will finish as a low density wood and be quite absorptive. Hard maple is so dense that the finishes do not soak in nearly as well. Some blotchiness with hard maple can occur.

From contributor S:
White birch has a more open grain which soaks up more stain and emphasizes the grain pattern. Maple soaks up almost no stain and ends up showing almost no grain after staining. But the basic starting color of both woods is so much alike that with light stains or simple light toners in finishing, they are almost interchangeable.

The problem with white birch is getting it with no dark heartwood, since the tree grows with a dark center. This is why birch plywood veneer in select white or red colors has to almost always be rotary cut, with the resulting unnatural wild grain pattern. Natural birch veneer means that the white and red colors can both be present in the veneer, which, unless the veneer is stained darkly, can look bad unless a lot of color variation is wanted. Natural birch veneer is usually painted.

From contributor M:
I have found that birch veneer stains nicely only if you don't sand it. Just let it be and it will soak up stain well. The problem is you can't usually get a way with that - glue spots you have to sand off, etc... and then when you sand it, it gets blotchy like maple. Birch hardwood is a guaranteed blotch-fest. As far as staining either, I would consider the spray-only stains. They do not blotch - just try and see. They do look a bit different than the average stain, but look good enough.