My love/hate relationship with Baltic birch
While Baltic birch has a few advantages when it comes to cabinet construction – it does have some distinct deficiencies.
Over the past month I’ve been working on a kitchen for a client using Baltic birch. I’ve made many kitchens in the past, but stopped because I got tired of making the same thing over and over. Even custom kitchens are mainly just a collection of melamine boxes, and most kitchen doors and drawer fronts are built the same way, just in different sizes.
This kitchen’s a fair bit different, although there are still similarities. The cabinet construction is the same, but the material I’m using to make all the boxes, doors, drawer fronts and panels is Baltic birch. The client really likes the exposed edges of Baltic birch plywood, which we’re highlighting for effect. The overall look is simple and subtle with a vaguely mid-century modern flavour.
First, the pros
Baltic birch is strong and provides a clean look. I really like its exposed edges and I’m sure the client is going to love it, too. This is, after all, the main reason for using Baltic birch on this job.
I also don’t have to worry about edge banding exposed melamine edges as I build, which saves time and energy, not to mention keeps the workflow moving along nicely.
Next, the cons
There are also a couple of downsides. Melamine doesn’t need to have a finish applied to it, while Baltic birch is raw wood that requires a finish to protect it. I needed to apply three coats of water-based polyurethane to the interior surfaces of the cabinets before assembly. This slowed down the process not only due to the time spent finishing, but also needing to clean my shop more often to apply a coat or two. Anyone who’s spent time in my shop knows it’s not always as clean and tidy as it could be.
On top of all this — as I’m sure you know — materials have increased in price over the past few years. Baltic birch plywood is certainly no exception. It wasn’t easy to think about plunking down almost $3,000 for materials knowing I’d have to come back in a few weeks to pick up the other half of the materials. Sure, I pass this cost on to my client, but the high price of materials is only going to make custom projects less feasible in the future, or at the very least reduce the scope of these projects. All this means potentially fewer or smaller custom jobs down the road.
The biggest problem I’m having with using Baltic birch for this kitchen is something (ironically) much smaller in size. Splinters are an almost constant nuisance. Over the past few weeks, I’ve left small blood stains all over my shop, as well as on the material. If I’m handling a full sheet or partial sheet it’s very likely splinters are coming my way. Small workpieces like drawer sides are an even higher risk, as they’re lighter and easier to handle, so they get grasped and manipulated with less care. I think I got a splinter from just a quick glance at a sheet yesterday.
Kidding aside, I’ve been working on this kitchen for about three weeks and I’ve probably had about two dozen small- or medium-sized splinters in my hands. Thankfully, none have been huge, and most come out with a quick pull. Occasionally, I’ve had to resort to more drastic measures and use a sharp blade to extract the skinny wooden culprit. I’ve also missed a few which are now dark dots under the surface of my skin. They’re not causing any discomfort; I’ll leave those for the body to sort out.
At first, I just tried to be careful. An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. Not getting a splinter was the best approach, or so I thought. I’m careful for the first five minutes of work, but then I forget. I get into the flow and before I know it, I’m using tweezers to remove another splinter.
I eventually decided to try a pair of gloves for protection, even though I’ve tried and failed to wear them in the past. I’ve always found gloves were great when handling material and machining joinery on power tools, but the moment I had to reach for a tape measure and pencil I disliked the tactile feel of them while making accurate pencil marks and doing finer movements.
However, this is the first time using gloves has actually stuck. The thought of even more splinters, coupled with the fact that most of the finer tolerances associated with making fine furniture aren’t needed when making a kitchen, was enough for me to keep them on. Over the past few days the number of splinters has drastically reduced. Problem solved, for the most part. I still dislike manipulating finer tools like a mechanical pencil or my 6″ rule with gloves on, but such is life.
What do you think? Am I a big wimp, or do you hate splinters as much as I do?
Small But Painful
I got this 3/16” long splinter installing drawer bottoms.
Just one of the many Baltic birch splinters ready to jump out at me when I let my guard down.
Gloves to the Rescue
A pair of properly fitting gloves was my approach to solving my splinter problem, and it’s worked quite well.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
Hi Rob – as a long time user of Baltic birch plywood, I feel your pain with the slivers. I will have to try the gloves next time I’m using Baltic birch.
Ease the edges after a cut and the problem just about disappears! I keep a sharp block plane nearby when working with Baltic birch!
i get cuts in the shop all the time
they dont bother me
i put on a band aid and keep moving
i hate splinters and have very sharp tweezers
in my shop
in my car
at my office desk and
in my house
i hate splinters
a tip from my mother
when you have a cut that is bleeding
wrap it in unglazed brown paper
like from supermarket and
THE BLOOD STOPS IMMEDIATELY
Hi Rob, For me the biggest “con’ in that it comes rfom Russia and my suppliers are not stocking it at present time. I like their reasoning. I am using a lesser grade (far less expensive) from china – which also presents a political problem. Just can’t win.
Hi Rob, I share the same feelings about oak. Can’t help thinking I’m at the CNE listening to a husker “Get your splinters here”. Would love to see an article/ how to on how you do your cabinets. Hoped they worked out well.
ALL THE BEST
Hi Rob: Extracting splinters we get used to but it’s discovering small blood stains, usually underneath the piece, that I find most annoying and a bit difficult to get rid of.
I hat splinters too, and still get them as I don’t like gloves. Would recomend getting tweezers that have a fine point on them (needle nose?). Or swiss army knives have nice small head tweezers built into them. If the splinter breaks and leaves wood under the skin, I’ve always found that is irritating, and would eventually get them out using my needle nose tweezers or worse case using a needle to dig and pry them out.
I have found cedar to be generous with splinters, particularly Western Red. It’s simply a matter of slowing down a little, and bearing up to the inevitable. I hate gloves for the simple loss of feel and contact with the medium, but I love the end result of making stuff from it, so my life is just going to accept what it is!
Long ago I discovered that a snug fitting pair of micro-foam nitrile coated gloves were an huge value in the shop. They protect your hands, increase your grip and control of tools and work-pieces and reduce fatigue by letting me grip things with less effort. Not a promo but UNLINE.ca has a good selection of long-lasting gloves in the $4.35 to $7. 45 per pair range.
Another source of pain about Baltic Birch is the current price of 5’x5′ sheets. My lumber yard has just confirmed: Today’s prices for 1/4” thick is $78. For my drawer project, a 1/2” thick board is now $95. Last February 2022, I bought a sheet of 1/2” for $45. In one year, the price has more than doubled. How did the Amish build drawer boxes out of solid planks?
One solution to the tactile feel of gloves is to try “Running Gloves”. These are light gloves used by runners when running in cool weather. They are fairly tight and the pair I use in the shop (garage) during cold weather have a thin neoprene on the palm and fingers which provide some grip but because the gloves are thin I can still pick marking and layout tools.
I am a Lee Valley employee and we sell Silver Gripper tweezers. I use them only for splinters. They have a nice hanging hole and I know right where they live in my shop. No need to cut out a splinter as they are sharp enough to dig right in. I too hate splinters and gloves. I love Baltic Birch for drawers, but agree on the political aspect. Could we not grow birch in Canada?
There are half a dozen species of birch that grow in Canada (and likley exported to Russia and China). While some birch plywood is made in Canada, as far as we know, there is no domestically produced Baltic birch.
I found somewhere on a Youtube video that one the best tools to remove splinters it to use a set of digital calipers as they have a tight closure for measuring and according the person who made the video they work well for removing splinters.
Just wanted to put in my two cents worth about gloves. NAPA sell gloves called Genuine Joes. I wear them for both fine woodworking and construction work. They fit nice and tight and offer good dexterity. For rougher jobs like grinding you can slip on a pair of heavy work gloves right over the Genuine Joe’s. You can get them on sale for about a dollar a pair. Don’t be put off by the price. These are a very good gloves. I buy 50 pairs at a time. They are not warm so they won’t work in cooler weather.
Another source of gloves is the Grease Monkey brand sold by Princess Auto. Get the thickest gauge available. They are sold in boxes of 50-100. These are good all round gloves but excel for wet work like painting, staining and cement work. The Genuine Joe gloves are not waterproof so that is why I use both types.