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.