Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo
Red alder (Western red alder) grows exclusively along the west coast of British Columbia, and is typically one of the first trees to colonize burnt-over or cutover areas. A rapidly growing tree, it has a short life span of around 60 years. The tree reaches heights of about 80 feet and diameters of up to 2 feet. Alder trees and shrubs belong to the same family as birch trees (Betulaceae).
When first milled, red alder has a whitish colour, and on exposure to air, turns light brown with a yellow or reddish tinge. There is not much differentiation between the sapwood and heartwood. The wood is fairly straight-grained with a uniform texture.
Red alder machines beautifully and is very easy to work with hand tools. Once dry it is fairly dimensionally stable. It sands, nails, screws and glues well, and takes stain, paint and finishes like nobody’s business. You can stain it to achieve a reasonable facsimile of walnut, mahogany or cherry.
Red alder is one of those ‘soft’ hardwoods. It has low bending strength, low shock resistance, moderate stiffness and good steam bending qualities. It has a specific gravity of .41 at 12% moisture content and a weight of around 30 lbs/cu ft.
First Nations people used the bark to make a red dye, and the Fender guitar company used red alder in the body of its first Stratocaster guitar. Producers of smoked fish and meats also like alder for the subtle and unique flavour it imparts. It is a popular wood with luthiers. For the woodworker, red alder is used in furniture, kitchen cabinetry, millwork, turnings, carvings and kitchen utensils. It makes an excellent secondary wood for use as interior frame-work, drawer parts, dust panels and back panels.
Alder is relatively inexpensive, running about $4.75 for 4/4 select and better stock. Occasionally spalted and bird’s eye alder is available for a premium.