@theplyguys, Loch Lomond
We get asked this quite a lot and thought it might of interest (or not!) to put together a short(ish) blog piece explaining why we chose birch ply for our van and home furniture builds.
So, Birch Plywood (Baltic Birch) has been a popular option for highend furniture builds for years. It’s significantly stronger than many other sheet products thanks in part to the cross-bonding manufacturing process and the fact that it’s made using ‘long’ veneers which are cut from a full birch tree rather than small section materials glued together which can result in voids and delamination.
We like it for many functional reasons, but it also has an attractive aesthetic which we try to take advantage of in all our builds. Yes, it’s significantly more expensive than other sheet (and some solid) wood materials but we believe it’s worth it.
There are also environmental and sustainable benefits to using Birch over other materials. The abundance of Birch in Northern Europe and speed of growth of Birch trees means that if cut properly and responsibly there is minimal devastation or destruction of biodiversity. All of the birch products we use are PEFC and FSC® certified and also CE Marked
What is it?
Birch Plywood is made from several sheets of birch veneer bonded together. The number of layers depends on the thickness of the material but there can be some variances on the number / thickness of veneers between suppliers. Typically, a 15mm Natural Birch panel will be made up of 11 sheets whereas 12mm could be 9 and 18mm 13. We use predominately 18mm and 12mm in our van furniture and 4.5 and 6.5 in our wall cladding products.
Natural Birch ply has an uncoated natural face which is sanded after manufacture and after finishing. We offer a limited range of coated birch plywood finishes. For example; our White 18mm Birch has a Natural Birch core with a double-sided melamine coating whilst our 12mm and 18mm Black Hexa both have a Natural Birch Plywood core but are coated with a textured Phenolic finish. If we’re working with a coated ply, we prefer to work with ply which has a finish applied at manufacture as it provides a consistent material thickness for manufacture (as well as reliable quality in the laminate)
Is Birch Heavy?
We get this question a lot in our campervan furniture.
A 15mm lightweight ply board typically weighs 23-25kg whereas a 15mm birch plywood board can weigh 30-33kg (depending on the specification and finish). The additional weight (in real terms) is minimal over the size of a build and birch ply offers significant advantages over lightweight builds in terms of durability, strength and aesthetic appeal. Weight savings are also built into our designs which do not compromise the strength – something which is not always possible with light weight ply due to the characteristics of the core material.
The majority of commercial builders and fitters use light weight ply or veneer and particle core ply. What constitutes light weight ply can vary significantly so it’s best to really look into what you’re buying if you’re being offered lightweight ply; we have even seen some companies use MDF and describe it as light weight ply!*
The most common lightweight ply is formed from a mix of hardwood ply veneer and particle board. The wood used is quite variable and depends on the source and manufacturer. Ply cores are typically Poplar or Eucalyptus (sometimes both). Particle board sections and layups can involve small pieces rather than full veneers. There are also boards referred to as lightweight ply which incorporate a veneer and foam core mix. Conglomerate layups can contain voids and by their nature, the mixed material can have an effect on screw holding and longevity of fixings, In short, lightweight ply has its place but we don’t use it.
One of the key benefits of working in birch ply is its finish. Even the end grain on a melamine coated surface is cool. However, for the true birch ply connoisseur Natural Birch Ply is where it’s at! No two builds will ever be the same thanks to the unique pattern of natural wood. These can be accentuated with the application of different finishes and if you want to then go crazy with tints and colours. Our preferred finish for Natural Birch is OSMO Polyx matt white 3040. This tint really draws out the grain detail and removes the risk of yellowing or discolouration which can occur in clear or varnished finishes. We’re not knocking other finishes, it’s just the one we prefer.
We work with BB/BB grade which means that there will be some ‘imperfections’ (knots, lines, streaks etc) but we think this adds personality to the build. Who wants to be boring!?
For products that will spend time outside or could be liable to the odd mark we recommend sealing the wood. For melamine coated panels you can extend the life of your build by sealing the end grains.
Is using Birch Environmentally Friendly?
Birch is a fast-growing tree species native to north eastern Europe. In most Baltic countries there is an abundance of birch which when harvested and managed correctly can produce a sustainable wood supply.
Our suppliers are part of Forests Forever which is a campaign led by Britain’s timber industry to help safeguard the forests of the world by encouraging improved forest management, responsible trading and the promotion of the positive environmental aspects of using timber
Whilst Birch is imported from a number of European countries our suppliers only source materials from companies who are operating within the laws of their own country and we are actively looking to utilise 100% products originating from sustainable and correctly managed forests. FSC® products have their forest of origin independently inspected and evaluated according to environmental, social and economic criteria agreed by the Forest Stewardship Council https://fsc.org/en . At the present time it is not possible to source our Black or Grey Hexa products from 100% FSC managed forests, although the content is currently 70% with moves to making this 100%.
Working with the local estate our aim is to launch our ‘Use 1, plant 2’ scheme in Scotland which will help us work towards being carbon negative by Autumn 2023.
*MDF is generally not suitable for campervan furniture due to its tendency to absorb moisture which will cause it to lose form and structure, delaminating over time.