From the ridiculous to the sublime
By dbcjoinery, May 4 2015 09:21PM
I was asked recently to build a small piece of built-in kitchen furniture for a customer in a neighbouring village at the same time as altering some 1930s doors and fitting some benchtops. They have an existing kitchen made up from free-standing Ikea units, some new and some from eBay. This kitchen, as I understand it, was installed by the customers themselves and looks fabulous.
What unites this Scandinavian-inspired kitchen, which is made up of pieces from different ranges, is that every piece is made from solid birch with an oiled finish. As these customers had an extra piece of countertop I was asked to make a small built-in half table/bench to create another work surface for them in an awkward space in the room.
Birch is a lovely straight-grained hardwood that, if properly prepared, is great for wet areas. As birch-veneered plywood is commonly available in the UK I didn't imagine that getting solid birch would be a problem. I was wrong about that.
I started by calling my regular suppliers, who just gave me a flat-out no. "No birch. We don't sell it. You can't get it." Now I know these guys, they know what they're talking about and they will bend over backwards to help you out if they can. They've never said no like that to me before, but I just couldn't believe them. I reasoned that birch is plentiful, beautiful and grown not too far away in Scandinavia; a part of the world which harvests a lot of birch sustainably and from which several other species are shipped to the UK in bulk with only a minimal carbon footprint.
Furthermore, I thought, I can't be the only joiner in Britain that has been asked to match Ikea furniture. So I hit the woodworkers' forums and heard from a few other tradesmen who had also failed to find solid birch. Refusing to give up, I spent a whole morning searching online and by phone, calling nearly two dozen UK suppliers and importers. I eventually found someone who'd sell me some birch, but I would have to pay for a whole container-load and as I only needed two or three cubic feet this wasn't going to happen.
By chance I was at the Southeast England Woodworker's show the following weekend and spent 10 minutes bending the ear of a guy who sells scores of timber species for woodturning, telling him about my dilemma. While he couldn't get me any birch, he did suggest limewood was similar enough in grain and colour to pass as birch. I had never worked with limewood and I associated this species with carving, not furniture-making.
Luckily a local supplier of exotic species had just received a pallet of limewood and I drove up to have a look. I took a sample around to the customers' house with various oiled finishes on it and we agreed on one that was a close match, so the furniture was made from this. While I was disappointed that the dust from cutting and milling was rather odourless and didn't make the workshop smell as nice and fruity as its name suggests, what a fantastic hardwood lime is to work with. If I could afford it, I'd go back to buy the rest.
Anyway, there are a couple of pictures below. Unfortunately in these images the legs and skirts are not yet oiled, so are still looking too pale. If you want to get in touch to tell me you have some solid birch for sale, please don't for a few weeks lest you break my heart.