Birch vs. Elm: Which One to Use?

Birch vs. Elm: Which One to Use?

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If you need a good type of wood to use for your next big construction or woodworking project, there are a few good options at your disposal, with both birch and elm being quite popular. Today, we wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of both to see which one is the best to use for a variety of purposes.

Let’s get to it and figure out which of these two types of wood you want to use for your next project.

What Is Birch?

First, we have the birch tree. Here we are talking specifically about the yellow birch tree. This is one of the most common types found in North America, as it grows all the way from the eastern edge of Manitoba over to the Atlantic provinces, as well as in northeastern parts of the USA. It is also a hardwood that is very commonly used for construction purposes.

The birch tree features a tight and straight grain, it may have some waviness or irregularities, a low natural luster, an even and fine texture, and some voids, gaps, and knots. It has sapwood that is mostly white and heartwood that is yellowish-brownish-red in color, which is typically used in construction.

It is quite heavy, moderately hard, and also fairly easy to work with. It is quite resistant to physical damage such as denting and scratching, as it is a fairly hard material, especially for being native to North America.

That said, birch is not very pest or moisture-resistant, so it’s not the best choice for outdoor purposes. It is more resistant to moisture than pests, but it’s just not ideal for outdoor use.

Birch is great for indoor use however, particularly because it is strong and durable, so it is often used for flooring, cabinets, low-end furniture, decorative pieces, and other small projects. At the same time, birch also isn’t very expensive, which makes it attractive to those on a budget.

What Is Elm?

We then have the elm tree, of which there are about a dozen different species in the world, most of which are found in North America. The American elm tree, otherwise known as the soft elm or water elm, is one of the most commonly found and used in North America, so this is what we will be focusing on.

This is a deciduous flowering tree, and it is a hardwood, although it is actually quite soft. You can find the American elm in the Midwestern United States.

Elm is not the hardest tree in the world, it features moderate density, and in terms of durability and strength factors, it scores quite moderately across the board. It’s not the number one choice for structural soundness, but it is often used for basic construction purposes and is also used for indoor furniture, veneer, wood pulp, paper, baskets, hockey sticks, and boxes, although it is typically not used for higher-end purposes.

American elm also isn’t overly moisture or pest-resistant, so it’s not used for outdoor purposes. In terms of its appearance, it has a coarse and somewhat uneven texture along with an interlocked grain, which can make it very hard to work with. The sapwood is quite pale, with the heartwood being a medium reddish-brown.

Elm vs. Birch: What Are the Differences?

Now that we know what both elm and birch trees are, let’s figure out what makes them different from each other.


American elm features a Janka hardness rating of 830 lbf, while yellow birch comes in at 1,260 lbf. As you can see, yellow birch is significantly harder than American elm, and therefore more resistant to denting, scratching, and other such forms of physical damage.


Yellow birch is much harder than American elm, and also quite a bit heavier. Yellow birch comes in at 43 lbs/ft3, whereas American elm comes in at 35 lbs/ft3. Although the difference is not huge, it is big enough to affect durability and workability. While yellow birch might be a bit more durable thanks to this, it’s also heavier and therefore harder to work with.

Pest and Moisture Resistance

When it comes down to it, neither of these types of wood is moisture or pest-resistant, with American elm being even less so than yellow birch, so neither is ideal for outdoor use.

Overall Strength

If we look at the overall strength of these two types of wood, particularly the compressive strength, the modulus of elasticity, and the modulus of rupture, yellow birch scores higher on all fronts.


Yellow birch may be heavier and harder than American elm, but elm has an interlocked grain that can make it extremely difficult to work with, making birch the winner in this category.

Appearance – Color and Grain

The interlocked grain and coarse texture of American elm do make it very interesting to work with, and most people would say that it is the better looking of these two types of wood. Yellow birch looks a bit more utilitarian in that nature.


Yellow birch will usually cost you around $10 per board foot, whereas American elm will top out at around $12 per board foot.

When to Use Elm?

If you need a beautiful-looking type of wood that is suitable for indoor purposes, especially for some decorative pieces, furniture, veneer, and more or less everything in between, then elm is a good option. Just keep it away from high-moisture or high-traffic areas, and don’t use it outdoors.

When to Use Birch?

If you need something that is quite strong, durable, and resistant to physical damage, then yellow birch makes for a good choice. It works well for furniture, plywood, veneer, cabinets, and almost everything in between. It also works quite well in high-traffic areas due to its durability. However, this material should be kept away from moisture and should not be used outdoors.

Alternatives to Elm and Birch

If you need a type of wood that is better suited for outdoor use, cedar, mahogany, and teak all make for much better options.


Now that you know exactly what makes birch and elm different from each other, you can choose which one works best for your next project.