Materials To Know: Baltic Birch

Long ago, when I wanted a plywood sheet, I would go to the local big box hardware store and buy whatever was at the center of the optimization curve for  cheapest and nicest looking. I would inevitably suffer with ultra-thin veneers on the top, ugly cores, unfinishable edges, warping, voids, and other maladies of the common plywood. One day I said enough is enough and bothered the salesman at my local lumber supply until he showed me one that wasn’t awful.

There are subtle clues that the Baltic Birch I've purchased is Russian.
There are subtle clues that the Baltic Birch I’ve purchased is Russian.

Baltic birch differs from other plywoods in a few ways. Regular plywood is usually made locally from the cheapest possible core wood in alternating grain layers laminated together with a hardwood veneer on the top. There are interior and exterior grades. The exterior grades are usually made with a different glue, but don’t necessarily denote a higher quality or stability. Some of the glues used can be toxic. Wear a respirator. In normal plywood, the ATSM or BB standards only apply to the face veneers used to finish the product. The core can be of whatever quality is convenient for the manufacturer.

True Baltic Birch is made in the Baltic Region with the biggest producers being Russia and Finland. Outside of the US it is sometimes called Finnish Birch or Russian Birch plywood for this reason. It is made from only top quality birch veneers laminated together with no filler wood. It is also unique in the care taken to make sure each layer of the wood is patched so there are no voids. All Baltic Birch is made with exterior grade glue, and when properly sealed will work for outdoor applications. There are grades of Baltic birch for marine applications and exceptionally void free aircraft grade plywood at a much higher cost.

The easiest way to spot Baltic Birch if you’re American is its form factor. Baltic birch comes in 1525 x 1525 mm squares, which approximates to 5 ft x 5 ft. Some people have said that manufacturers have started to produce 4 ft x 8 ft sheets specifically for the North American market, but this information comes with a caveat that these are usually lower grades made locally or in China parading under the name. The metric form factor extends to the thicknesses of the sheets. In America they will be sold as inch, but fit pretty closely to a metric form.

  • 3 mm ≈ 1/8″ (3 plies)
  • 6 mm ≈ 1/4″ (5 plies)
  • 9 mm ≈ 3/8″ (7 plies)
  • 12 mm ≈ 1/2″ (9 plies)
  • 18 mm ≈ 3/4″ (13 plies)
    – From [3] Ultimate guide to Baltic birch.
The core of regular hardware store plywood.
The core of regular hardware store plywood. Pretty bad in comparison.

There are some really nice practical features of Baltic Birch. One of my favorites is the absolute uniformity of the layers. This means that two pieces of birch can be laminated together and the seam between the two becomes indistinguishable. I’ve used this to make cases by CNC routing out the inside of a sheet of Baltic birch, drilling some holes for alignment pins, and then laminating the whole assembly together. We’ve covered a few readers who have had similar ideas. Since the layers are uniform you can also do interesting things when combined with a CNC router. For example, carefully milling away the layers you can get a topographic map of the object.

Baltic Birch is also significantly flatter and more stable than other plywood options. It is commonly the material used for fences on expensive tables saws. It moves less during temperature swings and changes in ambient moisture. This is one of the reasons it’s popular with fine furniture builders. This also makes Baltic birch a good option for home CNC builds, certainly better than MDF . Due to the higher quality wood and better manufacturing it is quite strong as well. It is a great structural wood.

Explanation of the grading scale for Baltic Birch from [1] Dan’s hobbies.
Baltic birch holds stains very well on both its faces and its edges. It’s as easy to paint and glue as any wood. As far as surface finish goes it’s important to note that as mentioned previously, Baltic Birch is graded to a different scale than regular plywood. The grades will determine how the face veneers are treated. B/B is the highest grade with both sides being defect free. B/BB is much more common and is what you are likely to find. I have not found C or CP grades in the US. My guess is that we have plenty of low grade plywoods to compete with it. It is likely found nearer to the areas where it is produced.

This is on the non-finishing side of a Baltic Birch panel. You can see the care taken to fix knots and voids.
This is on the non-finishing side of a Baltic Birch panel. You can see the care taken to fix knots and voids. This will be done through the whole sheet. The face of the board will not have marks. This is a B/BB grade sheet. If it was B/B both sides would be without patches.

Baltic birch is more expensive than the regular grade stuff. So a sheet of ¾” thick Oak veneer plywood with a pine core, interior grade, from Lowes is about 35 US dollars where a similar sheet of 18mm Baltic Birch will run around 65 dollars.

I’ll still occasionally purchase a cheaper sheet of plywood when I have a non-critical application (like garage shelving), but when I am doing something precise or nice I’ll spend the extra on the birch plywood. While I love this material, I am by no means a wood worker. Have any of you had experience with this plywood? Is there an even better plywood out there?

I’ve left my sources below for further reading. [3] Ultimate Guide to Baltic Birch is very good.

[1] Dan’s Hobbies. (2016). A baltic birch plywood primer | Dan’s Hobbies. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[2]Wikipedia. (2016). Plywood. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[3] Stephens, (2014). Ultimate Guide to Baltic Birch Plywood: Why It’s Better, When to Use It |. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].