Woodsense: Spotlight on Red Alder

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This article is from Issue 45 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The “poor man’s cherry” of the Pacific Northwest

By Pete Stephano
Technical Consultant: Larry Osborn

Red alder (Alnus rubra), a birch relative, was once considered a weed tree in the coastal Pacific Northwest because it quickly took over burned and clear-cut forestland to crowd out more valuable conifers, such as Douglas fir and western red cedar. Now, however, it is considered a valuable lumber tree that represents the highest percentage of the region’s standing commercial hardwood volume. Along the West Coast, red alder replaces more expensive Eastern hardwoods in moderately priced furniture lines because it can be stained to blend with or substitute for these woods. In fact, woodworkers in that part of the country sometimes refer to red alder as the “poor man’s cherry” due to its affordability and similar look. The evenly textured wood is also recognized for its veneer potential for both plywood faces and core stock.

History in woodworking

Alder was primarily used for firewood prior to the 1920s, and it was the preferred wood of Native Americans for smoking salmon. Following World War II, red alder caught on as a furniture wood. It’s now a favorite species for upholstered furniture due to its stability and tack-holding ability. The wood also shows up in cabinets, paneling, and millwork. Red alder’s fine texture and ease of machining makes it a candidate for everything from brush backs to toys and turnings. In years past, the U.S. exported red alder to Europe, and even larger quantities to Asia.

Where the wood comes from

A short-lived tree (from 25 to 35 years), the domestic red alder grows best in moist coastal conditions at lower elevations from southeastern Alaska and British Columbia to northern California. Washington’s Puget Sound area boasts having the greatest commercial volume.  Alder species are found across northern Europe and Russia, but their wood is lighter and weaker than North American red alder.

What you’ll pay

At one time only available on the West Coast, you can now find red alder lumber nearly nationwide. On the East Coast, rising transportation costs make the wood less desirable and less available than locally-harvested woods, such as birch, yellow poplar, and even cherry. On the West Coast, you’ll find it priced around $3 per board foot for select and better, the finest grade for woodworking. (Select cherry retails for over $6 per board foot.) Knotty alder sells for about $2 a board foot. Red alder veneer doesn’t reflect its reasonable board-foot cost. At around $100-plus for a 3⁄4" × 4' × 8' sheet of clear A-grade, it tops the cost of birch and even maple plywood. Knotty alder plywood sells for less. Paper-backed red alder veneer is also available through specialty suppliers.

How to select the best stock

Only available as plainsawn stock, red alder can vary slightly by color from rich reddish-brown to orange and slightly yellow hues. Because there is little visual difference between heartwood and sapwood, select red alder can offer consistent color across a board’s width. Some boards may display ray-fleck figure closer to the outer edges.

Working red alder in the shop

With its even texture, straight grain, and moderate hardness, red alder performs in all machining aspects much like quality white pine but without building up pitch on bits and blades. Some tear-out and gouging is possible during planing, jointing, and routing. But unlike cherry, red alder tends not to burn when sawing or routing. Because of the wood’s low density, its ability to hold fasteners lies only in the moderate range, but the wood is less likely to split when nailed. Carvers find it respectable for slicing, shaping, and holding an edge. It accepts all types of adhesives and sands easily.

Deciding on the right finish

Red alder takes stains and finishes equally well with little or no blotching. Clear, untinted lacquer, water-based poly, or blonde shellac tend to give the wood a goldish tone. If aiming for a color closer to cherry, try an amber-colored finish, such as an oil-based polyurethane. Note that unlike cherry, red alder won’t darken over time. It also holds paint well.  

It’s a fact that…

European alders, both black (Alnus glutinosa) and grey (Alnus incana), have been put to greater use than the North American variety. Wood from these related species has become the soles of clogs, artificial limbs, rollers for textile mills, and gunpowder charcoal.

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