Balsam Fir

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Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)

Common Name(s): Balsam fir

Scientific Name: Abies balsamea

Distribution: Northeastern North America

Tree Size: 40-65 ft (12-20 m) tall,

                     1-2 ft (.3-.6 m) trunk diameter

Average Dried Weight: 25.0 lbs/ft3 (400 kg/m3)

Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC): 0.33, 0.4

Janka Hardness: 400 lbf (1,780 N)

Modulus of Rupture: 8,800 lbf/in2 (60.7 MPa)

Elastic Modulus: 1,387,000 lbf/in2 (9.57 GPa)

Crushing Strength: 5,000 lbf/in2 (34.5 MPa)

Shrinkage: Radial: 2.9%, Tangential: 6.9%,

                          Volumetric: 11.2%, T/R Ratio: 2.4

Color/Appearance: Heartwood is usually white to reddish brown, with pale sapwood that isn’t clearly distinguished from the heartwood. Color tends to darken with age.

Grain/Texture: Grain is straight, with a uniform medium-coarse texture.

Rot Resistance: Rated as non-durable to perishable regarding decay resistance, with little resistance to insect attacks.

Workability: Generally easy to work with both hand and machine tools. Glues, stains, and finishes well.

Odor: No characteristic odor.

Allergies/Toxicity: Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, fir in the Abies genus has been reported to cause skin irritation. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.

Pricing/Availability: Balsam fir is used as construction lumber and is commonly grouped together with other species of spruce and pine and sold under the more generic label spruce-pine-fir, or simply SPF. Prices should be moderate for such utility lumber, though clear, quartersawn, or other such specialty cuts of fir lumber are likely to be more expensive.

Sustainability: This wood species is not listed in the CITES Appendices, and is reported by the IUCN as being a species of least concern.

Common Uses: Construction lumber, paper (pulpwood), plywood, and other utility wood purposes.

Comments: Balsam fir is a popular Christmas tree species, and it’s closely related to the perennial favorite Fraser fir (Abies fraseri)—a smaller tree not used commercially for timber. Resin from the tree is used to make Canada balsam. Once purified, the resin has very good optical qualities, and was used as an adhesive in bonding optical elements and lenses up until the 1940s, when it was replaced by synthetic resins.

Commercial fir lumber is divided into eastern and western groupings, with six primary species in the western United States, leaving balsam fir as the sole commercial species in eastern North America.

Many species of fir have excellent stiffness-to-weight ratios, rivaling other softwood species such as Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)—another softwood species known to luthiers for its combination of low density and relatively high modulus of elasticity).

Images: Drag the slider up/down to toggle between raw and finished wood.

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)

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Identification: See the article on Softwood Anatomy for definitions of endgrain features.

Balsam fir (endgrain 10x)
Balsam fir (endgrain 10x)
Balsam fir (endgrain 1x)
Balsam fir (endgrain 1x)

Resin canals : absent (traumatic resin canals occasionally present)

Tracheid diameter : medium

Earlywood to latewood transition : very gradual

Grain contrast : medium

Parenchyma : none visible

Lookalikes/Substitutes: Hemlock (Tsuga spp.) is difficult to differentiate from fir species: both have similar color, grain, and weight. Also, they both lack resin canals and have little to no discernible scent. Spruce (Picea spp.) and pine (Pinus spp.) are two similar-looking softwoods that can also be confused with fir. However, these two genera both feature resin canals (and pine has a distinct odor), which helps to separate them from fir.

Notes: Fir species can’t be reliably separated from each other on the basis of macroscopic anatomy. (There are slight differences between the various species in density, texture, and grain evenness, but none provide a consistent means for positive identification.).

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Gabriel Brochu Lévesque

What are the error on the value on the mechanical properties? ± .5GPa, ±1GPa??…

Bob Slawson

Looking through some of the datasheets at the Tropix [] website, the uncertainties in the mechanical properties are typically ~20%. They range from 10% or less for the density (spec. grav.) upto 40% for the hardness.