WoodSense: Spotlight on beech

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This article is from Issue 33 of Woodcraft Magazine.

In early America, beech forests blanketed much of what is now Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and central Michigan. But because the beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) favors rich soil, it fell to the pioneer’s ax, beginning the land’s transformation from forest to farm. The beech rates as unusual among North American tree species in that there’s only one, unlike red oak with nearly a dozen kin. There are, however, nine more of the species around the world. For instance, European beech (Fagus sylvatica) ranks among the favored woods in France, Germany, and Great Britain. In China and Japan, Fagus crenata sees extensive use. 

    Woodworkers that know beech admire its durability, fine-textured straight and attractive grain, pliability, strength, and finishing ease. In the U.S., beech remains a commercially underutilized wood because without a prolonged drying process there’s considerable degrade due to its relatively high shrinkage rate. As a result, most of the annual cut goes to paper mills.

History in woodworking

Although English bodgers (chairmakers who use turned parts) took a liking to beech for Windsor chair legs, the wood was more often found on peasant feet as clogs. In Old-World kitchens beech appeared as bowls, ladles, and spoons because it imparts no taste or odor. This trait led to its popularity for cooperage and crates. Strong and shock resistant, beech also became tool handles and brush backs.

Today’s woodworker will find beech an attractive alternative for benchtops (see page 28), butcher block, and cutting boards, as well as cabinets, furniture (it easily steam-bends), and turnings. Although not as hard as maple, it will withstand abuse when employed as flooring. Because beech actually becomes more slippery from the burnishing by other wood rubbing against it, it’s ideal for drawer sides.

Where the wood comes from

The vast beech forests are no longer, yet the tree remains plentiful in its range, often growing in pure stands with specimens to 100' tall and diameters to 4'. You’ll find beech in the eastern third of the United States and adjacent Canadian provinces, with the greatest production from the central and Middle Atlantic States. Germany is a world source for European beech, as is China for the Asian variety.

What you’ll pay

You’ll have to shop specialty wood suppliers for beech. Expect to pay about $3.50 per board foot for Select & Better lumber. You may even find boards up to 12" wide, longer than 8', and in thicknesses up to 10/4 (21/2").

Many of the same specialty wood suppliers that sell beech lumber also may offer flat cut and quartersawn veneer for $3 to $4 per square foot (Woodcraft #131389, three square foot veneer pack; #404153, 4 × 8' flat cut; and #404154, 4 × 8' quartersawn). Beech ¾" plywood, at about $100 a sheet, might well be of European or Asian origin, but you’ll have difficulty seeing any difference between these and domestic beech.

Note: Imported “steamed beech” wood and veneer differ from unsteamed beech only in color. Steaming changes it from blonde/tan to an overall pinkish orange/tan.

How to select the best stock

Beech sapwood resembles hard maple, but a shade or two darker, while the heartwood can vary from pink to reddish brown. Quartersawn boards display a great ray fleck. You may also find some curly, lace, or mottle figure, especially with European beech. So, as with other hardwoods, try to select boards of similar appearance. And it’s important that you purchase only kiln-dried stock or you’ll battle warp and twist.

Working beech in the shop

Beech is a hard, heavy wood that’s more forgiving than hard maple regarding chipping and tear-out. However, it can burn if care isn’t taken. Carbide cutting edges help with its hardness, but the wood is workable for the skilled with sharp hand tools due to its straight, tight grain. The following tactics will ensure success.

• Ripping and routing. The wood’s density means ripping with a rip-profile or combo blade to reduce dust buildup and burning. Don’t feed the wood too fast and use a splitter to prevent binding. When routing, take shallow passes to avoid burning.

• Jointing. Beech’s grain is so even that direction may be hard to define in order to feed “downhill.” If you can’t determine it, set the table for a very light cut, then gradually increase the depth as needed if there’s no tear-out.

• Assembly. All adhesives work well with beech.

• Sanding. The wood’s straight, tight grain allows for easy sanding, yet its hardness means not skipping grits or you’ll leave tiny surface scratches.

Deciding on the right finish

Finishing beech is a woodworker’s dream because it takes all stain types equally well and won’t blotch like maple often does. The same holds true for finishes—they all work.

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