Some peopole asked me about the properties of beech, a wood that I have used in most of my projects. Traditional Uses of the Wood
Opinions about the value of Beech timber can vary enormously. It has been said that the Beech was valued more for its pig-fattening mast (the seeds) than the wood. Others will tell you that it is a versatile useful wood. These contradictions will be more easily understood when we examine the characteristics of the wood.
The wood is short-grained, yet dense and hard. The short grain makes it easy to work and excellent for use on a wood-turning lath. However, it also makes the wood brittle and lacking in toughness. Its density and hardness make up for this to some extent, so its usefulness depends a lot on what we want to make. It may not be the right sort of wood to create a tool handle from, because this has to be tough and elastic and is ideally made from a long grained wood such as Ash, but Beech would be excellent for a mallet head of a chopping block.
Beech wood is not very durable outdoors, with the exception of objects which are kept constantly wet, such as water wheels. Constant soaking appears to increase durability miraculously. This explains why it was often used for ship building when tougher woods, such as Oak, were not available.
Even for indoor use, the wood will not last as long as other hardwoods, but sealing it with oils, wax polishes and other preparations helps. James Brown (“The Forester”, Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh & London, 1871) says: “The wood of the beech, when in a young state, is proverbially of short duration.”
It is obviously not a wood that should be used where structural strength is required, such as beams and joists, nor should it be used for purposes which require long use and low maintenance, such as roofing timbers, but it would be eminently suitable as a lovely flooring material.
Beech has some advantages too. Apart from its easy workability, it is easily bent after treatment with steam and its denseness and hardness make it an excellent wood for everyday wear and tear. Thus its traditional uses include bent-wood furniture (such as Windsor chairs), other items of cheap furniture, toys, shoe-heels, rolling pins, platters, ice-cream and take-away chip spoons, clothes pegs and so on. It was also used for panels of carriages, carpenters planes, stonemasons mallets, granary shovels and many articles in turnery. On the continent it was used for parquet-flooring and in France it was made into the famous ‘sabots’, wooden shoes that kept out the damp better than any other wood. Beechwood is relatively free of taste and smells and so it was often used for kitchen utensils, bowls and spoons. In Denmark it was used for making butter-casks.
Once the problem of protective impregnation was solved, large amounts of Beech were used on the European continent as railway sleepers.
The colour of the wood is cream to medium-brown. It often has streaks of different colour, but these do not affect strength. The rays are more distinctive than the growth rings, which causes the wood to be flecked, rather than to have spectacular wood-grain patterns. The moisture content of green Beech is 90% (Ash 50% and Elm 140%).
As with all woods, these statements are to some extent generalisations. Beech which is grown in ideal circumstances will have a more even, straighter grain than that of an exposed, windswept tree on a poor rocky soil, which may be harder to work.
Beech is an excellent firewood after a year’s seasoning. It burns with a bright flame and has superior heating power. Consequently it was used extensively as a domestic fuel.
The wood has also been used for making charcoal, especially for colour-manufacturers, but also for the gun powder industry.
In Britain, large plantations of Beech were grown in the Chilterns during the last two centuries to service the chair-making industry. Because of its versatility, being strong, yet easily worked, Beech has replaced Oak as the major hardwood timber crop in Britain.
-- Atelierwoodworks Vaud Switzerland