Wood of the Month:
European Beech: Ideal for Steam Bending

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Fagus sylvatica of the Family Fagaceae

Common beech, English beech, Danish beech, French beech (according to country of origin)

Trees grow to a height of 120 feet. Average weight is 45 pounds per cubic foot with a specific gravity of 0.72.

The wood dries rapidly but can become distorted. It needs particular care during air or kiln drying to avoid problems since warping, checking, splitting and shrinking may occur. There is considerable movement in service. Beech is sometimes rough on cutting tools and can bind on saws or be difficult to plane. It has excellent steam bending properties, medium stiffness, high-crushing strength, and medium resistance to shock loads. Glues easily and finishes very well. Beech trees yield an unusual fruit, the beech nut, which is enclosed in a woody sheath until the fruit ripens.

In the 17th century, beech was considered the poor man's furniture wood and often resembled walnut or mahogany after finishing. Its reputation was given a positive boost, however, when it was discovered to be an excellent wood for steam bending for use in bentwood furniture.

Today, European beech is a high-end item. The wood, normally white, pale cream or pale brown, is steamed or weathered to a pinkish or reddish brown tone and used for architectural applications and high-end cabinetry and furniture.

Increased Demand
Brian Attridge, sales manager for General Woods & Veneers Ltd., said the demand for beech has changed dramatically over the past decade. The European beech from countries like Rumania and Yugoslavia was once used solely for chair and furniture parts. Today, European beech is used for high-end applications as well.

"The wood has been very popular for high-end office furniture, residential furniture and architectural uses for the past five years," said Attridge. "Beech became popular because it is available in dimensions you can't always get in woods like cherry. Also, as the price of anigre and cherry and maple went up, beech offered a good, attractive alternative."

Attridge said his company buys beech logs during the European season, which begins in late September or October and runs through April. "We look for the best quality logs for producing white lumber or veneer," he said. For this, the company seeks out logs which are cool and without stains, since beech has a tendency to stain. Some of the beech lumber and veneer is sold in its original white form, although the biggest demand is for steamed material.

Attridge said there are a few ways of steaming. One method steams the wood to a light pink while another gives a heavier, darker tone to the lumber or veneer. Steaming gives the wood and veneer an interesting color, "an earthy pink," according to Attridge, and also can camouflage any defects.

Common Uses
White beech lumber and veneer are used in applications where a very light, white look is desired. Common uses include cabinetry, high-class joinery, laminated furniture, chairs, desks, domestic flooring, sliced veneer and utility plywood. Beech is also used in musical instruments, toys, sports equipment, shoe heels, tool handles and wooden ware.

Beech has a close grain and good structure that makes it suitable for turnery, whittling, and carving. It has been a popular wood for centuries in the making of treen. Treen is a kitchen utensil or other item such as snuff boxes, bowls, platters, cups, ladles, chopping blocks, clothes pegs, mortar and pestle, all carved from wood. Treen is now a highly sought-after collectible.

In the book Decorating with Wood, author Jane Struthers says that treen was once part of the courting ritual. "Many young men who were tongue-tied in the presence of their beloveds, or who simply enjoyed romantic gestures would turn their treen into love tokens which carried secret messages. A spoon with a heart signified love, or spheres carved inside openwork cages showed the girl that her admirer's heart was held captive by her charms." Struthers said two objects linked together by a pair of spectacles either meant "I want to see you" or "love is blind."

Related Species
Species of beech, or Fagus, are native to many parts of the world - Europe, Canada, the United States, western Asia, Japan and northern Africa. Beech is one of the trees that has the distinction of growing in the three northern continents and also in the Southern Hemisphere.

Beech trees are commonly named for their country of origin. American beech is Fagus grandifolia, while European beeches are from the species Fagus sylvatica and weigh slightly less than their American counterparts. Japanese beech includes all of the beeches used commercially and is the lightest in weight.

European beech is one of the most commercially important trees in the United Kingdom. More European beech is used in the United Kingdom than any other hardwood. In the UK, beech is referred to as "Mother of the Forest," since it is one of the more prominent woods. European beech's existence is said to have helped the other hardwoods thrive because its leaves have a potent "drip" that kills weeds. The leaves also decompose to add to the richness of the soil.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.