Doors Open for Beech: Versatile European beech gains popularity in the U.S. cabinetry industry.
European beech is the umbrella term for the species of Fagus sylvatica and is often named for its country of origin, i.e., English, German, French, Dutch, Polish, Ukrainian, etc. The species, from the Family Fagaceae, is found throughout central Europe and the United Kingdom, as well as West Asia.
Doug Martin, North American director of sales and marketing for Portland, OR-based Pollmeier Inc., said the species has at least 250 documented uses in Europe. And although U.S. imports of European beech are down 4 percent from 2006 levels, "Total hardwood demand is off around 25 percent due to the slowing housing market - so beech actually increased as a percentage of hardwood lumber usage, tropical as well as temperate," Martin said.
"In the U.S. market, it was initially used for chair parts, but the kitchen cabinet market now uses a majority of the solid European beech imported," he added. "We have even seen European beech used in Amish cabinetry."
Cabinetmakers also are teaming the light colored European beech with darker toned woods in custom installations. "Beech and walnut are becoming a popular pairing," Martin said. "The dark wood with the light wood is very complimentary. Itâs like chocolate swirl ice cream - using two flavors that marry well."
Other uses include: residential and institutional furniture, high-end joinery, musical instruments, flooring, heavy construction, sporting goods, toys, bobbins, woodenware, tool handles, turnery and dock work.
According to information supplied by the organization GERMANTIMBER, "Because of its natural properties, beech is a popular choice for furniture in schools, offices and children's rooms and for seating in all areas subject to heavy use, such as assembly rooms, concert halls, canteens and hotels."
"It also is used in a variety of architectural millwork applications in libraries, church pews and ceiling panels," Martin added. "It has become a popular choice for cabinetry in RVs, and it is used in store fixtures in Nordstrom's and the sports complex at Boston College."
According to Max Hunter, president of Western Dovetail in Vallejo, CA, another growing market for European beech is in the drawer industry. "In the last four to five years, the use of European beech in drawers has increased because of increased marketing efforts and increased awareness of the very good properties of the wood," he said.
Hunter added that while hard and soft maple remain the top choices for drawers, European beech ranked third in popularity. "Approximately 20 percent of our products are made with European beech," he said. "One of the benefits of using European beech is the color consistency. Another benefit is the ease of workability - the wood is easy to machine and doesn't require a lot of sanding. As far as I am aware, American beech isn't usually steamed and there is a variability in color that affects yield," he added.
Reasons for the rise in popularity of European beech include its width, clarity and machinability. Most of the beech imported to North America is steamed, aiding the color uniformity and yield.
Tim Funk, veneer procurement specialist for Carl F. Booth Veneers, New Albany, IN, said his company is seeing a gradual increase in the species' use.
"The looks range from a plain or straight-grained veneer to figures, including a wild, almost horseshoe look," he said. The company sells both plain and figured European beech.
According to GERMANTIMBER, "Beech is the predominant species of hardwood in Central Europe, and with beech trees occupying a share of almost 40 percent of the German hardwood forests, it is by far the most important German hardwood."
One reason for its popularity is the species' exceptionally good steam bending properties, making it a popular choice for bent parts. The wood's natural close grain, teamed with a consistency of structure, make it easy to shape.
European beech is reddish white to reddish brown, usually with a pinkish-brown to pale brown heartwood. Steaming the wood yields a pink- to orange-toned wood. It is used in solid and veneer form and also in plywood construction. The wood has a tendency to check and warp, but slow, careful drying counteracts the problem, say experts. Material sliced into veneer often yields a flecked figure when quartered.
European beech is perishable and liable to attack by insects like the common furniture beetle. The sapwood is susceptible to attack by longhorn beetles. The wood can be treated with preservatives.
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