The Definitive Wood Guide: Beech
Beech has been important for almost as long as people have been working with wood. With long, straight trunks producing a wood that is both hard and easy to work with, it has dozens of uses. The earliest known references to its use for furniture date back to the time of the ancient Greeks.
Background to Beech
Beech is historically the tree of wisdom. The old English form “bece” is the origin of the word “book”. There is some argument about the exact path. It may be because symbols carved into the trunk of the living tree remain visible as long as the tree still stands. Or, it may be because people would slice the wood into thin sheets and carve runes or letters into it. Both are true and it might be a mixture of the two ideas that connect beech with early symbols in an otherwise illiterate society.
In British folklore, beech played a role in the religion of the druids. They saw beech as the queen of trees with oak as the king. Water diviners traditionally use forked twigs from beech trees when looking for water sources.
Characteristics of Beech
Across the planet, there are about a dozen species of beech. When it comes to practical uses, though, only two really matter: the European (Fagus sylvatica) and the American (Fagus grandifolia) varieties. The Atlantic Ocean may separate their points of origin, but they are actually similar in all the ways that matter. Both come somewhere between pale cream and light tan. The European variety tends to have a lighter tone unless the tree it is taken from is very old. The American has a slightly redder tinge to it. The wood, however, is often steam-treated, which darkens it to a more golden hue.
What makes beech important, however, is its strength, its straight grain and the ease with which it can be worked. Its natural anti-bacterial properties make it safe and suitable for all kinds of kitchen utensils and surfaces. That means spoons, chopping boards and natural work surfaces are often made of beech. They will last for years if cared for properly.
Uses of Beech
In construction, it is an excellent wood for building timber frames used for supporting the roof of a house. Furniture designers mainly use beech wood to create the carcasses for chairs or to support the surface of modern dining tables.
It has been a popular wood since the Stone Age. Partly because it has always been widespread, growing anywhere there is a dry soil and temperate climate, partly because it is so easily worked. Even with stone tools it can be given a smooth finish. As a result, it does not take much imagination to work out how easy it is to work with modern tools and a well-equipped workshop.
For the last 200 years or so, craftsmen have also been able to bend it into shape. The technique uses steam in a sealed box or means immersing it in near-boiling water. When it dries out again, it has lost none of its strength. That means that when it comes to designing a chair with a curved seat or back, it has all the properties you need. Instead of having to waste wood by carving the shape from a solid lump, you can make the beech wood flexible and mould it to the appearance you need.
How Does Beech Age?
Once in place, Beech wood should hold both its shape and its colour if looked after properly. It will tend to darken slightly over the years if left in its natural state. Being a strong wood means it can withstand a lot of pressure in furniture items like modern tables and chairs. As long as it is not exposed to cold, damp conditions, it has good endurance. If you expose beech wood to extremes of moisture or temperature, it will warp, expand or contract. Care for it properly, though, and that is not a problem. In a normal house in normal conditions, it will give good service over many years. If it is sealed with paint, varnish or lacquer it will hold its shape and resist normal wear and tear.
What are the common finishes?
In its natural state, most cuts of beech have a smooth, flawless finish with an attractive darker fleck to it. Given that, it is no real surprise many furniture designers like to leave it in that natural state. If you do want to change the colour without losing the natural appearance, it does take a stain. It is advisable to use a heavier gel stain rather than a water-based one, which runs the risk of blotching.
On the other hand, since it is a wood that does swell and shrink when exposed to wet conditions, there is also an argument for sealing it with a good paint, lacquer or varnish finish. You can also oil it but that takes a little more maintenance.
Natural beech looks so good that one of its man uses is as a veneer, the kind of finish you may see on a dinning table. Manufacturers often steam the wood to make the veneer. That makes it easer to cut it into the thin slices which they glue onto the existing surface. If this is the case, it will make the wood look darker.
Like all veneers, you can stain or varnish the beech wood to produce the finish you want. Remember, though, veneer is extremely thin. Handle it with care, or you can easily damage it. Once the veneer is in place, the natural strength of the beech comes into play. Clear varnish, lacquer or oil finishes all enhance the appearance. A beech veneer finish can be painted but tends not to be. The main point of a wood veneer, after all, is to give you that natural appearance.
Care and Maintenance of Beech
One of the wonderful things about beech is that in normal indoor conditions it does not need much looking after. When washing it, be careful not to give the water time to soak in. That can distort the wood. With a common-sense approach, tables, chairs, floors, work surfaces and all the other items beech is used for respond well to normal care and cleaning. It is not as good for garden furniture but does work for most indoor uses. Just about everything that can be made out of wood can be made from beech.
As is usually the case with wood, it responds well to polish. Aggressive cleaners run the risk of scouring the surface off, so the best idea is just to wipe it clean with a lint-free cloth. That should be just about the only care a painted, varnished or lacquered surface needs as long as you are careful not to chip the finish.
If you have gone for the natural look, it may need a deeper clean. The best plan is to stick with natural cleaners such as diluted white vinegar; about one measure of vinegar to 16 of cool water is ideal. You can wash the wood but make sure you dry it carefully afterwards. If the wood has been sealed but you feel the finish is looking a little tired, a mixture of vinegar and oil in a misting spray if ideal for restoring the sheen. Just spray it on, dry the wood with a lint-free cloth and then buff it clean with another cloth and it will look like new again. If you oil the wood, then it is a good idea to replenish the oil about once a year. Apart from that it needs only a bit of dusting.
Popular Beech Pieces
One of the glories of beech is its versatility. That is the main reason furniture manufacturers find it so useful. It is strong, but craftsmen can also mould it into shape. They immerse the wood in steam or boiling water to bend it and then let it dry to become hard again.
This is why the designers on sale here at Olson Baker find it spectacularly suitable for creating furniture that combines a traditional appearance with clean modern lines.
A good example is the Fredericia J64 Chair. It shows off the bending qualities of the wood as well as its strength. Ejvind A Johansson is the designer who uses the features of the wood to curve the back and reflect that in the slight curve of the seat. The paired shapes give the whole piece a stylish, modern appearance.
In a similar vein, the Carl Hansen CH24 Wishbone Chair, with its sensuous curves, is another example of a design, this time by Hans J Wegner, that exploits the strengths beech offers. Again, there is a curved rear. In this case, the curved struts holding it in place echo the back – a classic design that still manages to look modern.
Changing the look slightly, there is the Fritz-Hansen N01 chair, a Japanese-Danish crossover designed by Oki Sato. It has a deeper back support where its curves are echoed in the bowed style of the seat and similar angles for the arm rests.
If you are looking for something a bit more out-there, why not the Carl Hansen CH33T upholstered chair? It is another Hans J Wegner design in the Danish Modern style. It has, however, a more space-age look. The arc of the back rises above the circular seat and makes it the kind of thing you might spot in a futuristic drama.
When it comes to a modern coffee table, beech is, again, a perfect wood. It is strong and elegant, giving the furniture designer a chance to get that clean look and strength without looking cumbersome. The Carl Hansen CH008 Round coffee table, another Hans J Wegner model, is a perfect example. Its has an appealing three-legged design held in place with solid, but unobtrusive, supports.
One piece of furniture that really shows beech wood off to its best effect is the dining table. The solid surface perfectly demonstrates the attractive appearance of the wood. One favourite is the Carl Hansen CH339 Extendable Dining Table, designed by Hans J Wegner. It goes with his chair designs, including the ones already described. It is a modern extendable dining table, which can seat anywhere between 10 and 18 people. When the table leaves are not in use, store them under the top. Its flexibility makes it ideal for all occasions. It is part of a series featuring a range of beautiful organic shapes.
Sustainability, Is Beech Eco-Friendly?
You find beech forests all over Europe and North America. Forest managers maintain the trees in a sustainable way. A few beech forests in Germany are UNESCO heritage sites. The wood used commercially comes from managed forests. It is a slow-growing wood, harvested after 80 to 120 years. In the wild, longhorn beetles sometimes attack the tree. A well-managed beech forest both protects the trees and allows a wide variety of wildlife to thrive within its boundaries.
The tree, particularly the bark, has uses in traditional medicine. The leaves are also useful, since they are edible. You can also boil them and use the solution for a poultice, which treats a variety of skin complaints. It is possible to eat the nuts though not recommended. We now know parts of the shells are mildly toxic when eaten in large enough quantities. The species was introduced to Britain about 6,000 years ago. According to experts the nuts were carried over the Channel to plant as food. In some countries they are still fed to pigs. It is possible to roast the nuts and use them as a coffee substitute. The oil from the nut kernel is part of some salad dressings and in cooking.
Beech also makes good firewood. Producers ofter use beech wood to smoke herring. Mostly, however, people use beech in construction, for kitchen utensils and for furniture-making, where it lends itself to all manner of uses.