Beech Wood: Come to Know It

With eight chairs to make, I picked out my beech carefully for minimizing my stock preparation work in rip-cutting and hand planing all the surfaces straight and true, square, smooth, etc; better off the plane by a thousand times than off sandpaper. My system is quick and efficient and each stick of my chair wood once rough-cut to size on the bandsaw takes about ten minutes to complete. With 40 sections per chair and eight chairs, that’s 320 pieces and that then is not far off 30 hours of stock preparation so I would say I have a couple of weeks of chairmaking I’m headed into. Nope, I don’t own a tablesaw nor a planer anymore. I don’t own a mortising machine or a chopsaw either, neither do I want these things. I will keep stronger and healthier, more interested and happier without them. If I do run out of time or steam, I might get help but it will not be from any machine beyond my bandsaw.

Beech is a close-grained hardwood with certain characteristic elements but it’s a fairly plain wood without a lot of character unless it has become diseased by something like a fungal attack. The wood works very readily with hand tools and by machine methods and I find it consistently well with hand tools and planes to a super-smooth level with bench planes. That said, it is one of those woods that every so often results in isolated areas of surface tear-out. This occurs when the grain alters direction even by the slightest amount. In most woods, you can simply plane in the opposite direction to correct the flaw, not usually so with beech. Plane the opposite way might well correct that patch but then both sides of it will tear instead. The best response is to reach for the #80 scraper followed by a card scraper. This will always correct any issues of torn wood in any wood including beech. In 95% of the work on beech, the plane will do everything you need to do.

Planing beech by hand is indeed a joy, even though one text told me it was hard to plane beech by hand and it is better to do it by machine. Another one of those, ‘I can’t do it by hand so don’t you try, it’s a waste of time’.

Beech is a tight-grained wood of even density throughout its fibres and without any noticeable difference between the early and late aspects of the growth rings you get with many temperate woods. Planing oak at a tangent will often result in distinct sound changes as you plane it, together with visual ‘stepping’ in the surface where a percentage of each growth ring wood compresses and springs back under the pressure of the cutting edge of the plane. This often happens with softwoods too. Many of the softwoods, like European redwood, have greater distinction of hard and soft wood to every growth ring, hence the darker later summer and winter growth against the more spongy fibre in the early aspect of the growth ring adjacent to it. No such thing is so evident with beech, so planing the upper sloped back of my back chair legs to give it its angled back resulted in an absolute glass-like smoothness along the full length. The one thing I might say is that this wood is absolutely intolerant of dull tool edges so continuing to plane once the edge is starting to dull will result in rounded faces as the plane takes any path of least resistance. My advice is not to wait until dull but to sharpen much more than you might normally allow, consider twice as often as not being too much.

No surface texture after planing at a tangent as you often get with other woods.

You will find the consistent density of beech makes chisel work much different to most other woods. The fibres seem more reluctant to part away from one another under hand pressures in work such as pare cutting and even chopping. This ‘clinginess‘ is unusual in most other woods but not problematic. In mortising, it feels as though the walls hold to the wood more and you can see where the fibres are pulled apart by the chisel chops rather than the split-off you would get with all other hardwoods and then some of the pines. Because it is a hardwood and more dense than other temperate hardwoods we might expect similar properties to say maple, ash. cherry, walnut and oak but that is not the case at all. I think it’s fair to say just take your time and think about the new differences to be experienced. This is where we increase and store the knowledge we gain as our personal understanding of a wood species. A personal retrieval system as a library of wood textures and characteristics if you will.

You can see the more even density of grain between the oak and the beech side by side.

Beech seems always to be less likely to split than say oak. It’s hard to say why this is less so but the tenons I fitted into mortises seemed fine when really quite tight and what I might consider much too tight in oak, for instance. In chair-making this is ideal but then I consider the glueability less reliable and especially when super smooth. As this is my opinion, I might suggest ‘toothing‘ the tenon faces, a process we use in veneering where we create cross-hatching to the meeting faces with a plane called a toothing plane. We can do this with a tenon saw, by taking side swipes with the teeth across the faces of the tenons two or three times. Toothing does two things, one, it actually roughens the surfaces to increase the surface size — think highs and lows as in mountains and valleys covering the same square acreage as say a flat field. The ups and downs result in a greater surface area than a flat plain with the `addition of a rougher surface being filled with glue too. Two, it gives somewhere for the glue to go in assembly rather than the glue being pushed off the faces of the tenons as the tenon enters the mortise leaving very little glue there to make a positive bond.

Beech is slightly harder to split than oak and reveals a different texture within the grain structure that is more evident after split-cutting.
Split-cut oak shows a completely different grain structure than beech. See more below.

As it is with many aspects of woodworking, no one cut on one wood type is exactly the same in another. Every wood is different under the cutting edges of chisels, planes and saws and beech is a wood that has a holding, grabbing, pulling element to it whereby the plane and saw seem to more drag than part off or, as in the case of oak, for instance, spring away from the cutting edge in its severance. The importance of understanding such things for yourself leads to the intimate knowledge we need as woodworkers and thereby leads me to speak yet once more of the difference between those who use hand tools to work their wood and the wood machinists. Not one and the same and not to be in any way confused. Separating wood on the bandsaw can in no way be compared to cutting it with handsaws. Pushing the wood into a steady rotation with thousands of cuts per minute per foot run is simply not the same as pushing the saw into the wood. With hand tool methods, you are capably and constantly evaluating the wood’s essential and distinguishing attributes. These are the elements of its structure, fibrosity, resilience, resistance and so on, and therein lies the key difference between hand methods of working wood and machining wood. With one you constantly receive and process the information as you push the tool into the wood that tells you about the wood you are cutting as well as the hand tool you use and then too, not to be dismissed at all, your own body in how it’s working, you are working it and how best to control all three. This feedback is not available or accessible in any other way.

Beech is a very unique wood with textures seldom seen in most other wood species. It offers this beautiful seersucker texture throughout its fibre. Fascinating!
Oak is its own wood. Strong, resilient, dependable but very much the same ol’ same ol’ with the exception of its brilliant medullary rays. That said, I will always love everything about it. Sometimes, when I might watch Prime Minister’s question time in the houses of parliament and I see two-foot wide panels behind the MPs, hundreds of them, and they are all quartersawn oak. Beautiful!

38 thoughts on “Beech Wood: Come to Know It”

  1. I like beech too. The first hardwood I worked after learning on pine. I actually found it easier overall. Tougher than pine yes but ultimately more willing to yield up a smooth flat surface and crisp edges when you cut joinery.

    It is a bit plain to look at but that makes it a good choice for chairs where interest comes from the form and the fabrics rather than the wood grain.. Look at me timbers added to the mix might risk making the things too noisy.

    And beech is relatively inexpensive too which is a bonus.

    Only thing I’m not keen on is the slight orangey / redness in colour. I just tend to prefer browns. Suppose I ought to be able to adjust that in finishing but that particular skill remains a struggle for me!

    Anyway chairs are a great thing to make. Don’t need much wood or space, infinite design variety (big fan here of many mid century designs) and its’ hard to have too many chairs.

    Very much looking forward to this one. Thank you Paul.

    1. I have mainly used oak and softwood previously, but now have a length of beech ready to make a version of the router plane design.
      I have3 No4s, so will get them all sharp before I start. I was surprised how cheap beech was (relatively). There will be plenty spare for another project. I nearly bought some cheap maple offcuts at the same time as the beech.

  2. Paul,
    Detailed description of beech.
    Poplar is a hard wood, easy to come by as it sold in american box stores. Would you describe how it “works.”
    Thank you
    Ken

  3. Dear Paul
    Thank you for your informative and comprehensive description of working with beech
    Poplar is a species that is readily available in American box stores
    What would be comparison between Poplar and Beech
    thanks
    Ken

  4. I live in Massachusetts not far from famous Cape Cod. I have a wood-mizer sawmill and harvest my own trees for my woodworking. In the last 10 years or so our American beeches on the property have become infected and are dying from the top down. I have discussed this with a Forester and he says a bug introduces a virus into the beech. I have been harvesting these trees while they’re still useful. Some of them are enormous. In an experiment, I quarter sawed some of the trees which revealed an almost pepper like pattern in the wood. My beech is still drying, so I haven’t had a chance to work with it yet. Curious Paul how you feel about quarter sawn Beech?

    1. All woods benefit from quartersawing so you can’t really lose anything. One key benefit with quartersawing any woods is of corse the greater stability it fives but equally important with woods with medullary rays, as with oak and to a lesser degree, beech, is the fleck or ray cells that evidence themselves so well.

    2. I wish we had access to so many different types of wood over here in the UK as you seem to have in the US. I bought a small beech slab from a local store and cut/planed it down (before I knew the difference between quarter-sawn and whatever the other cuts are called). Needless to say, it bent and twisted overnight. I have learned though to dimension wood to nearly the right size and then to let it “rest” before finishing it off which helps in this regard.

  5. Paul
    Interested in what you said about only having a band saw. This morning there was an offer for a Marita at a theoretically good price. I don’t really have room and I read the negative comments. So sticking to my handsaws and plane.
    Good to know you agreed with that

  6. In beginning to use hand planes and chisels, it was so interesting to feel the responses as the blade cut into different woods. I think of how a Brazil nut and a peanut compare as one chews. To me, poplar feels spongy and ash more stringy now. After so many years, Paul can undoubtedly hear from across the shop whether someone is planing oak or walnut, or go into subtle details for any wood just as he does for beech, above.

  7. Hi Paul,
    Thank you so much for this post. No other place on the internet is likely to tell us as much about beech as you have in terms of usefulness. One aspect of woodworking I really like is the variability of the wood from cut of the same species or different species.

    In Dec 2019, I made those biscuit coffee serving trays as gifts that you kindly posted about. I made a lot of them and purposely chose a lot of different wood species. This allowed me to rapidly sample many different woods at once. As you aptly pointed out, there can be quite different.

    Up on my short list of woods to try is Honduran mahogany. I have heard many say it is a dream to wood with hand tools. I’m looking forward to trying it on a mid sized project and learning first hand.

  8. While I have never used Beech I find it an interesting wood. American Beech is somewhat different than European Beech. American Beech, I have read, is more subject to moisture expansion and contraction so joints/design must accommodate for that action. I wonder if that is the case for your Beech?

    1. Donald L Kreher

      I belive this is true particularly if it is not carefully dried. I have a 12″ by 8 feet and over 2 inches thick timber that is twisted and split up 16 inches or so on both ends.

      1. I think that this is how bad press goes. You need be no more careful with beech than any other wood. You don’t say if the wood was split both ends when you bought it or you bought it and it split in whatever you made from it or did with it. If it was split when you bought it then it is likely that someone slabbed a tree, stuffed it in a barn without controlled drying, painting the ends or whatever, all of which can make a big difference. I have seen stack after stack of 2″ by anywhere from 6″ to 18″ wide and 10-12′ long beech with maybe 300 pieces in the bundle that were beautifully flat and straight.

        1. Donald L Kreher

          Sorry. It was given to me. It cost me $0. I have no idea how it was slabbed or stored. But I am sure the ends were not sealed. Has a twist to it too. I’ll make something out of it. Anyway I did not mean to give beech bad press. My understanding is that you have to be more careful with beech than other hardwoods.

          1. The University of Virginia I think has plans for a solar kiln for DIY that is really nice. I think a hoophouse with good ventilation would work well, too. Someday I’ll get to that project.

  9. So timely! Your explanation of how to deal with torn grain when grain is running in opposite directions has saved me from throwing up my hands (and possibly throwing away my current project) in frustration:

    “The best response is to reach for the #80 scraper followed by a card scraper. This will always correct any issues of torn wood in any wood including beech.”

    Now why didn’t I think of that? Instead I kept trying to plane in both directions, which wasn’t working at all. Thanks!

  10. Paul
    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge. In between some gardening jobs I attacked the plank of beech I bought a while ago. Luckily I didn’t meet any wild grain, but it definitely only planes in one direction. I love the surface finish. Now have the base of your router plane made and blade holder partly blade. Did most of it with No4 /5 planes. Only used a rasp and file to round the corners.
    I also converted one of my no4s into a scrub. One of my no 5 is a “semi-scrub” already.
    Pleased that I am no longer a beech virgin. Regretting not getting a maple offcut at the same time to get experience of that as well.
    From your comments about gluing, I am guessing that beech is not a good wood to laminate?

  11. Thank you for this! I wish you could write a book on different wood species as you have experienced them with hand tool methods!

  12. I’m in the process of building a workbench. I’ve got well cured white oak to use for the top an the parts of the leg vise. I’d like to use Beech or Ash for the frame, but here in Southern California, it’s just too expensive. Looks like I’ll have to use Canadian Douglas Fir. I don’t have a jointer that’s sufficiently wide to joint the planks for the top, so I’m making a plainer sled.
    I’m looking for someone who would like to take my “Stanley 55” off my hands. I don’t have the time that it would take to properly restore it. Any takers?

  13. Do you think beech is particularly prone to seasonal movement ? I have the opportunity to ask my firewood provider not to split some of it next time and deliver few full logs to feed an old big bandsaw. Would it be worth the milling effort ?

  14. Hi Paul, thanks for another great post. Could you speak to the stability of beech? I once built a cabinet out of beech for an old humid stone house in Europe. I swore off the stuff because I have never seen more movement in wood. Granted this piece went into one of the most challenging environments possible. Thanks for everything.

  15. I bought some highly figured beech at the weekend, though that added-interest is exactly as you say, Paul, a result of some fungal spalting. I hope it doesn’t distort too much as it dries, as there is a fire surround to be made. If I could post a picture of it, I would. Keep up the excellent work, Mr Sellers.

  16. When planing narrow knotty edge, like 2 or 3 cm, how do you deal with tear-out? I find #80 scraper difficult to use there.

  17. Paul,
    What did you mean by “planing at a tangent?” Is it the same as planing with the plane skewed? Did you mean planing tangential to the growth rings? So, in quarter sawn, one edge is radial and the other tangential. Did you mean planing that tangential orientation?

    For those asking about dimensional stability, you can always look up the coefficients of expansion. For flat sawn coefficients, beech has more movement, e.g., a bit more than oak, and considerably more than pine and maple.

  18. Thanks for the very informative post on beech, Paul. My first love was maple due to its colour, looks, and hardness. Plus I had a lot of it available from my own maple tree that split and fell. Planing it has been something I never liked though. But then I worked with walnut and cherry. Those two kinds of wood were a pleasure to plane compared to maple. Both of them look pretty. I have never gone beyond the three varieties. Maybe I will try beech with a corner shelving rack that I want to build. Looks bland, yet consistent. Thank you.

  19. Fantastically interesting article…by the way how do I go about buying the router hardware kit…very difficult to source local items here in Cairns..cheers

  20. Michael Stauffer

    I find it impossible to locate a source of beech in the central Midwest of the USA. Help?

  21. Donald L Kreher

    There are beech trees up here in lower Michigan and Wisconsin. Should not be hard to find it it at one of the smaller sawmills you may have to let them know in advance that you’re interested in Beech. So that they harvest some for lumber.

  22. Joseph Farrugia

    Hello Mr. Sellers,

    Firts thanks for all your wisdom. I wish to know if there are advantages and disadvantages between steamed and unsteamed beech, apart that there is more uniformaty between heart and sap wood. Also would be a good wood to use in cabinetary since it is relatively a cheap, strong hardwood?

    1. Steaming can be used in the drying process for one, but then it is used to even out colour throughout the wood, increasing consistency across the boards. Beech seems more responsive to this than other woods. It is more of a European practice to steam all beech rather than say an American one to steam much less. I have noticed no difference between USA grown and European beech that has been steamed.

  23. Having bought some beech to make your router design I am now looking at another project. Some time ago a retrieved an old panel saw from the local tip (along with a marking gauge). The handle was beyond repair, for some time I have been contemplating making a replacement, and now have the wood. I have downloaded a suitable temple, which i may tweak. However, I did read that it was a good idea to put a bolt through the short grain on the part your hand goes around, although I haven’t noticed this in saws that I have handled. Is this or an inserted dowel a good idea, or have I misunderstood? I can see that this could be a weak area in the handle, but as I often do, i may be overthinking this, as open handles seem to survive with no additional strengthening.

    1. You are right in assuming that 99.9% of saw handles 100-200 years old have never cracked or broken. Therein is your answer. Spear & Jackson thought that we need an unbreakable handle so they did indeed slip a rod through their handles and covered the ends with beech plugs for cosmetics. It was a silly thing, this often comes from stables like theirs, but we tolerate the idea that someone quite young needs to make a name for themselves as an inventor so we let it pass. Facetiousness aside, it may not have been necessary, but the idea was quite a good one. Personally, I would not do it. There is a plus, but, then too, there is a compromise in that you are taking wood out too.

      1. I glued a paper template to a piece of 6 by 1 beech. Drilled out the curves with a brace and bits. Then used a coping saw to cut close to the template curved lines. I have done a bit of tweaking where I wasn’t close to the line using a plane, curved spokeshave, wide chisel and selection of files. At this point I was called away by my wife. Will cut the the slot for the blade next ( I have seen it suggested that this is the first thing to cut, in case it goes wrong, less time wasted). Then I will refine the shape to get a nice curved it to my hand. Going well so far. Pleased I decided to try it.
        I did start trying to cut the curves with my ancient jigsaw, but went far better, and quicker, using a coping saw.

        1. Finished the handle today and gave it 4 coats of shellac. Using connector nuts and bolts to hold the blade in place. Needed to modify (shorten) both. Works well, although not brass. I have loads of them, the same nut as Paul used on his router design. Pleased with the result. Only need to sharpen the blade now.
          In terms of materials it has cost me nothing as I used what I had. If I was paying my self for the time taken it might be harder to justify doing it, but I have saved a saw from the tip and will put it to good use, so I believe that it was well worth the effort, plus I have enjoyed the project.
          I hope that it will continue to be used after I am gone.

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