Wood species

Beech, the wood used since the 19th century for curved furniture elements

Although I like most wood species, I have to admit that beech has never been one of my favourites. I considered it a dull, monotonous wood with nothing that stood out. The other day, when I was writing about Thonet rockerBut I had a revelation. The wood from which that rocking chair is made is beech, and the beauty lies precisely in those continuous undulations of the wood. In fact all Thonet chairs rest on this discreet beauty. I realised how unfair I had been to beech wood and thought it was imperative to restore it to its place alongside the other species.

beech wood
photo source: thelungeststay.com

The beech that grows here is Fagus sylvatica, the European beech as it is also known. It is native to central, eastern and western Europe and parts of Asia (Iran). It grows from altitudes of 300-500 m in light valleys with loose soil to altitudes of 1200-1400 m. In our country it is found a lot in the northern part of the country. It generally grows up to 25-30 m, reaching a diameter of 1.5 m. There are, however, specimens that can reach a height of 40 m and a diameter of 2 m. The trunk is straight, with greenish grey bark, oval leaves and small, spiny fruit (jir).

beech wood
photo source: procobois.com

The wood is hard, tough, with high resistance to pressure. The grain is straight, with a fine to medium texture. The pores are visible, evenly spaced and smaller than those of oak.

beech wood
photo source: 1.biologie.uni-hamburg.de

Instead the annual rings are more visible than the oak. The colour of the young tree is yellowish-white, becoming reddish-white towards maturity, with a red heart. By steaming the colour becomes uniform and the wood becomes stronger, more uniform and no longer absorbs moisture.

beech wood
photo source: wood-database.com

Beech wood can crack or warp when dried.

beech wood
photo source: fld.czn.cz

It does not withstand uncontrolled humidity and when it sits in such environments it can rot, turning a chocolate-purple colour. It is used as both solid wood and veneer.

beech wood
photo source: wooduchoose.com

Beech veneer is darker and more uniform than wood because steam is used to make veneer.

beech wood
photo source: ashwoodveneer.com

One of the most important properties of beech wood is that it can bend very well after being steamed. That's how it became famous. Thonet, who invented the steam bending method, made the famous Bistro chair no.14 out of bent beech wood, in 1859, and this chair is the best-selling piece of furniture of all time.

beech wood
photo source: thonet.de

Beech wood is used for furniture, flooring, plywood, curved and moulded elements, wooden hammers and other small and useful objects, in construction, as firewood, being the most widely used wood.

beech wood
photo source: extremetexture.com
beech wood
photo source: bloodsweatsowdust.com
beech wood
photo source: 1stdibs.com

It is considered the best firewood, with high calorific value. It burns with little smoke and high temperature and was used in the past to heat furnaces for glass and iron. And there's something else you need to know: beech sawdust smoke is best for smoking meat and bacon. 🙂

It is one of the most used essences in furniture making. Both solid, steamed or un-fired, and veneer are used. The veneers can be technical, for plywood or panel blinds, or aesthetic veneers for furniture. It is widely used to obtain chairs with moulded elements. Unlike plywood, where veneers are laid perpendicularly on top of each other, in moulded elements they are laid parallel and moulded to the moulds to form seats or backs.

beech wood
photo source: columbiaforestproducts.com

And since its glory comes from the curvature I can't help but return to this area by showing you another famous example of a beech chair. It's the one made in 1988 by Marc Newson, a designer born in Australia but who came to design in Europe. The chair is part of the Cooper Hewitt collection, and the appreciation it has enjoyed has now made the chair part of the Smithsonian's exhibits. The chair below is made of 2 straight elements, the rest being steam bent beech elements. It's unbelievable what can be done with this beech, isn't it?

beech wood
photo source: archive.cooperhewitt.org

About the author

Mihaela Radu

Mihaela Radu is a chemical engineer but has a great passion for wood. She has been working in the field for more than 20 years, wood finishing being what defined her during this period. She gained experience working in a research institute, in her own company, as well as in a multinational. She wants to continuously share her experience with those who have the same passion - and more.


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