By: Per Friis Knudsen
I am sure the picture below does not leave any of you in doubt that it is a tree, and you might even recognize that it is a photo of the bark of a beech tree. All life starts somewhere, and wooden flooring or furniture start their lives in the forest. In the European forests, beech is generally a very common species, and the trunks fill up the woods throughout. A fun fact is that the word “trunk” has connections to both trees and elephants with both the shape and color of at least the beech tree drawing on similarities because the bark of a beech tree is grey and smooth, yet wrinkly – just like the skin of an elephant. And to continue the metaphor, I’d like to enlighten you about this great species that might just be so common and overlooked that it’s almost like an elephant in the room. Or should I say elephant in the forest?
To me, beech is the direct symbol of a forest. When I picture a forest, it mainly consists of beech and oak trees. Back in the 1800s, beech covered about 50% of the Danish forest area, whereas today the number is less than 20%. To emphasis it’s importance to the Danish people, Fagus Sylvatica (the Latin name for beech) is a part of the Danish national song and widely regarded as the country’s national tree. In general, beech trees are one of the earliest symbols of spring approaching in Northern Europe as the leaves turn lime green and transforms the forest into a mosaic of green in the early days of May. Similarly, it warns about the coming of fall with leaves turning a beautiful copper red at the end of the summer. At this highly productive time, a big beech tree sucks up about 125 liters of water daily to be able to continuously grow. That same tree might drop about 200,000 leaves per year after turning yellow or brown as the season turns more to fall.
Beech trees come in many different shapes and sizes depending on the conditions given to grown. A beech tree can be up to 40m tall and become to 250 years old; though commercially most are harvested at about 90-120 years old at a height of about 25-30m tall (Source). If the tree has the space for it and stands more freely, it will receive more sunlight and therefore grow a lot of branches early on. This often ends up resulting in a massive crown. A picturesque and perfect tree. At least for non-commercial use. But if you walk into a forest and find a beech tree among many other trees, it has to fight to get some of the rays of sunlight, which means the tree is in a race with its neighbors to grow furthest to the top. Therefore, these trees are growing to be thin and slim to reach the maximum height and only have a smaller crown on top. This tree however is a perfect tree for sawn timber.
A very practical species
Why is beech then so popular for wood processing? Well for starters, beech is a hard and strong wood that does not develop resin. As it has a very uniform grain structure and is light in color, it is a highly sought-after wood species. This often makes beech a preferred species by furniture and parquet flooring manufactures. Moreover, the wood has exceptional properties for steam bending because it is a highly malleable material. So in general, it is a very easy wood species to work with as it machines well, glues, finishes, and turns well. However, there is some talk about difficulties with kiln dried processes due to its volumetric shrinkage about 18% as this is very high.
Nevertheless, I would almost bet you anything, that you have had a piece of beech in your hand at one point in your life. The reason is that because beech does not give or take color or odors, it is often used for ice cream sticks, toothpicks or cooking utensils. And beech is a wood that lasts. It is denser, and less prone to dents, splintering, and it holds up well to wear and tear. Its main advantage is its high density (710kg/m3), which makes it more durable. That is also one of the reasons that kids’ toys are often made from beech, and it can be handed down for generations if it is well taken care of.
Another example of durable beech use is instruments such as a grand piano that we know from concerts or drum kits given its easy processing for bending and tone level. What beech is not as suitable for is anything regarding outdoor use. The wood simply does not has the right properties in terms of weather-resistance and protection against the environmental factors from nature.
The Red Heart Mystery
Is a red heart a defect or is it not a defect for tree trunks? It depends on the end user. In my opinion, a parquet flooring with some red heart is not an issue, but I would prefer my furniture to be without it. For those who use beech for furniture making, painting or staining the wood is a good solution. Red heart is not a problem because this part if the wood is just as strong as any other part of the white and more desired areas. I learned from a Danish website that red heart is only generated when the tree reaches an age about 90 years old and up. As far as I understand, the red heart begins if water seeps into the logs or of the logs somehow gets an injury combined with cold winters. A broken branch for example. But why it does not happen to young trees, I still don’t know. If you know the answer, please reach out and let us know.
All in all, beech is a massive species in Europe and generally around the world with all of its many uses. I always compare it to the toughest and the greatest creature in the animal kingdom, namely, the elephant. The looks of the bark compared to the trunk, legs and skin of the elephant; but also the grand impact they both have in their respective categories. Beech being found all over the European continent and elephants’ majestic journeys all over much of the African and Asian continents.
Disclaimer: no elephant was harmed in the making of this article and no elephant was ever present in the room.