Beech buying experience - discuss please

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22 Aug 2009
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Here's a bit of a tutorial opportunity on the topic of wood buying.

I bought some 'European prime crown white beech' (so called) over the phone from a well known UK supplier almost a year ago for a Schwarz style Roubo bench. It's been sticked up in my (dry) workshop since. Most of today went on sorting through it to figure out exactly what I have - so that I can draw up the bench. It's heavy work....

It's a mix of 235-300mm and 125-170mm wide x 52mm thick boards in mostly 4m (3.7 - 4.01m) lengths.

This is to share some information and hopefully to get some feedback on the quality. I was a bit disappointed, but I've not bought large boards like this before, and never beech - so maybe I'm expecting too much.

As of today, and of the 8 or so wider boards almost all are cupped 6 - 8mm, there's a few with some mostly mild lengthwise bowing and/or kinks, and a few with bark corners for about 1/3 of their length. Three have more pronounced cupping of say 12mm at one end, and one is twisted. (luckily it all happens at one point where the grain is a bit wild) The narrow boards are predictably better - about half have mild cupping of a few mm, and a few are a bit bowed and have bark corners near one end - but about half are nice and flat.

All of the boards seem to have come out of relatively small diameter (maybe 750mm) branch-less straight trees. (farmed?) They all seem to be flat/plain sawn, but range from almost quarter sawn to well out in the sapwood and tangential to the growth rings. i.e. from all sorts of locations within the stack. The few more badly kinked boards have bent at the transition from sapwood to heartwood - I thought the 'heart' was normally waste, but not in the case of two or three boards for these guys.

The wood is very clean, there's only one board with a couple of small knots in it. It was supposed to be 8-10% moisture content, but was delivered at more like 12% with the ends of three or more up near 17% - I imagine due to hanging out in the weather.

They are all checking in at 8 - 10% now (I have heating and a dehumidifier in the shop). Most of the movement happened in the first month or so after delivery.

The good news is that (since there's plenty spare) there's likely going to be no problem getting what's needed in straight timber out of the boards, but it looks like there could be 1/3 or more wastage. It doesn't seem like the kind of stuff to leave hanging about for too long between machining and gluing up either.

Pardon the length, but I wanted to paint a clear picture. To throw it open to discussion:
Is this the sort of quality and levels of wastage to be expected in a load of timber like this selected by a good supplier? Is it likely to stay put after machining if the kinked bits are avoided, or will it move again?

To be fair to all concerned - even if I had the option to select the boards I'd have struggled to do much better. There's heartwood in a few places that I'd have avoided, but there's cases where two almost identical (in terms of cut) looking boards have behaved very differently too - one flat, and the other well cupped and bowed.

It's worth saying too that it's not going to be too far off the level of wastage suggested by the supplier, but then maybe he was having a clear out! :D

ondablade":9nodvysp said: looks like there could be 1/3 or more wastage...
Short answer...sounds about par. I would also never, ever buy timber over the 'fone. If I were to spend a lot on some material I'd want at least half a day at the yard poring over the boards...I can spend two hours in the shed at Yandles selectiing a few sticks that I can carry away under my arm - Rob
Beech can vary significantly and movement is common - I wouldn't want to waste a third of any timber purchased for a product but I would prefer to ensure that the wood is good rather than have a customer complaint a few months after delivery!

Beech moves a lot, take a look in E Joyce's tomb, try steamed next time its more stable. I wouldn't use it for a workbench personally, but ash instead. I've used beech for making rails on drop leaf tables where it's just used as a cheap hardwood.
If you think it's moved a lot already, wait until you rip it. I've had beech open up by INCHES at the kerf. That is a real pain if you have already surfaced it.
My bench is beech, too, but I won't use it again next time. It's not movement that's been the issue but woodworm. Mine is riddled with holes, the vast majority of which came out in the first season. It was air-dried, and I suppose that kilning would have killed the little blighters (or can the eggs survive? I don't know), but I do know that the end result has been disappointing, especially as the actual functional design has been excellent.

Steve, if you would not use Beech for a workbench again what would you use instead?

I thought that Beech was the one of the most used timbers for workbenches.
Good q.
Well yes it is a traditional choice, I admit, but my experience of it has not been happy.
If money were no object, I'd use Canadian Maple. I might use Southern Yellow Pine. A bit soft, maybe, but friendly. Ash, possibly. Not oak, of course.
I had some similar problems with English beech (2in and 3in thick, but it was the thickest stuff that caused the most grief). The boards were all air-dried and, despite a period of acclimatisation (only a few weeks - it was for a workbench, after all), it continued to split and check (particularly at the end-grain) after I'd started machining to final dimensions (I had already ripped them roughly to size in advance). It was quite disappointing though, I don't think it's fair to point much of the blame at the cheap Kamasa moisture meter I was using at the time (which died a couple of months later).

Movement though, wasn't much of an issue and, to this day, I don't believe that the 64mm top of my bench has moved in almost two-years now. These boards were quite severely cupped when I bought them and the longer lengths needed a bit of work to straighten them.

Next time, I'd consider European steamed beech for a frame (although, I'd be less concerned by what happens to the timber used for a frame), which is supposed to hold greater stability than the 'white' variety and, like Steve says, probably maple for the top, which is both very hard and renown for its stability. Sycamore's fairly similar (in some respects) though, I haven't seen many sycamore boards with perfectly straight grain, which would concern me when used for a bench top.

If I were you, I'd start ripping the boards down to approximate width for final dimensioning (perhaps 10-12mm oversize), re-stack them and see what happens. All is not lost! :)
This is very interesting.

I have 10 cu/ft of kiln dried beech (unsteamed) for a face frame kitchen i'm about to start. I will be starting the machining sooner rather than later to give it chance to move, if move it is going to do. The timber is all 27mm thick, I need 20-22mm finished thickness, but max width required is 75mm. It is all stamped "China" or "Orient" - I think I can discount the notion that it may be European Beech :D

I'll let you know how I get on.


ondablade":15rnmeag said:
It's a mix of 235-300mm and 125-170mm wide x 52mm thick boards in mostly 4m (3.7 - 4.01m) lengths.
As of today, and of the 8 or so wider boards almost all are cupped 6 - 8mm, there's a few with some mostly mild lengthwise bowing and/or kinks, and a few with bark corners for about 1/3 of their length. Three have more pronounced cupping of say 12mm at one end, and one is twisted. (luckily it all happens at one point where the grain is a bit wild) The narrow boards are predictably better - about half have mild cupping of a few mm, and a few are a bit bowed and have bark corners near one end - but about half are nice and flat.



I haven't used beech before, but for the wider planks that's only a little worse than I've seen in other air dried wood, and better than some I've seen. (I should get a picture of some of my sycamore 2x16's.) If you need the wood as thick and wide as possible, I'd rip it on the bandsaw, square it up, and reglue it together. If you only need it wide, you can flatten most of the outer part of the cupping on your planer (jointer), then run it through your thicknesser. If you don't care as much about the width, just rip on the bandsaw and process as narrower boards.

Were the narrow boards on the bottom of the stack? Thick, wide, flat-sawn boards like those take a _lot_ of weight on top of them to keep them from cupping or bowing while air drying. Sand bags, concrete blocks, sections of log, whatever works, but you can't skimp.

I know nowt about working with beech but Emir make decent benches from the stuff and have a good write-up of how they select and treat the wood on their website: As stated by others, steamed and kiln dried appears to be the way to go.

Thank you for all the input guys, it's actually fairly reassuring. The supplier at least did me a big favour by being up front about the likely high rate of wastage (at least I have enough), and it seems to be about what he predicted. Plus it's very nice and clean.

I was thinking of reliability of moisture content and the likelihood of struggling to get clean timber locally when I ordered in the UK over the phone. (I'm in Ireland) That played out OK on the latter but not so well on the former.

It's clear that movement after ripping is potentially a big problem - here's hoping that the facts that it's giving very consistent moisture readings at the right level and has had a year to settle will help. I didn't realise that steamed beech was more stable Steve. Sounds like (?) I'd be wise to get some approximate ripping done ASAP so that it can sit for a while afterwards.

Here's hoping Ollie that the consistent moisture content and thinner boards keep me out of the sort of checking issues you had. So far there's only one very short (2in) check in the end of one board.

I think I've read that kiln drying should kill off bugs Steve. I priced hard maple at the time but it was lots more expensive (maybe +25%), and yellow pine was I think about the same as the beech and not so easily available. So the beech seemed a decent choice that blended decent cost, good hardness and stiffness - and it's traditional use for benches was re-assuring.

In my innocence Kirk I just stickered the boards under their own weight, it sounds like I should have weighted them down - although it'd need quite some layer of concrete blocks to be effective (?). The wider boards that moved a lot were near the top, although they were also the ones with a rather wet end (17% or so) when delivered. The narrower boards were beside them, although even the top ones didn't move much.

Thanks for the Emir piece Duncan. One possible implication that's maybe to be drawn from it is that as a production operation they machine the beech, and then don't hang around long enough for it move before gluing it up. Plus they benefit from the relatively low cost and good physical characteristics. i.e. it's pretty suited to their environment.

It starts to sound Kirk like your suggestion of laminating thinner boards to make thicker stock is a good move - apart from drying better the layers may act to stabilise each other too. The Schwarz Roubo bench top is from 1 5/8in (42mm) or thereabouts boards on edge which means that as well as being glued it also ends up close to quarter sawn. The legs ditto use 3 laminations to form the tenons. Even the stretchers are laminated from two pieces.

All encouraging....

PS Is Technique of Furniture Making good on wood movement Mark? I have Alan Peter's other book, and love the way it's so factual and obviously experience based.....

Thanks again guys, I'll post some WIP. I'm just about to get going on my dust system install, so the bench will be starting in the coming month or so.
It has a good section on timber, but is a very good book if you are making furniture, and is considered the bible to most cabinet makers.
ondablade":25c1lyeb said:
I priced hard maple at the time but it was lots more expensive (maybe +25%),

A false economy then as it turns out. I recently helped a friend make a split-top bench in maple. The top was made from three fairly wide boards of 3" maple, about 7' long. We took the precaution of planing oversize, leaving to settle a while and then planing to dimension. There was virtually no waste, we had to spend no time at all agonising and picking through a pile of rubbish and we very quickly ended up with a bench which is relatively stable, immensely strong and will last him the rest of his life and then some. My own bench is also maple. I can't recommend it highly enough for a bench.

Yes indeed John - the amount of waste in the beech at least equals the additional cost of maple. In my case at least anyway. Not to mention the presumably higher risk of subsequent movement, although with a bit of luck that can be got around.

I notice looking at Richard Maguire's website that he seems to be offering only (?) ash these days. My recollection (?) is that he had beech up there last year as an option - there's benches in what may be beech in the his photo gallery too. It'd be interesting to know why if this is true...

unless they're quarter sawn, planks wider than, say 10cm will cup. c'est la vie. period. some species like european oak and chestnut are more stable but they'll cup nevertheless, and when they don't, they'll probably develop checks instead.
20cm wide planks cannot be expected to remain flat unless they're mechanically forced to (like in panelling) but then they're usually a lot thinner than 50mm and they flex so can be "tamed".
just rip your stock and glue it back together to remove tension.
it's a shame to throw away wood you say it's clear of defects. if one plank warps beyond repair after ripping use it in a place where shorter lengths are needed or glue top to top like prebuilt wooden counters and ikea stuff.
BTW commercially available european benches are almost always made of beech and their tops made of strips no wider than 10cm.
Thanks C. It's all quite re-assuring actually. I'd not experienced beech in largish sections like this before, but the gist of the feedback seems to be that what I have is fairly normal. i.e. it's necessary to handle the stuff the right way, but that if treated right it all works. The Schwarz Roubo design as it happens makes a lot of use of lamination anyway - the top is laid up from 1 5/8in x 4 (or a bit larger) boards on edge (close to quarter grain - and also laminated), the legs use three laminations and the stretchers two. Even the wide piece used for the dead man can if necessary be laminated.

I guess a bit of intelligence in the orientation of the laminations makes sense too - it should be possible to set it up so that the the stresses in the layers oppose each other.

Once the Pentz/cyclone type dust system is in (I've promised to post on this) the next step is to sort our the means to support what are fairly heavy and long timbers through the band saw (for ripping) and planing - looking forward to making some sawdust again after such a long time fitting out the shop.

One decision I've not made a call on yet on the bench is whether to use the blind mortice and tenon joints Chris Schwarz has in the book to join the legs to the bench top. Here: His later mini version (and the traditional) Roubo uses through mortices with a dovetail to the outside. Like here (there's some good Roubo info and links on this page) :

I guess the advantage of the traditional joint must be resistance to racking (in that it enlists the entire top as member of the parallelogram), but it presumably means the bench can't be knocked down for transport. The blind version comes apart, but can't be as stiff. I'm not sure yet if i dare tackle the through dovetails though, although they mightn't be so difficult if the tenons are made from leg laminations with the angled sides cut on the bandsaw, the mortices drilled and pared using alignment blocks, and the sides of the dovetail in the top cut using the Festool rail saw...

A compromise version (but it's not half as elegant) might use stretchers under the top like this: ... -workbench

'Roubo' search at Popular Woodworking brings up lost of interesting articles:

I went for the SYP myself for the same purpose as yourself.
The timber is still in stick in my shop, on the floor. I check it regularly, and it seems not to have moved at all so far. I am going to get a moisture-meter and check it soon, but I reckon it's about ready. I hope that it will be okay, because I didn't buy much extra. If the worst comes to worst. I will buy a 4 metre ready made kitchen worktop, and fold it into 2 metres!

My other alternative is Pitch Pine, which I have used before. In fact I bought some and used it within a couple of days for a hurry-hurry job. it never moved a splinter!

Hope you get around the problem material Ian.

John :D
Mark recommended buying a copy of 'The Technique of Furniture making' by Ernest Joyce and revised by Alan Peters. Just in case anybody is interested - there's several copies on offer by re-sellers on Amazon UK at very good money for what is a big hardback volume. i.e. £6-£10 or thereabouts.

Mine has just arrived, and it seems to be an excellent book. Professionally oriented and written, but with a very hands on feel - and from a time when corners were not so routinely cut but still pretty well up to date. It's at the same time not hard to read, and is certainly none the worse for it's age. (it's not been subjected to dumbing down and hype)

It's about as close to a covering most of the topics in cabinet making (but not the use of machines) at a decent level of detail in a single book as I've seen so far....