Hand Tools Archive

Why is beech used for plane bodies

Bill Tindall, E.Tn.
If this post collects some data that would be of future interest I will summarize the discussion and submit for Articles section of WC.

1. It is more apparent why beech was used in Europe. It was an abundant hard wood. They didn't have hard maple to choose from. Other hard species were not as abundant. The trivial reason to use it in the US was habit of the immigrant cabinet makers. But I'll bet that is not the reason.

2. It is less obvious why beech was the wood of choice in the US instead of hard maple, for example. I met a plane maker in Thunder Bay Ontario who worked in the early 1800's style and he preferred maple for planes, at least to the beech available to him. So maple is not an unreasonable choice.

Beech is miserable to dry. The high ratio of tangential to radial shrinkage means it is more prone to warp, cup and bow when drying (or in a plane). It is more prone to checking during drying than almost any species(ref. Eugene Wengert, VPI Forest Products Dept.) Hence, the reason must be either in making the plane or it's performance in the finished plane.

3. ..."Larry Williams who once explained that an advantage of beech for planes was the rays (parenchyma?) that allow moisture to get in and out perpendicular to the grain. This means that as humidity changes with the season, it takes less time for the wood to equilibrate, so there is less seasonal distortion caused by unequal swelling and shrinking of various parts." I could not find any data on the relative rates of moisture loss of beech vs other woods that would support or deny this claim. However, I think this theory is speculation at best. All woods have vessels for radial liquid transport. In some wood they are more obvious than in others.

Definitions: longitudinal- along the length of a board or tree; radial- perpendicular to the growth rings; tangential- parallel to the growth rings. Assuming a plane made from perfectly quarter sawn lumber, the length of the plane is longitudinal, the height of the plane is radial and the width of the plane is tangential orientation.

Again, data from VPI Forest Products Department, the rate of moisture loss or gain is more than 10 fold greater along the length of a plane than across its width or height. The moisture loss or gain is faster through the top and bottom of a "square" cross section plane than through the sides. In reality a plane may not be made from perfect quarter sawn boards. In light of these facts and the large difference in radial vs tangential shrinkage of beech I think plane stability or fast equilibration time is not the reason beech was used.

4. In comparing mechanical properties according to the extensive data listed in USDA Forest Products lab publication maple is superior in every property.

5. There is one statement made in the Forest Products Lab publication that "beech wears well" and that it is [was] used extensively for industrial flooring.

Summary For someone in 1825 that bought, or made, a plane cost to manufacture as reflected in selling price and/or time to make, and wear would seem to be important if not the most important factors in wood choice. I can't comment on the merits of beech vs other hard woods like maple for time to make a plane. Could it be that beech simply wears better than any other common N. American wood?

With luck Warren may have some historical references that provide insight.

© 1998 - 2017 by Ellis Walentine. All rights reserved.
No parts of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by
any means without the written permission of the publisher.