Beech in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries

Straight, cropping beech trees.

Woodland beech tree.

Beech (Fagus) is a large, broad-spreading native English tree that produces dense, fine textured timber with a characteristic fleck.

Beech wood.

The wood is uninteresting and was seldom used as a show wood; however, it was an important framing timber in the eighteenth-century, and, capable of holding finely carved detail, it was favoured for all sorts of painted and carved & gilded furniture, domestic wares and treen.

“With it the turner makes dishes, trays, rims for buckets, trenchers, dreſser boards, and other utensils. It serves the wheeler and joiner, for large screws, &c. The upholsterer uses it for sellies, chairs, bed-steads, &c.” [1]

“The cabinetmakers’ chief woods are Mahogany and Beech; next to these follow Dutch Oak (Wainscot), Deal, Elm; and lastly, Walnutree, Cherrytree, Plumtree, Box, Holly, Yew… in London, Beech is almost the only English wood made use of at present, by the cabinet and chairmakers”. [2]

Hence, in the world’s best years, the humble shed
Was happily and fully furnished :
Beech made their chests, their beds, and the join’d-stools :
Beech made the board [table], the platters, and the bowls.[3]

Beech has been used for ordinary furniture since early times, often painted or stained to simulate finer or more decorative woods. It was often substituted for the much prized ebony on cheaper work, being stained with a concoction of lampblack and stale urine.

Because of its toughness and ability to tenaciously hold upholstery tacks without splitting, the seat rails and backs of upholstered chairs, sofas and stools were, more often than not, made of beech – even if the show wood was of mahogany or walnut. The lower back legs of chairs and sofas were commonly grafted onto beech back supports, but in some instances, the entire back supports/legs were made of beech and the lower, visible sections stained to match the front legs.  However, beech is not durable, being highly susceptible to the ravages of the furniture beetle (woodworm),[4] [5] and as a result, much upholstered furniture has sadly been lost.

One cannot write about beech trees without, at least, mentioning in passing Windsor chairs. The beech woods of the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire have supplied the green wood that bodgers turned into chair legs and spindles which contributed to the prodigious Windsor chair industry from the early eighteenth-century to the present day.

[1] John Evelyn, Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p. 136.

[2] William Marshall, On Planting and Rural Ornament a Practical Treatise, Volume I, London, 1796, p. 51.

[3] Abraham Cowley (1618 – 1667)

[4] “… it [Beech] is so obnoxious, that I wish the use of it were, by a law, prohibited all joiners, cabinet-makers…”
Evelyn, p. 137.

[5] “… the more vulgar Beech, subject to the worm, weak and unsightly; but which, to counterfeit, and deceive the unwary, they wash over with a decoction made of the green husks of Walnuts, &c.”
Evelyn, p. 168.

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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1 Response to Beech in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries

  1. Pingback: The London Furniture Timber Trade | Pegs and 'Tails

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