First off I would say that traditional planes have been made out of a number of woods. I plan to discuss those at another time. But the vast majority of traditional planes have been made from beech without a doubt and for good reason.
If you haven’t seen my post on “Why Use Quarter Sawn Wood for Wooden Planes?” then you should probably read that before this post.
So, you ask “What is so special about beech”. Well, most people would think nothing much is special about this wood, especially here in the US. It is very hard to get compared to other hard woods and almost impossible to find quarter sawn. It is not like the wood is rare or anything. It is quite abundant. The biggest reason, I think, is obvious why it isn’t used much. It is terrible to dry properly without growing fungus, which mars its light color, or it checks very badly. This keeps saw mills from wanting to bother with the wood. Plus it brings a low price. As you can imagine these businesses are geared to being profitable, as would be expected.
Interestingly the latter problem of it checking has so much to do with its abundant and distinct rays that we discussed in the preceding post. And this is in fact what makes this wood so suited to making planes with it. We will get to that but lets consider something else before that.
A few things that you want to consider in choosing a good plane wood is that it be a wood that is harder than other woods that you plan to be planing. This should make sense without me explaining, right. Beech is harder than most woods that we commonly use. It is the same density as red oak and only a little softer than white oak.
So you might then wonder “Why not just use white oak?”. Good question. It is harder. Well the problem is that oaks are ring-porous woods. That means that the early growth is much less dense than the late growth wood which is what makes us associate oaks with being “hard”. When you look at the growth ring of an oak log you can clearly see the band of early wood that is full of holes while the late growth wood is dense and usually darker.
Here in lies the problem for using it as a wood for planes. The primary weakness in a wooden plane is the mouth. It takes a lot of abuse. When the soft early growth layer of the wood crosses the mouth of the plane it is quickly worn away and it leaves a place for shavings to quickly jam. Not something you want. Of course there are other places in the plane that would suffer from this same weakness but for me that is enough to eliminate this wood as a choice for a tool that a workman would count on day after day.
So what you want to use is a diffuse-porous wood species. Diffuse-porous means that the early and late wood growth is consistent in density. Often climax forest systems contain these types of trees. Beech is one of these woods and is diffuse-porous. But what makes it more preferable than the rest. It again comes down to its abundant rays. Here we are back to my illustration. As we discussed in the previous post, the rays a perpendicular to the long grain fibers. They run from the inside of the tree to the outside. What this means is that the end of the ray fiber emerges on the tangental face of a board. That is to say the plain sawn face of a board will have the end of the ray fibers showing.
|End grain of ray on sole of plane makes it highly wear resistant|
What does that mean? Well as you know end grain is much much much more wear resistant than the long grain fibers. You see, beech has, according to one reference work, approximately 40% of the plain sawn face of a board covered with the end grain of the rays. That is why beech is so appropriate for wooden planes. When the wood is oriented with the quarter sawn face on the sides and the plain sawn face on the sole of the plane then you get the best of both functions of the abundant rays that beech poses.
|End grain of rays look like small dashes on plain sawn face for beech.|
So while there are other hardwoods, as well as some tropical woods, that are harder they don’t beat the wear resistance of the “end grain” function of the rays. Though I wouldn’t argue that they couldn’t be comparable in wear resistance. I frankly haven’t made enough from tropical woods or ebonys to give my opinion on that.
Now, keeping in mind what we just discussed, add on to that beech is so plentiful, readily available in areas where planemakers were at, it wasn’t competing for other uses like cabinetmaking, that it has relatively easy working characteristics and that it grows into large trees, unlike many of the alternative planemaking woods and you can see why it became the wood of choice.
Now this discussion isn’t with the aim to say that using other woods is wrong. But many I know have wondered why this wood was chosen. I hope I helped answer that question to some degree.
As I mentioned there were other woods used to make planes and I plan to post what woods were also used. But in the meantime what ever you choose just make sure that it is at least two things. First it is quarter sawn and second that it is diffuse-pourous. Try to keep its density higher than the woods you plan to work.
If I couldn’t find quarter sawn beech then I would first look for hard maple. It would almost without a doubt not be in a quarter sawn option but you could look for some really thick plain sawn boards and produce your planes with the quarter sawn face on the sides of the plane.