Types of wood: beech and oak

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Types of wood: beech and oak
The majesty of an English oak tree in full leaf. (Cheryl Davis/iStock/Getty Images)

Beech and oak are two of the most common trees native to the UK and they can be used for numerous projects from flooring to furniture. Beech and oak have several differences -- even within their own species -- that make them suitable for different applications. Knowing these subtle differences will help you choose the wood that's right for your project.

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European beech

The European beech found growing across the UK is a hardwood tree with a fine texture, straight grain and broad rays. Its heartwood is pale beige to pinkish brown, but darkens to a pale red-brown. It has a high bending and crushing strength, with a moderate resistance to shocks but poor resistance to decay. Because it tends to split, it's best to pre-drill holes for nails and screws. It stains and finishes well and is exceptionally good for steam bending. European beech may be the most popular wood for general furniture purposes and can also be used to make musical instruments, food containers, flooring and decorative veneers.

American beech

If you don't want to use a local variety of beech, consider wood from further afield. The American beech tree has a straight grain, or sometimes an interlocked grain, and possesses a fine, even texture. Its heartwood is reddish brown, although it may be darker or lighter depending on the tree. Beech is heavy, strong and resists shock well, but it isn't very resistant to decay. While beech can split easily and is difficult to work by hand, the wood machines well. Use it to make baskets, bowls, cutting boards, furniture and flooring.

Oak

Oak is also a hardwood and grows across Europe. It has a straight grain, but a coarse texture with prominent rays. Its heartwood is a pale red-tan colour. Strong and stiff, its stability is moderate and it has little natural resistance to decay. Though it machines well, it can splinter and chip, so you should avoid cutting against its grain. It finishes well, but has some large pores that may need extra filler and attention. Oak is used for cabinets, furniture, musical instruments, coffins, flooring and plywood.

White oak

A hardwood growing in North America and some parts of Europe, white oak has a straight grain with a medium-coarse texture and light tan heartwood. It's heavy, hard and very water-resistant. It steam-bends well and its sturdy heartwood makes it ideal for casks and barrels. Like oak, it machines well, but its tendency to splinter and chip is even greater. White oak finishes well and it's used for boats, furniture, flooring and veneers.

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