Story: Southern beech forest
Page 4 – Beech timber
Native hardwoods such as beech and tawa are harder to saw and season than native and exotic softwoods, so they have never figured prominently in New Zealand’s timber industry. In the early days of European settlement, native softwoods such as kauri, rimu, mataī, tōtara and kahikatea satisfied the nation’s demand for timber. Since the 1950s, wood from exotic conifer plantations (mostly pine and some Douglas fir) has been readily available.
New Zealand beeches are medium-density hardwoods with a straight grain and a fine, even texture. Their timbers are excellent for furniture and interior decoration.
Black beech timber is red-grey, strong and durable. It has a high silica content and blunts saw teeth. Milling of black beech began in Canterbury in the second half of the 19th century and continued until the First World War. There were limited native softwoods in the area, so beech was used for house frames and weatherboards, piles, fence posts, bridges and firewood. By 1915 most of Canterbury’s lowland beech had been milled and the land it grew on converted to pasture. Black beech has not been commercially logged since.
Mountain beech wood looks similar to black beech, but is not durable. It is also relatively inaccessible, and because it protects upper river catchments, mountain beech is rarely milled.
Hard beech timber is light yellow-brown, durable, and has a high silica content. It has been sparsely milled in the past as it is abrasive to saws and tools. It was usually used for wharves, mine props, and general building on farms.
The red-brown wood of red beech is attractive, strong and durable, but can warp during seasoning. In the past it was used for railway sleepers, bridges, wharves, fence posts and mine props. Since the 1970s high-grade red beech has been used for furniture, flooring and decorative interior finishes.
Since the 1920s silver beech has provided the bulk of beech timber, much of it from Southland and Westland. It is light pink, strong and pliable, although it does not last well in exposed situations. It is easily worked and has been put to many uses, including furniture, bentwood work, car and coach bodies, flooring, interior finishes, dowels, tool handles and brush backs.