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Spalted beech

Back in 2020 a large beech tree fell in a storm. It was growing in a private garden in Mill Hill, and I was able to get a lot of useful timber from it. The tree was rotted at the base, so it was no surprise that it fell. Higher up, the fungus had caused some spalting, and I used the wood from this part of the trunk to make a number of bowls. The branches were still sound, unaffected by the fungus. With a friend, I cut them to manageable lengths and stacked them in a patch of woodland on site. We wanted more spalted beech, so we put them on a bed of dead leaves on the ground. We covered the pile with more dead leaves because we wanted to slow the drying. This would encourage fungal growth and at the same time minimise splitting.

The branches (small logs) ranged from about 175 mm to about 250 mm in diameter, and up to about a metre long.

The harvest

Now, more than two years on, nature has had more than enough time to do its work. so we opened the pile and made some test cuts with a chainsaw to see how the logs were getting on. Sure enough, they were all spalted. Today I started work on some of them back in the workshop.

Here are some of the logs that I brought back. They are still quite wet, but much lighter in weight than before. They smell strongly of mushrooms, and their bark is loose and soft in patches.

Some of the logs really looked as if they had been lying on the ground for a couple of years

Processing spalted beech

I began by cutting each log down the middle using a band saw. This was my first real sight of the spalting. There was some cracking at the ends, but I was able to trim this off without too much waste. It helps to cut thin slices and flex them. Any concealed cracks then show up. I then cut the halves into chunks for bowls, and the bits that still had cracks I cut into spindle blanks. They will end up as boxes, decorative cones or bud vases. The smallest offcuts I shall turn into wooden mice.

This is one of the short log sections that I cut while it was standing on end. The spalting looks promising. Hanging under the bandsaw table is an old wooden clamp that I use to hold round timber. Cutting round timber on the bandsaw without clamping can be hazardous because the blade can make it roll and jam. Cutting centrally along the length of the log is safer because the force of the cut doesn’t make the log roll.

A short log cut while standing on end

Not too bad, though other logs were better

The spalting in the other logs varied. Here are some examples. Some had zones of colour, others had the typical wandering black lines. Beech is one of the best woods for spalting, and spalted beech is great stuff!

This piece has some soft patches but should still be usable.

We cut this crotch section on site with the chainsaw

The fungus and spalt lines can sometimes be visible directly under the bark.

The same block after roughing out shows the lines more clearly. I like the zigzag pattern.

Some of the blanks, showing the zones of colour

The roughed out bowls ready for drying

Below is the pile of 30 spalted beech bowls roughed out. I had to reject 3 or 4 because they had soft patches that would have been very difficult to turn to a good finish. Two years was really a bit too long to leave the logs, but you don’t know what you have until it is processed. No doubt the results depend a lot on the weather conditions – warmth and rain probably speed the fungal growth.

I’m happy with this lot though. After they have dried, which will take at least some weeks, they will go back on the lathe for their second turning. I look forward to the finished result!

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