Beech Wood

Americans have often asked me why, these days, Danish furniture is generally made of beech wood.  One answer is because beech is abundant in Denmark.  Whole books have been written about the sneaky growth tactics of the European beech woods*).  An even more colorful answer might be because England a.k.a. Lord Nelson ran off with the Danish-Norwegian fleet in 1807, ignored a surrender flag, and in the process coined the phrase Danes still use for willful ignorance: “Putting the telescope to the blind eye.”

I shall not bore you with details of the Napoleonic wars.  More relevant is it that the Danes planted a lot of oak trees to replace their fleet.  Exporting oak was for centuries prohibited as it was “man of war material”, so for building our renown furniture industry, we got used to beech.

And now at the beginning of this new century, finally, if anybody should feel inclined to build a new fleet, the oaks are old enough for that purpose. I kid you not, a few years back the State Forestry Service announced this joyful, if by now slightly superfluous, update.

This is the sort of tidbits I find extremely amusing – but which often reduces other people to tears of boredom.  It is not relevant to them, and it is not very personal.  So rather than continue down this path of little interest to anybody but the Forestry Service, I will tell you a more personal story about abundant beech wood.

In my early twenties, I had borrowed my parent’s weekend home for a week in late spring. “By the way”, my dad told me, “100 cubic feet of firewood will arrive while you are there.”  (This is not what he really said because we measure anything in feet in Denmark.)

The wood had arrived before I did.  In 6-7 feet long trunks of beech of varying thickness blocking the driveway.

The first order of the day was to sort the trunks into those that I could lift off and temporarily stack against the house and those that were too heavy.  The next step was to ask my neighbor, a strong and burly guy, to give me a hand.  He would singlehandedly move some of the trunks and between us, we could get a few more out of the way so my car could be parked next to the house.  I could see him sending longing gazes in the direction of the trunks that were still left on the front lawn – those over a foot in diameter.

The next day came the fun project of splitting the logs too big to move.  Armed with a series of wedges and a sledgehammer I went to work.  After an hour or so, my neighbor came over to lend me a hand; the sound of hammering and wood breaking open was too much of a temptation.  There is something insanely satisfying about being very productive while being totally destructive.

Eventually, all the trunks were now some versions of 6-7 feet long poles in varying thicknesses 4-8 inches wide that all could fit into the log jack, the foldable wooden contraption my father had built of two wooden Xs attached with two perpendicular sets of Zs.

In my family, we believe that firewood should heat you three times:  when you saw it, when you split it, and when you burn it.  Consequently- the next part of the show was to saw all these poles into footlong pieces with a big hand saw.  I am pretty good at that.  I can saw with both my right and left hand —that helps.  I used to play tennis in those days; that also helped – at least when sawing with the right hand.  But sawing was not my favorite task.  Swinging the 15-pound maul was so much more satisfying.  Whack.

Naturally, I alternated between sawing and chopping.  But then I got the brilliant idea to leave a dozen pieces for Saturday when my friends from business school would come for a post-graduation party.  At least eight young men who, I was pretty sure, would not be able to stay away from the challenge of swinging the maul with precision and force – or at least force.

Come Saturday and my prediction came true.  My friends asked curiously about all the wood lying around and innocently I showed them how I now spent my days chopping firewood.  It didn’t take very long before the dozen pieces were more or less haplessly turned into something better sized for the wood-burning stove.  But my friends hadn’t been all satisfied with their whacking precision.  After all, they had seen a pro – me – do this in one powerful sweep, sending a wine cork flying, placed for aim (an showing off) on top of a piece of wood, and the wood falling neatly aside in two equal pieces.  They needed more footlongs.

I just happened to have plenty of poles that still needed to be sawed…

Special thanks for drawing out this memory go to Diane Wyzga and her story about a flame thrower and Sarah Elkins who disclosed that when she was upset, she would clean the kitchen.  I replied that when I was upset, I would split firewood.  That sounded credible to her – I am still processing that…

To my thanks I will add that I used this opportunity to expand my English vocabulary:  log jack and maul are not words that have come up regularly in my Business School education.

These days, with no wood-burning stove, I often start a blog post when I am upset. Sometimes it becomes a piece – and more often it just sits there laughing at me until I find the nugget.

What do you do when you are upset? 

*) Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Beautifully, you are covering the heritage history of the Danish people, Charlotte.

    My last post on BIZCATALYST Is based on a post by Dennis Pitocco addressing his question “What is is it that you could do this year that you couldn’t do a year ago?”
    You answered this question by mastering sawing the wood by both hands. This is a rare skill that I do not have.

    Loved the creative idea on how you made your visitors prepare the wood log voluntarily for you.

    I wonder if you have the skill to make shish-kebab using the wood stove?

    • It has been years since I have cooked on a wood stove, Ali, but we regularly BBQ on either gas or charcoal including skewers of yogurt marinated lamb so I hope I would be able to cook a kebab as well. I am sure, though, it it would not taste like your mother’s.

      Yes, I felt quite proud that Sarah Elkins likened my story to Huck Finn’s. I can tell you that my father was quite surprised how far I had gotten with the wood pile. I don’t remember if I ever told him that I had help.