The scientific name for the tree that produces the timber commonly known as Transvaal Beech is Faurea saligna. In various local languages, the Transvaal Beech can also be known as, although not limited to: willow beechwood, African beech (Eng.); Bosveldboekenhout (Afrikans.); iSefu, umCalathole (Zulu); isiDwadwa, umOnyeli (Ndebele); mohlako, mongena (Northern Sotho); muTango (Venda).
As the common name implies, the wood is native to southern Africa, spreading from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, down to the North-West Province, Gauteng, Limpopo Province, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal (all provinces of South Africa) as well as appearing in Swaziland, which neighbors the areas of South Africa where the tree is commonly found. Some sources report that the tree is also widespread as far north as Tanzania and Kenya and as far west as Nigeria, although it is primarily reported in the southern part of the African continent. Regardless, the tree is reported to be widespread and prefers to grow in sandy or red loamy soils. It will tolerate somewhat dry conditions including rocky ridges and is moderately resistant to fire of low intensity.
As a timber wood, Transvaal Beech is not well known outside of its native Africa, and because of this, it has not been well characterized or studied for such characteristics as measured hardness and workability. However, the wood is used to a very small degree by some craftspeople who value it for its light reddish to golden color and high degree of figure, similar to that found in other so-called “lacewoods” and “silky oaks.”
The wood is also valued for its high degree of resistance to termites and other insects in its native areas.
Interestingly, it is also well known as a medicinal tree. The bark may be boiled and consumed as an overall health tonic, while the leaves and stems are used to treat fever and diarrhea. The roots may also be boiled and the liquid drunk as a remedy for diarrhea and indigestion.
It is possible to extract a water soluble red dye from the wood of the Transvaal Beech.
Again, Transvaal Beech is not a wood that is widely used in the West so little research or description of it exists in the literature. I will speak only to my personal experiences with the wood.
I found the wood to be moderately hard with closed pores. The wood cut well with carbide tipped wood turning tools.
The wood featured a heavy figure that reminded me of the silky oak from Australia that I had also recently been using. Because of the high degree of figure, I would expect the wood to be problematic during planing, likely to experience tear out as this is common in highly figured woods, but this is an assumption only. The figure is similar to that found in many species of woods collectively referred to as “lacewood” regardless of genus, species, or area of origin. As the designation “lacewood” is reported to be based solely on appearance regardless of any other factor, Transvaal Beech could also be considered, therefore, a lacewood itself.
I detected no oil in the wood and it sanded easily and smoothly to a fine finish. I detected a slightly sweet smell when the wood was freshly turned although this dissipated over time.
Currently, I am unable to locate any exotic wood dealers in the United States that claim to handle or sell Transvaal Beech. This is not surprising as this wood is very much unknown in the United States.
The pieces I worked with were part of a pack of pen blanks sold by Woodcraft and marketed as an “African Pen Blank Assortment.” It may be worth checking with a Woodcraft store to see if such a set is available in your area, or you can order the set through their on-line store. Note that currently the on-line advertised set DOES NOT include Transvaal Beech although they do note that substitutions can occur, meaning that you might get lucky in ordering and receive a piece or two of Transvaal Beech, as I did, instead of the currently advertised woods. If you have access to a Woodcraft store locally, you would, of course, be able to determine exactly which woods were included prior to purchase.
Generally speaking, Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for either wood, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price. However, in this case, Woodfinder located no sellers of Transvaal Beech.
Transvaal Beech has essentially no uses in the United States, outside of occasionally being used for pen making when available in small quantities, because supplies appear to be quite erratic.
However, in its native range, the wood is highly prized for a number of applications. Aside from the medicinal and dye making uses noted above, the wood has long been prized as a furniture wood since the days of the Voortrekkers, who gave it its common name since it resembled the European beech they were familiar with. While the wood remains popular for furniture use, its resistance to termite and other insect attack makes it popular for use as posts and poles. In fact, the first telephone poles between the old South African Republic and Natal were mainly made from Transvaal Beech. The tree is also a popular addition to gardens for shade and decoration. Perhaps the most widespread, and unfortunate, use of the wood is its use as charcoal for cooking and heating.
Transvaal Beech is not listed with either the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being threatened or endangered. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) lists the Transvaal Beech as a species that is not of concern in terms of being threatened or endangered. However, just because the species isn’t under pressure or threat doesn’t mean that conservation and good forestry practices shouldn’t be of overall concern when working with or purchasing any species of exotic or domestic wood.
Because of the scarcity of Transvaal Beech in the West, there are no known reports of sensitivity reactions occurring with its use. Furthermore, its common use as a medicinal plant suggests that is should be safe to use in most applications, although this is a guess and the odd person could have a negative reaction with species otherwise considered benign.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I have experienced no negative side effects when working with the small pieces of wood that were identified to me as Transvaal Beech.
My Personal Experiences
I have already noted my personal experiences in relation to working with the wood identified as Transvaal Beech. I enjoyed the figure and appreciated the ease with which the wood turned and finished, but I wasn’t impressed to the extent that I would intentionally seek the wood out for further use, which seems to be a good thing since it is so uncommon in the United States. Woods with similar figure are more readily available, most commonly sold as “lacewood” of different genus and species designations. Unless a wood worker has a particular fondness or need for specifically African species, I can’t personally identify any reason for seeking out the minimal supplies of Transvaal Beech likely to exist anywhere in the United States.