Availability of Hornbeam

OK, I realise that there are a number of varieties of hornbeam, so if you will indulge me, please read on.
I have found a reference to the use of hornbeam in the 1870’s in Massachusetts, by a man who seems to have started the first American Fan production.

I am looking to see if he cut the thin sticks that he would have needed himself from local varieties, or if he was importing European hard woods, but in the meantime I wondered if anyone was familiar with this particular wood.

If it was available as a veneer, I would need straight grain, rather than crown cut, the former being difficult to find over on this side of the pond.
So if any one can give me a pointer, I’d be very grateful.


Here in the states there is a small understory tree called hornbeam or hop hornbeam (scientific name: Ostrya Virginiana). I’m not sure that this is the same wood used by the Massachusetts fan factory you described, but I think that it certainly could work. It is light colored, stiff, strong, and with a grain pattern closer to birch than oak. It grows sporadicly in Ohio, and I have a couple small < 6 in diameter pieces drying in my garage. I haven’t had much time to work with it though. You may have trouble getting any as it’s not a specie that I’ve seen sold by the hardwood dealers here in the US. Your profile says your from the U.K., some woods that may work and would probably be easier to obtain: birch, maple, apple, cherry, plum, (stop by an orchard during late winter after they’ve pruned their trees and they may be happy to give you as much wood as you want). If you have a means to turn small logs into lumber, such as a bandsaw, free wood can be fairly easy to obtain. Check with the maintenance department of the town you work in. When they have to cut down diseased or dangerous trees, they may be happy to give it to you. Call up tree removal companies, they are in the business of getting rid of wood. I’ve gotten much of my free wood from a local park.


Hi Maiman,
Thanks for reply. Just to add a little more detail, I’m in the long process of applying for permanent residential status in USA, and researching the original fan industry in North America. Pretty sparse, but will be useful knowledge for the future.

The wood principally used was “horn beam,” as we called it, called gum-tree in the South. These I used to scour the South Shore for, the trees growing very scattering in our woods.

This is the only clue I have so far in trying to identify the original wood used, but your description

It is light colored, stiff, strong, and with a grain pattern closer to birch than oak.

certainly sounds like a good candidate.



Hmm. Gum tree and the south.

We have an American sweetgum in the south. But that’s a big tree. And I’m thinking it’s not this one.

Google books found something interesting in a Thoreau writing. He mentions it by a few nicknames: snag tree, swamp hornbeam, Pepperidge, Gumtree.

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From the detailed description (thanks for the link), I would guess this one is unlikely candidate.
Not yet sure how they would be machining the thin, veneer-like strips the would use, but they would certainly go for a fine straight grain, and the comment in the text about ‘tear out’ when planing, due to the interlocked grain, would steer me away from it.

Trees that are sometimes called “gum” in the southern US are trees of the Nyssa species. Nyssa sylvatica, Nyssa aquatica, Nyssa ogeche. Unfortunately they don’t grow much in the woods around here, so I don’t have any personal experience with the wood. But, photos of the wood online look like it would work.

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I think I have 2 types here in upstate New York. One is is a smaller tree, 5 or 6" max diameter that has a vert smooth bark and looks bit like the mussels in your arm. The other one gets much bigger, I have seen them over 12" in diameter and has a bark that is shaggy. Both produce a flower that looks just like hops. they are VERY dense.

Looking further looks like one is hornbeam or iron wood and the other is hophornbeam

What size rough saw sticks would you need? or what would be the best form for you to get it?

Hi @tom,
This is something of an early days project, but being a fan maker, my first thought was to look for veneer, in whatever thickness it came.
The finished size of the individual pieces would be ~10" x 3/4" wide, and 1/25" thick
Another approach would be to work from blocks 10"x1"square, but sawing would lose me about 30%+ of the wood - not good - never mind all the extra labour! **
Realistically, I’ve got to find a source of veneer, or switch to another wood.
Obviously that opens up many other possibilities, but it’s just that I’d like to investigate what the characteristics are of that timber for fan production.
The stiffness of the sticks is the first prerequisite, followed by straight grain, for piercing and carving, and finally availability.
EDIT ** I’ve just tracked down a patent taken out by this early fan maker I’m researching, and that is what he did - worked from shaped blocks the split or sawed them.
Must do more research !