American Sycamore

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This article is from Issue 92 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Plain or spectacular, it depends on the cut

By Ken Burton

American sycamore is something of a sleeper as far as native hardwoods go. For years it was used as a secondary wood—for drawer sides, web frames, etc.—if it was processed into furniture-grade lumber at all. Often, the wood has served more humbly for items such as pallets, which don’t require 

high-grade stock. One reason is that plainsawn sycamore doesn’t dry well, twisting and bowing significantly unless preventative measures are taken. For a wood that is visually about as exciting as white bread, it wasn’t worth the effort. However, sawyers eventually discovered that quartersawing sycamore essentially converts it into a “domestic exotic” with a flecked figure that rivals many overseas imports, and at a much better price. As an important bonus, it’s also very stable. These days, nearly all commercially available sycamore lumber is quartersawn. 

Fleckin’ beautiful. Quartersawn sycamore displays a beautifully flecked pattern reminiscent of lacewood.

Where the wood comes from

American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) grows throughout the eastern United States and is most likely the species you’ll find sold as sycamore. Its “buttonwood tree” nickname stems from the fuzzy, ping-pong-ball-sized seed pods that drop in the fall. Among the largest trees in the eastern United States, sycamores typically grow over 100 feet tall and 3-8 feet in diameter. They prefer uncrowded conditions, and frequently line stream and riverbanks. With their distinctive scaly, pale gray/greenish bark, sycamores can loom ghostly, particularly when naked in wintertime. As of this writing, American sycamore is not listed in the CITES Appendices, indicating that the current population is not under threat.

Note that, in addition to occidentalis, there are five other species of sycamore in the country, including Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii) and California sycamore (Platanus racemosa), which you may stumble across regionally. European “sycamore” and a variety of Australian trees that carry the name are actually a different genus and species altogether.

History in woodworking

Other than its occasional use as a secondary wood in some old pieces, sycamore doesn’t have much of a pedigree in furniture making. But before plastics became ubiquitous, the lumber was used for myriad utilitarian objects including barber poles, washing machines, lard pails, trunks, and butcher blocks (the wood is very difficult to split). Pullman train cars were even paneled with it.   

Selecting the best stock

Although not as widely available as red oak and other more commercial species, sycamore is stocked by many lumber yards and online dealers who cater to small shops. Its sapwood runs creamy-white to tan, while its heartwood is a darker reddish brown. The flecks seen in quartersawn stock are readily visible in both the heart and sapwood. It is typically cut in either 4/4 or 5/4 thicknesses, and boards wider than 10" are not uncommon. Due to the color difference between the heart and sapwood, you’ll want to be able to carefully select boards, particularly if you plan to edge-glue them to make up wider panels. As seen in the gameboard on page 47, you can often incorporate both sapwood and heartwood into your glue-ups by carefully matching edges. As for price, expect to pay $5-6 per board foot, though wider stock usually commands more. Be aware that because sycamore has little to no rot resistance and is very susceptible to insect attack, it’s a poor choice for outdoor projects. On the plus side, that characteristic also makes it spalt easily, creating attractive black fungus lines that can play well in cabinet doors and other panels. 

Working and finishing

Sycamore works well with both hand and power tools, although interlocking grain can make surfacing troublesome, particularly when hand-planing. In that case, try planing diagonally to the grain or use a sharp scraper instead. When working with spalted stock, keep in mind that sycamore is not a particularly strong wood to begin with, and once it begins to decay it can become brittle and weak. Inspect and flex suspicious boards to make sure they won’t snap or split during machining or afterwards in use. Sycamore finishes easily with all common finishes, both oil and water-based. However, as a softer hardwood, it does seem to soak up finish and may require more coats than usual. It accepts stains well, though staining will tend to obscure the quartersawn flecking.

Light and dark light. This table lamp is a nice pairing of tawny quartersawn sycamore and black walnut. Note the distinctive color difference between the sycamore’s sapwood and heartwood.

Sycamore working notes

I use a lot of quartersawn sycamore in my work. Along with its distinctive flecked appearance, I like that it is a native species, isn’t remotely endangered, and is relatively inexpensive. Most recently, I selected it as the wood for the gameboards shown on the cover of this issue and featured in the story on page 47.

Quartersawn stock is a good choice for a panel such as this, which must remain flat without a frame or battens to restrain cupping. Sycamore’s relatively light color also provides a nice contrast for the dye used to differentiate the checkerboard squares. 

The stock I used for the game boards was nice to work with and machined well. I might compare its overall working qualities to poplar or even soft maple. The only real problem I experienced was a tendency toward tearout when hand-planing with my trusty, old Bailey #5 bench plane. I switched over to a low-angle jack plane, and found it worked better. It might seem counterintuitive, but the low angle of the blade’s attack, combined with a tight throat opening virtually eliminated the trouble I was having with the interlocked grain. Even though it isn’t supposed to, the alcohol-based dye I used for the checkerboard did raise the grain more than I expected. Next time, I intend to raise the grain several times before adding color. 

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