Woodsense: Spotlight on hickory

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 38 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Meet the tough guy of America’s commercial lumber.

A few North American hardwoods may be stronger than hickory and a couple harder, but of all domestic commercial species in common use, none matches hickory in its combination of hardness, strength, stiffness, and shock resistance (yet it readily steam-bends). It may have been the reflection of these traits that led the Tennessee soldiers under the command of General Andrew Jackson to nickname him “Old Hickory” at the battle of New Orleans in 1815.

Surprisingly, each of hickory’s four important commercial species shares those attributes—shagbark (Carya ovata), pignut (Carya glabra), shellbark (Carya laciniosa), and mockernut (Carya tomentosa). Another hickory, pecan (Carya illinoensis), at one time filled a niche for quality home and office furniture but today is valued more for its annual nut crop than for its lumber.

History in woodworking

Native Americans looked to hickory wood for bows and its inner bark for baskets. The tree also gave them sustenance with its sweet syrup and nut meal. Pioneers relied heavily on the wood for fuel and used hickory chips for smoking ham and other meats. As the land was settled, hickory was shaped into wagon parts such as spokes, rims, and hitch trees. Due to its strength and stiffness, farm implement makers put hickory to good use. So, too, did the earliest automobile makers, which employed the wood in body frames and chassis. The wood saw employment in hockey sticks and tennis rackets. Craftsmen then and now use green hickory for making rustic chairs, rockers, and other furniture, and use the bark for weaving chair seats and making baskets.

A significant commercial use of hickory today is for the handles of striking tools, because it doesn’t transfer the impact of a blow to the user’s arm. Some hickory finds its way into traditional and rustic furniture, kitchen cabinets, and flooring.

Where the wood comes from

Hickory grows naturally in a general range from the Missouri River eastward. It’s especially abundant in the Central States that include the lower Mississippi Valley, where trees can reach 130' tall with diameters of 30" and better. In fact, half of all hickory lumber originates in the Central and Mid-Atlantic states; the rest comes from the Southern and South Atlantic states. The greatest source of pecan is Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.

What you’ll pay

As abundant as it is, hickory ought to be dirt cheap. However, its high green shrinkage rate translates into a slower drying time that increases cost. (Note: After kiln-drying, hickory remains quite stable.) At specialty wood suppliers, FAS boards surfaced two sides (S2S) to 3⁄4" thick will cost about $3 per board foot. “Rustic” hickory, with sound knots and other defects, costs less. When you can find pecan lumber, it’s nearly $2 more per board foot.

Hickory paper-backed veneer runs about $2 per square foot, while 3⁄4" hickory plywood sells for around $125 per 4×8' sheet. Although it can be hard to locate, pecan plywood in 3⁄4" thickness is priced around $170 per sheet. 

How to select the best stock

In the hardwood lumber trade, hickory and pecan aren’t separated, but specialty wood retailers may do so and then price each differently. Why does it make a difference? Hickory is not as warm in color as pecan, and mixing the two in a project may cause staining problems. So sort by color and grain if you can, and wet the board faces to get a better read. For uniform color, select boards that are all white sapwood or entirely of brown heartwood. Boards with heartwood and contrasting sapwood lend a rustic look. 

Working hickory in the shop

Because of hickory’s extreme hardness (pecan is less hard), you’ll find the wood difficult to work with hand tools. Expect to sharpen the cutters in your power tools frequently when milling it. With that understood, keep these added suggestions in mind.

  • Planing, ripping, routing, and jointing. Run hickory through the planer taking only light cuts to avoid tear-out, or drum-sand the wood to avoid the problem altogether. Due to its density, hickory requires a slower feed rate than oak when ripping it on a tablesaw, though it tends to burn less than cherry or maple. Also, take extremely light passes with the router. Straight-grained hickory poses no jointing problems, but the occasional boards with wavy figure again mean taking very light cuts.
  • Assembly. Hickory cooperates with all adhesives, but be sure to predrill for screws as the wood splits easily.
  • Sanding. Don’t skip grits, or scratches result.

Finishing hickory

Hickory tends not to darken with age and takes all stains and finishes equally well. Because of the hardness of hickory, sanding may take more time. Work through 220 grit. Some woodworkers will wet the wood at this stage to raise the grain, let it dry, and then final-sand with 320 grit for a smooth, de-whiskered surface. The wood’s open grain can be filled to arrive at a glass-smooth, reflective surface on a tabletop or desktop, though a heavy-bodied varnish will do the same thing. When staining hickory, use a test piece to see if you need a conditioner to prevent blotching. Many who build hickory furniture wipe on three coats of an oil/varnish mix to finish it or spray on two to three coats of water-based polyurethane or lacquer, sanding between applications.  


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page