Woodsense: Spotlight on Sycamore

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This article is from Issue 41 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Sycamore

The most widespread and valued of three native sycamore species, the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) ranks as the largest of all North American hardwoods. That’s because it can grow 120' tall with a diameter of 15' or more! By the way, sycamore also has one of the largest leaves of any domestic hardwood.

Once you’ve seen a sycamore (also locally called plane tree and buttonwood), you’ll never forget the sight. Its eerie, bonewhite bark, mottled by patches of green and brown, makes it look ghost-like among its neighbors. The appearance is a result of the continuous peeling of large, thin flakes of brown bark that expose the lighter surface underneath. Sycamore is right up there among the true yeomen of domestic hardwoods. Due to its workability, moderate hardness, weight, and strength, its uses are nearly unlimited.

It’s a fact that…

Although sycamore trees develop trunks of large diameter, many times they’re hollow. However, this condition rarely affects the tree’s livelihood.

Sycamore

History in woodworking

Early fur trappers and traders in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys frequently turned sycamore’s massive trunk into long and wide freight canoes in which to ply the waterways. The wood, because it imparts no odor or taste, became butcher blocks, cooperage and crates, kitchenware, and tobacco and cigar boxes. Later in history, its rotary-cut veneer became the traditional stock for berry boxes.

Luthiers discovered that quartersawn sycamore could substitute for hard maple as the backs and sides of some stringed instruments, such as guitars and mandolins.

In the home shop, properly seasoned sycamore lumber proves a tough utility wood for cabinet frames and carcases, as well as drawer sides. (The wood becomes burnished and thus smoother with age). Quartersawn stock, displaying a decorative ray figure, can become attractive fine furniture or featured parts. Other uses include molding, flooring, and kitchenware.

Where the wood comes from

Sycamore can be found in a natural range from Nebraska eastward and from southern Maine to northern Florida, although little is found in the Great Lakes states. You’ll find the largest sycamore trees in the well-drained bottomlands of the lower Mississippi and Ohio River valleys in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

What you’ll pay

Quartersawn and riftsawn FAS lumber may cost as little as $2 per board foot in sycamore’s growing region, but you’ll have to seek it out at local mills or specialty wood suppliers. Due to the tree’s size, wide, thick boards should be available.

Highly attractive sycamore veneer is manufactured for use in wall paneling and furniture. Depending on the figure, it costs from $5.50 to $11 per square foot. Plywood is made, but it is not readily available. (European “sycamore” plywood, made from a maple species, is imported and quite expensive.)

How to select the best stock

Improperly seasoned sycamore— particularly flatsawn—is unstable and will twist and warp. Quartersawn and riftsawn stock is preferred over flatsawn, because it’s not only much more stable, but also far more attractive with its distinctive ray fleck. Consequently, it’s ideal as the featured wood in projects having more than one species.

Sycamore sapwood appears yellowish white, while heartwood ranges from light to dark brown or reddish brown, but the color difference is not stark. It’s also somewhat lustrous. When selecting sycamore for project parts, match for uniform color and figure. Once you get it home, store the wood in a lowhumidity space to prevent it from reabsorbing moisture.

Working sycamore in the shop

Sycamore has interlocked to irregular grain with medium to fine texture that resists splitting. It machines much like cherry, and, similarly, has a tendency to burn.

• Planing, ripping, routing, and jointing. This wood requires sharp carbide cutters and high machine speeds. Expect it to dull cutting edges. With quartersawn sycamore, go with shallow passes and a slower feed rate when planing to avoid tear-out. As with tiger maple, consider making final surfacing passes with a drum sander if you own one.

• Boring and drilling. Use brad-point bits and clear the bit often to avoid burning.

• Assembly. All types of adhesives work with sycamore, and its interlocked grain holds nails and screws well.

Deciding on the right finish

Sycamore sands wonderfully smooth and looks great with a natural finish. Generally, staining poses few, if any, problems. Still, with quartersawn stock, test stains for blotching (a conditioner may be required). Note that this wood also takes and holds paint well.

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