American Sycamore is the largest hardwood specie in North America. It has been called the ‘Ghost tree of the forest’ due to the unique appearance of its bark. Large oblong sheets of green and brown material flake off leaving a ghostly bone white bark underneath.
This species of Sycamore is found in North America east of Nebraska and south of the Great Lakes. The largest specimens can be found in the fertile lowlands of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It can grow to heights of over 120 feet, and diameters in excess of 15 feet have been recorded. Today, most trees reach a maximum of 100 feet with 3 to 8 foot diameters. Consequently, Sycamore can yield large amounts of lumber with very respectable dimensions.
Early settlers used the trunk for dugout canoes. Cross sections of the tree were made into wagon wheels. Large trees are often hollow, which provided shelter for farm animals and storage for crops. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for settler families to live in the large tree hollows while they built their first log cabin! Today Sycamore has a multitude of uses – if it is properly seasoned. It can be found in cabinet frames, carcasses, and drawer sides. Since it imparts no noticeable taste or odour, it is utilised in butcher blocks, barrels, cigar boxes, and cartons for food storage. Luthiers use it for the backs and sides of guitars and other stringed instruments. It is also sliced into veneer and milled into mouldings and flooring. Invariably the wood is used for interior projects, as it is prone to decay and insect attack.
Once cut, Sycamore must be dried carefully, and the logs need to be properly handled to avoid staining by oxidation and fungi. Flat sawn lumber can be prone to warping if not dried correctly using numerous stickers and weighted piles. Quarter and rift sawn lumber are far more stable, making them the preferred product. Given its size, Sycamore can produce quarter and rift-sawn lumber with large dimensions. Quarter sawing Sycamore also reveals its large and numerous medullary rays. This produces a beautiful flake pattern on the quartered surface, prized in furniture pieces requiring a decorative panel.
Sycamore has a fine, uniform texture, but the grain is interlocked. This can be problematic when machining and surfacing, since it is prone to tearout. Sharp carbide tooling and high cutter speeds are required. It may be necessary to take light passes and utilize slow feed rates, though not too slow as the wood can burn. Sycamore is relatively easy to nail and screw.However, brad point drill bits work best, and chips should be cleared frequently when drilling and boring holes. If using hand tools make sure your blades are super sharp. The wood is not a good candidate for steam bending. All glues will work with Sycamore.
You can also use the finish of your choice. It occasionally blotches when stained, so it’s important to test stains and finishes on a spare piece of wood. If blotching is a problem, a pre-stain conditioner should be used. Sycamore is not a commercial species, so it will have to be bought from a specialty wood dealer. Supplies are plentiful and Sycamore won’t break the bank either. For the project requiring a little flair, using quarter-sawn Sycamore with its beautiful flake pattern is an excellent choice.
Peter MacSween - [email protected]
Peter's woodworking journey began with a career in carpentry followed by a decade buying and selling veneer. His spare time is spent abusing his guitars and exploring the great outdoors.