Woods to Know: Sycamore - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Woods to Know: Sycamore

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

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 end-grain
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. 
Average Dried Weight34 lbs/ft³A measure of its weight at 12% moisture and an ambient temperature of 70°F.
Specific Gravity.55A measure of the ratio of its density compared to water (at 12% MC)
ShrinkageRadial: 5.0%,
Tangential: 8.4%,
Volumetric: 14.1%
Radial (the amount of crosswise shrinkage);
Tangential (the amount of lengthwise shrinkage);
Volumetric (the total amount of shrinkage.)
T/R Ratio1.7A measure of the uniformity of tangential to radial shrinkage.
Janka Hardness770 lbfA measure of resistance to denting and abrasion.
Crushing Strength5,380 lbf/in²A measure of compression strength parallel to the grain.
Sapwood is white with a reddish brown heart. Sapwood is not distinct from the heartwood.
Interlocked grain.
TextureFine even texture.
Works well by hand or machine. Interlocked grain can tear. Sharp tools are necessary and attention to feed rates etc. is important. Glues, turns and finishes very well. Does not steam bend well.
Case goods, cabinetry, furniture, veneer, implements and musical instruments.
Price$7.25/bf 4/4
Photos and Specifications Courtesy of: The Wood Database