This article is a complete guide to Sycamore wood uses. Sycamore can go by a variety of names, including American Sycamore, Water beech, Virginia maple, Buttonwood, etc. As one of the three widespread and highly valued sycamore species, the American sycamore ranks as the largest among all North American Hardwoods. In this guide, we will be providing you with complete exposure to the Sycamore tree, all the things you need to consider while working with its wood with some of the frequently asked questions about this valuable species at the end.
The Sycamore Tree
Sycamore, Plantus occidentalis is a fast-growing species, which is usually found throughout the eastern portion of the United States, mostly in the region of the Mississippi River Valley. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Sycamore tree is that it can grow very wide.
The grandness of the Sycamore tree has been well captured by a famous story in Southern Ohio which tells the tale of a troop of horsemen who found themselves caught in a huge storm and found a hollow sycamore tree, large enough to serve as a shelter for not only the entire group but also the horses.
A Sycamore tree tends to grow over 98 to 131 ft. in height and 4 to 8 feet in diameter, the largest of which have been measured to be 174 ft. and nearly 13 ft. in diameter. With the advantage of the great height and diameters attained by the trees, they produce excellent logs. Trees are easily recognized with their smooth, white, and green spotted bark in the uppermost section of the tree.
The tree prefers deep, moist and rich soils along river banks throughout the eastern hardwood region but will grow in places undesirable to plant growth, such as an area with low oxygen and high pH. In its native region, Sycamore trees are found in Iowa to Ontario and New Hampshire in the north, Texas, and Florida in the south, and Nebraska in the west.
It is not often in the lumber industry that one hears about using Sycamore by a manufacturer in their production. Nevertheless, Sycamore can be a wonderful way out when used in the right circumstances.
Identification of Sycamore Trees
The American Sycamore is a gigantic deciduous tree that has a wide-ranging, rounded crown of lush green foliage. The bark is unique among the trees. One can recognize the Sycamore tree by its button-shaped seeds, maple-like leaves, jig-saw shapes of its bark, and complexion of its trunk and limbs.
Moreover, the Sycamore tree is a sturdy tree that can tolerate extreme weather conditions, including pollution and salt, that grows insanely fast and can live for thousands of years. Here are some of the key characteristics including trees’ size and shape, fruits, and barks to look out for finding the tree in the wild as woodworking and forestry can be quite tough if one can’t correctly identify trees and their wood. The most common features to look out for while identifying the tree are:
Tree Size and Shape
Belonging in the plant genus Platanus and the family Platanaceae, Sycamore trees are flowering trees, often called plane trees, which can grow between 100 to 130 ft tall. They are fast-growing, deciduous trees, intermediate to intolerant to shade, due to which it establishes well in open areas.
Sycamore is a massive tree with a pyramidal form at a younger age but develops a spreading and rounded crown with age, so it is most often used as shade trees. Due to their massive sizes and aggressive roots, they are too big for most hand properties, as they tend to take a lot of space. Therefore, they are primarily used for parks and large-scale landscapes due to their dome-like canopy.
Sycamores are fast-growing trees with dark reddish bark, broken into oblong plate-like scales; higher portion of the trees. As the tree grows and expands, a new sapwood layer is added, which causes the outer bark to split, crack, and shed in large, thin, and brittle plates.
Similarly, the mottled bark of Sycamore makes it easy to identify, as the appearance will be flaky and very patchy. The camouflage-style colors like green, white, or tan are the indicators of age as an older tree tends to peel off and reveal a younger Sycamore tree with a different color than the older one. This distinguishing look of Sycamore trees makes them easy to identify among other deciduous species in the forest or the park.
Sycamore tree balls
Trees produce spiky seed balls that measure around 2.5 cm in diameter that hang prominently from branches throughout the winter. Seed balls are green in color, but later they change to brown. They usually appear on the tree in late fall or winter and fall to the ground in the spring, giving way to inconspicuous flower clusters and spread easily in springtime when the Sycamore tree balls fall to the ground.
American Sycamore tree has ovate-shaped leaves with three or five lobes of medium to dark green color. Full-grown leaves are bright yellow-green above and paler beneath, and younger ones are pale green coated. The maple look alike leaves are 10 to 23 cm long, having shallow sinuses or indentations between lobes. They are alternate, palmately nerved, wedge-shaped at the base, and decurrent on the petiole.
Flower and fruit
The small flowers of the Sycamore tree are inconspicuous. Since the flowers are pollinated by wind, the American sycamore tree grows well in places with regular winds. Fruits are borne along a pendulous stalk and have brown heads, solitary or rarely clustered with 2.5cm in diameter.
American Sycamore trees produce excellent logs because of their great heights and diameters. The generously sized hardwood logs are ideal for many woodworking applications. Sycamores are primarily used in the production of furniture, furniture parts, and in some instances, they can also be used in kitchenware and cutting boards by butchers as well as chefs. Because of their high degree of fleck, Sycamore logs are an excellent choice for high-quality veneers and paneling.
Despite everything, the Sycamore doesn’t have much of a pedigree in furniture making other than its occasional use as a secondary wood in some old pieces.
The basic woodworking properties of the wood are listed below:
- Average Dried Weight: The average dried weight of the wood is 34 lbs./ft3 (545 kg/m3) which makes it a relatively lightweight hardwood.
- Specific Gravity: At 12% moisture content, the specific gravity of the wood is 0.46, whereas basic is 0.55
- Modulus of Rupture: The Modulus of Rupture for the wood is 69 MPa.
- Elastic Modulus: The Elastic modulus of the wood is 9.79 MPa.
- Crushing Strength: The crushing strength of the Sycamore wood is 37.1 MPa.
- Shrinkage: The radial shrinkage of the wood is 5.0%, the Tangential shrinkage is 8.4%, and volumetric shrinkage is 14.1% making it intermediate with the other commercial hardwood species. Quartersawn stock is far better than flat sawn stock based on warping, cupping, and shrinkage.
- Color/Appearance: The wood of Sycamore trees, similar to Maple, is predominantly comprised of the sapwood of white to light tan in color with some darker reddish-brown heartwood streaks. During the green lumber stage and if not properly handled, the wood can be discolored by fungal stain and by oxidation. Sycamore is also sometimes called Lacewood due to its distinct ray flecks present on quartersawn surfaces giving it a freckled-like appearance.
- Grain/Texture: American Sycamore wood grain is interlocked with a fine and even texture. Thus, it creates some problems during processing as the interlocked grain will cause the wood to warp and twist easily.
- End grain: The growth rings are diffuse-porous and are distinct due to the lighter color of latewood and decreased pore frequency. Small to medium pores are indistinct and uniformly distributed.
- Rot Resistance: Unfortunately, American Sycamore is evaluated as non-durable to decomposable regarding decay resistance and is susceptible to insect attack. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that it doesn’t take in any water and must be treated accordingly to prevent decay.
- Odor/Stain: Sycamore wood has no characteristic odor as well as it doesn’t stain or taint food which makes it ideal for kitchen use.
- Allergies/Toxicity: Sycamore wood is considered to be allergenic and has been reported to cause allergic skin reactions, respiratory effects similar to asthma in some people causing a runny nose.
Working with Sycamore
The Sycamore wood is considered to be of intermediate to good quality to do work with. They work easily with both hand tools and machine tools. Wood glues turn and finish good, and sands are wonderfully smooth with a natural finish. It takes well to screws and nails as well as provide an excellent base for polishing and painting.
With regards to tools, for working with Sycamore wood, it is advised to use stellite-tipped saw teeth and tungsten carbide cutting tools. For woodworking, the following things should be considered:
- The cutting edge and feed rate should be reduced as the occasional waviness of interlocked grain makes sawing and planning more difficult.
- In case screws and nails need to be used, pre-drilling is often advised.
- During hand-planing, try planing diagonally to the grain.
- To make sure that wood won’t snap or split during machining or afterward use, inspect and flex suspicious boards.
On the contrary, the interlocked grain will cause the wood to warp and twist easily and create problems during surfacing and machine operations at times. Wood responds poorly to steam bending, and some blotches may occur when staining. Woodworking requires some caution as Sycamore wood has been reported to cause allergic skin reactions, respiratory effects similar to asthma in some people causing a runny nose.
Availability and pricing
Sycamores are the Americans’ largest broadleaf tree and most abundant along streams and bottomlands in the Eastern U.S. in deciduous wood. Sycamore wood is stocked by many lumberyards and online dealers, even though they are not as widely available as Red Oak and other more commercial species.
They are moderately priced, although they can increase the cost if sold as quartersawn boards. In fact, in the present time, all commercially available Sycamore lumber is quarter sawn. They are available in 4/4 and 5/4 thicknesses. As for price, one can expect to find wood by paying $5-6 per board foot, increasing with wider stock.
Uses of Sycamore wood
Sycamore trees develop a large bole, and wood is somewhat durable and similar to weight in Mahogany. It has consistent pale color, fine and even textures, and a quarter sawed surface displays an attractive mottled figure. Because of solid and very durable wood, people and companies use Sycamore wood for various uses:
Decorative veneer and paneling
Sycamore wood is receiving increasing recognition as a decorative wood or paneling, especially since it is inexpensive and easily available.
Particleboards, plywood, and pulpwood
Sycamore wood also finds its usage in the making of secondary wood products such as particleboards and plywood.
Furniture and Home improvement
Different types of furniture, including headboards, bed frames, cabinet doors, and dressers, can be made using Sycamore wood. Many woodworkers consider sycamore wood an excellent option for the concealed parts of the furniture to make the overall furniture more cost-effective.
Sycamore cutting boards are one of the most popular choices among butchers and cooks as they are solid and stable and are not as brittle and easy to break part than cutting boards made up of Oak and Maple.
They can be an excellent timber choice for DIY projects because they can retain a hard-wearing edge that is great in quality. In addition, it is perfect for carved items and lessens any worries about durability.
Things to consider while working with Sycamore Wood
As the wood is very difficult to split for firewood and most sawmills don’t quarter saw, they are often let to grow to full maturity and can grow to be one of the massive domestic lumber in North America. Due to being hard and impossible to trim, it has been used for butcher blocks for many years, but ever since it has been sold as a quartersawn wood, its popularity has been increased.
Quartersawn logs are attractive and useful for many woodworking purposes and have been used to produce beautiful underappreciated domestic timber, good for high-end furniture, Architectural millwork, instrument making, Aircraft interior, and cabinetry, in a color range from light tan to an orange-brown.
However, the interlocked grain will cause the wood to warp and twist easily and create problems during surfacing and machine operations at times. These problems also arise when plane-sawn Sycamore is used instead of quartersawn wood. Wood responds poorly to steam bending, and some blotches may occur when staining.
Therefore, cautions including the cutting edge and feed rate should be reduced as the occasional waviness of interlocked grain makes sawing and planning more difficult. You should consider pre-drilling whenever you need to use nails or screws. During hand-planing, try planing diagonally to the grain. To make sure that the wood won’t snap or split during machining or afterward, make sure to inspect and flex suspicious boards.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: Is Sycamore tree a hardwood?
Answer: Sycamore is a sturdy, fast-growing species of eastern hardwood forest. The tree is found throughout the eastern portion of the United States, mostly in the region of the Mississippi River Valley.
Question: Is Sycamore good for woodworking?
Answer: With the advantage of the great height and diameters attained by the trees, they produce excellent logs, and such logs of above-average widths and lengths are ideal for many woodworking applications.
Question: Can you use Sycamore as Firewood?
Answer: Sycamores are not best for long-term burning, but wood is great for starting fires as it produces a lot of heat. Despite being a hardwood, it is viewed as a low-density hardwood. It is filled with water, and in addition, it is softer than many softwoods. But when dry, it burns quite well.
Question: Is Sycamore hard to split?
Answer: The high water content when freshly cut makes it tough to split. However, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge if you are in access to a hydraulic splitter.
Question: Do I need powerful tools for working with Sycamore wood?
Answer: As mentioned earlier, Sycamore despite being a hardwood, is softer than many softwood species. It works fairly well with hand-carved and machine tools. With regards to tools, for working with Sycamore wood, it is advised to use stellite-tipped saw teeth, and tungsten carbide cutting tools. Wood glues turn and finishes well, and sands are wonderfully smooth with a natural finish. It takes well to screws and nails as well as provide an excellent base for polishing and painting.
Question: Do I have to worry about any allergies while working with American Sycamore wood?
Answer: Wood dust is known to cause irritants, skin problems, and asthma-like breathing problems. Therefore, be careful with the sawdust, as it can cause serious respiratory irritations.
Question: Where can I buy Sycamore wood?
Answer: You probably can find the wood in every lumberyard in North America as well as by online dealers, even though they are not as widely available as Red Oak and other more commercial species.
Sycamore, also known by the names like Buttonwood, water beech, etc. is one of the locally grown species of North America and can thrive in full sun, grows in moist soil that is well-thriving. Trunks divide near the ground giving the tree a multi-stemmed appearance. In addition to that, they can easily be identified by their mottled, peeling bark, three or five lobes light green to dark green leaves, and spiky balls.
While working with sycamore wood might be challenging, Wood sands wonderfully and looks very catchy with a natural finish. The wood is very inexpensive with reasonable availability and even graded standard in the NHLA rules. The best way to use sycamore wood is when it is quarter-sawn, and if its uses fit your needs, you should consider this for your next woodworking project.