Hull Barret, the character played by Michael Moriarty in the movie “Pale Rider,” was being beaten by a group of five bad guys. “Preacher,” played by Clint Eastwood, came to his aid and felled the five of them. He did that with a piece of wood:
“There’s nothing like a good piece of hickory.”
It was an axe handle, and he wielded it well and with great authority. It was an impressive beatdown.
Hickory had many uses then, less so today, but that is a great shame. Among types and species of wood, it is among the hardest of the domestic (US) hardwoods.
What is Hickory Used For?
In the past, hickory was used prominently to make sporting equipment like baseball bats, tennis rackets, and even golf club shafts. This was before the manufacture of composite materials that now are used for tennis equipment and golf clubs, although baseball bats continue to made with wood – ash, hickory, and some even cork them (at least until they get caught).
Today, we still find hickory used in the making of tool handles. It’s very hard, very strong, and very heavy, and serves well in that capacity. Clint Eastwood showed that in the movie, for sure. Add to that list of uses – wheel spokes and ladders, all for the same reasons – hard, strong, and heavy.
We also find it used in hardwood flooring. Again, hard, strong, and heavy, and able to withstand high traffic in the home, whether from kids running or dogs chasing them. It’s not as common as oak hardwood flooring, and that has more to do with cost than it does hardness and durability, though.
Among other craft uses for hickory:
- Bows (hickory gives just a little, making it a good choice for custom bows)
- Arrow shafts (holds its straightness well)
- Barrels and barrel hoops
- Blowgun darts (yes, we found this to be somewhat common for hickory in our research for this article)
Of course, furniture is a common use for hickory wood, too. The reasons are all the same – hard, strong, and heavy. If well-built and cared for, hickory furniture will last for your lifetime and longer. Amish craftsmen are known for their use of hickory, along with oak, for their mission-style furniture.
Hickory trees are high-branching and will reach a height of 60 – 80 feet when mature. The leaves of the hickory tree are easy to recognize – long and with perhaps as many as 17 sharply-pointed leaflets opposite each other on leaf stems. Most hickory species nuts (which include walnuts and pecans) are sweet in taste, and the bark is easily peeled when the tree reaches maturity. Both the bark and the root bark were used for cordage and lacing in the past and easily worked into these uses.
Hickory trees are long-lived and used in some larger landscaping projects because of their longevity. Some of the hickory species can live for 200 years. Shagbark hickories can live for 300 years, even, and continue to produce seeds.
There are 17 species of hickory, with 15 of them being native to the US central forests that extend even up into Canada. There are 8 species of hickory that grow in the state of Missouri alone.
As a hardwood, hickory trees are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the fall and winter. It is one of the determining factors that make hickory a hardwood species.
Hickory trees grow very straight and, as a consequence, can deliver when broken-down long, straight lumber at the sawmill. The heartwood of hickory trees has a light to medium brown color, sometimes with a reddish hue (sapwood tends to be a lighter brown shade to it). Although hickory wood is known for its strength and hardness, able to resist denting and scratches, it also can be steam-bent well when it is necessary – perhaps for curved armrests or rocking legs on high-end furniture.
It is not always easy to work with, though, suffering tear-out when machine-tooled. It’s also hard enough to dull cutting edges, so saws should always be kept very sharp when working with hickory wood.
Hickory wood stains beautifully and finishes to a lustrous shine when handled well. This makes it an excellent wood for showcase flooring in the home or high-end furniture to show off.
Hickory As A Hardwood
We’ve made it fairly clear that hickory is a hardwood. The trees are deciduous, produce fruit (edible nuts), and display the distinguishing features of a hardwood. We’ve written of many hardwoods on these pages, the most recent being pieces on sycamore, ash, black walnut, and alder.
In fact, hickory is the one of the hardest of all US hardwoods, harder than maple, oak, cherry, and walnut. For instance, maple’s Janka score is an impressive 1450; hickory’s Janka score is an even more impressive 1820.
This places hickory, an even more dense and hard wood, well above white oak, which has a Janka score of 1360. This is still a strong and hard wood, more than cherry and walnut, but not as hard, dense, and strong as hickory.
As an aside, we believe the hardest domestic wood (US) is black ironwood, which is native to Florida. Its Janka score is a whopping 3660. It is one of the densest woods in the world. That is twice the Janka score of hickory.
The Janka Scale was developed by Gabriel Janka. It measures a wood’s resistance to denting. The pressure required to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into the wood sample determines the Janka score.
As you can see by the numbers above, hickory stands up well to the Janka test and is harder and denser than the more common flooring woods like oak and walnut. As a flooring wood, it makes an impressive statement in a home and sets one apart from other homes with hardwood flooring.
The Price of Hickory Wood
In most instances, you will find that red and white oaks are less expensive than hickory wood for flooring. However, its long-lasting quality, resistance to denting and scratching, and beauty, when finished well, might overcome the higher price as compared even with the two oaks or walnut wood in your home.
An expensive hardwood? Yes, but hickory is a compelling choice for these reasons.
If you like hardwood floors and want to see some of the most beautiful hardwood floors we could find online, watch this video;
After seeing these floors, you can understand why hickory would be someone’s first choice in their home, assuming the budget was not too tight.
Hickory is a beautiful wood, hard and strong. You have seen how it takes to a proper finish and the beautiful effects that can be created in a hickory floor that shows off grain, pattern, and color.
For the home woodworker, a piece of hickory furniture might be a fun project to tackle. Make it well, and that piece of furniture will outlast you.