Have you ever wondered about the true nature of sycamore wood? Is it a hardwood or a softwood, and what are its unique characteristics and uses? Discover why sycamore’s intriguing qualities matter to woodworkers.
Sycamore is classified as a hardwood, not due to its hardness but because it comes from a flowering tree. It’s softer and less durable than many hardwoods, often used for interior woodworking projects.
Sycamore Trees – Where Do They Grow?
In North America, we find sycamore, mostly in the eastern United States. Tree sizes range from 75’ to 120’ in height, and the trunks can range from 3’ to 8’ in diameter. They are not small trees at maturity.
This is to distinguish between the North American sycamore and the European sycamore, which is a different species, again related to the maple.
The roots of sycamore trees can present problems. Their root systems can extend outward by as much as 30 feet surrounding the tree and will sit a couple of feet below the surface. Because they are shallow, they can interfere with house foundations, septic systems, and sidewalks.
In color and appearance, sycamore wood can resemble maple – composed mostly of sapwood, white to light tan in color, rather than heartwood, which will be darker reddish brown in color. Its texture, like maple, is fine and even, and the grain is interlocked
What is Quartersawn?
Sycamore wood will also have a very distinct ray fleck on quarter-sawn surfaces. The term quarter-sawn refers to wood that is cut such that the growth rings are at a steep angle, 60 – 90 degrees, relative to the board’s surface, and the resulting board is said to have quarter-sawn grain.
We mention this because sycamore’s ray flecks, the color variance that appears when a board is quarter-sawn, give the surface a freckled appearance. When this happens, the wood is also called “lacewood” because of the freckles. Later, when we discuss the uses to which sycamore wood is put, you will understand why it is not used in prominent display.
Sycamore as a Hardwood
We know that the terms hardwood and softwood do not refer to the hardness of woods; rather, they refer to the type of tree the wood comes from, and in this case, sycamores are flowering trees, angiosperm trees, like oak and walnut, deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the fall and winter.
This classifies sycamore as hardwood. That having been said, it is not an especially hard wood.
The Janka Scale is the ranking of woods based upon their hardness. The test involves using a steel ball of about a half-inch in diameter and the pressure required to embed it halfway into the wood being tested.
In the case of sycamore, the Janka Scale rating is 770 lbs of pressure. This puts it well below the hardness of walnut ( Janka rating of 1010) and red oak ( Janka rating of 1290). This makes it a soft hardwood, certainly.
Uses for Sycamore Wood
This would rule it out as a wood suitable for flooring and fine furniture. However, it is often used for other applications, including:
- Sides of drawers
- Concealed parts of furniture
- Visible parts of lower-priced furniture
- Interior millwork and paneling
- Pallets and crates
These are all interior uses, rather than uses suitable for outdoor work and not for prominent display as a fine hardwood. The wood is very susceptible to insect infestation and decay and is not a very durable wood. In fact, it has no resistance to decay.
It can also be harmed by the Columbian Timber Beetle, which bores into flood-prone timber, and carries a fungus with it, causing some streaking in the wood. Sycamore holds moisture more than other woods, and this makes it susceptible to Timber Beetle infestation and ultimate decay.
Sycamore is also harder to cure than other hardwoods. It is unstable when compared to other hardwoods and tends to hold too much water. Plain-sawn sycamore is less stable than other hardwoods and will tend to warp. This is why it is more often quarter-sawn, as that will enhance a bit of strength to the wood. It also pushes the price of quarter-sawn wood a bit higher than plane-sawn lumber.
Sycamore Wood Pricing
Sycamore is a relatively moderately priced wood. However, quarter-sawn sycamore lumber can make it a bit more expensive, but even at that, the price of sycamore lumber is lower than most other hardwoods.
When harvested, sycamore trees will produce above-average lumber dimensions with good widths and long lengths that lend themselves to many of the above-mentioned woodworking applications. Remember what we said about the size of sycamore trees – tall and with wide trunks.
Because of those lower-end uses, though, the pricing of sycamore will still be much lower than the prices for the more popular hardwoods like oak and walnut. Those woods will find themselves in flooring projects, while sycamore wood will be much more pedestrian in their uses.
If you want to see sycamore being worked and logs being broken down, we found a great video for you. It takes a moment to get going, but stay with it because it is worth it. You’ll hear the videographer talk about sycamore, quarter-sawing it, about its moisture content, and much of what we have discussed in this article.
It’s pretty cool to see a log being cut, too. It’s worth watching just for that, even. It will give you a good idea of sycamore wood color, grain, and growth rings. Finally, you’ll see what quarter-sawing is if you aren’t familiar with the term or have never seen a log quarter-sawn.
It’s a hardwood, yes, but not on the quality level of the more well-known and more often used hardwoods we’ve mentioned. It has its place and its uses, and perhaps you’ll find a project where it will fit well.