The wood that is called Hickory is properly known as a member of the Carya genus. Those of you familiar with the way I typically describe woods will know that I almost always will identify the woods I work with down to the species level, but in the case of Hickory, that may not be possible. The most common type of tree that yields a wood sold as Hickory is Carya ovata, or Shagbark Hickory. However, I can’t say for certain that I worked with C. ovata due to the existence of at least six other species within the Carya genus that are also sold as hickory. Interestingly to me, one of the Carya species commonly found in North America, Carya illinoinensis, is the source of the edible Pecan nut. I have worked with wood from that Carya species and I find it unlikely that this Hickory was in fact Pecan because it doesn’t look similar to what I have worked with in the past, and because Pecan tree wood, when available, and that isn’t common, is almost always sold as Pecan. So, while I am confident that the wood I worked with is a member of the Carya genus, without benefit of genetic testing, I cannot with certainty go to the species level, although, as I noted, I would bet a large amount on C. ovata.
Carya species trees are not limited to the United States, although at least thirteen species are (C. aquatic, cordiformis, floridana, glabra, illinoinensis, laciniosa, myristiciformis, ovalis, ovata, pallida, palmeri, texana, and tomentosa) native to North America, spreading south from Canada to Mexico. The ranges of all thirteen species do not necessarily overlap, although some do. In addition, five to six species of Carya are native to China, Indochina, and India.
In general, it doesn’t much matter which specific species one is working with as those members of the Carya genus that are sold commercially as Hickory have very closely related working characteristics and appearances. C. ovata, one of the most commonly harvested and commercially exploited species is found throughout a wide range of the eastern United States. C. ovata occurs naturally from southeastern Nebraska and southeastern Minnesota through southern Ontario and southern Quebec to southern Maine, southward to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. Some isolated populations can also be found in the mountains of northeastern Mexico. C. ovata is unlikely to be found, however, on the southeastern and Mexican Gulf coastal plains and lower Mississippi Delta areas.
For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the wood I worked with simply as Hickory from this point forward.
The heartwood of the Hickory tree has a coloration that is usually light to medium brown although there may be a reddish tinge visible. The sapwood is universally a pale yellow-brown. Occasionally, mills will produce specific boards with contrasting heartwood and sapwood. This creates a pattern that is considered somewhat rustic and which is marketed as Calico Hickory. This is just a descriptive name; it does not indicate a different species. Such descriptive names are common in the timber trade.
The grain of Hickory is generally straight, although very occasionally wavy grain will occur. Variations in grain such as a wavy pattern will increase the value of the timber, sometimes dramatically. Hickory wood has a medium texture to the touch.
Hickory end-grain is quite porous with large to very large pores. These pores may require filling if a completely smooth surface is desired.
Despite its well-known hardness, Hickory is rated as non-durable to perishable in terms of heartwood rot and decay. In addition, Hickory is very susceptible to insect, including termite, attack.
Hickory is one of the hardest of the native North American woods. It is rivaled in measured hardness only by Black Locust and Osage Orange woods, neither of which are commonly encountered outside of specialty wood dealers. In the case of Black Locust especially, only limited quantities and sizes are available.
The workability of Hickory is utterly defined by its hardness. It is sometimes considered difficult to work because tear-out, especially of the end-grain, is common unless cutting and machining tools are kept consistently extremely sharp. Because Hickory will dull cutting edges, it is necessary to frequently re-sharpen cutting surfaces throughout the wood working processes. This requirement can become time consuming.
However, once the wood is successfully worked with sharp tools and a healthy dose of patience, Hickory glues, stains, and finishes quite well. In addition, Hickory is reported to respond well to steam bending.
Some authorities report that there is no characteristic odor associated with Hickory, but I disagree. I detected a distinct and not unpleasant odor when cutting the hickory that reminded me of smoke woods used in barbeques, which is logical since Hickory is sometimes used for exactly that purpose.
Hickory is generally readily available in dimensional lumber format although it is not as commonly encountered in turning blank sizes. Hickory should not be particularly expensive for a North American hardwood unless the piece is particularly large or unless it features highly figured grain or coloration such as intense Calico.
I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied. In addition, I am pleased to also recommend both NC Wood and Got Wood? as excellent sources of domestic hardwoods.
West Penn Hardwoods, which has just completed a challenging move from New York State to North Carolina, usually stocks Hickory lumber, although I cannot locate specific pricing information at this time. They do not appear to stock turning blank sizes.
Bell Forest Products is also selling Hickory lumber at prices in the $11 to $12 range for individual boards you can hand pick. They also do not appear to be stocking bowl blank sizes of Hickory
NC Wood is currently offering Hickory spindles in 3”x3”x12” for $6.00.
The good gentlemen at Got Wood are offering 9 different sizes of Hickory turning blanks ranging in price from $1.98 to $25 for a huge 10”x4” bowl blank.
While the four dealers above are personal favorites, Hickory is usually easy to find and is obtainable from many dealers in domestic hardwoods, probably including one near you. If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Hickory, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
The uses to which Hickory is put almost always reflect its hardness and durability to wear. Unfortunately, this means that the most common uses of Hickory are certainly not glamourous, including but not limited to tool handles, ladder rungs, wheel spokes, and flooring.
Hickory has also found use in sporting goods including baseball bats, the undersides of skis, and lacrosse sticks. Some golf clubs have even been made from Hickory on occasion. Hickory is generally being replaced with other materials in many sporting goods in the modern age.
Hickory wood has a very high thermal energy when burned so it is popular firewood as well as a source of charcoal. Hickory wood is sometimes used to impart specific flavors to smoked or otherwise seasoned wood.
Hickory trees are also an important source of food for both animals and people. The nuts are a preferred food of squirrels and are eaten from the time fruits approach maturity in early August until the supply is gone. Hickory nuts also are 5 to 10 percent of the diet of eastern chipmunks. In addition to the animals above, black bears, gray and red foxes, rabbits, and white-footed mice plus bird species such as mallards, wood ducks, bobwhites, and wild turkey utilize small amounts of Hickory nuts.
Human consumption of Hickory nuts has fallen in modern times, mostly because the nuts are not suitable to plantation conditions under which most commercial nut species are grown today. However, Hickory nuts were an essential source of fats and minerals for Native Americans as well as early settlers in the native area of the trees. Hickory nuts are still sold as a human foodstuff in areas where the trees are native and in which local food culture supports the collection and eating of the nuts.
Hickory is not listed with the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor is it listed with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
I realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
Aside from the risks associated with long-term exposure to any type of wood dust, Hickory has not been implicated in any other negative health reactions among users.
Appropriate protective equipment is recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, wood, to reduce exposure to wood dust.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I have experienced no negative side effects when working with Hickory.
My Personal Experiences
I have had the opportunity to work with Hickory in pen blank sizes before but this was my first experience of the wood in bowl blank size, albeit a small bowl. I was immediately struck with how hard the wood was, especially because I had immediately prior been working with a much softer wood, Box Elder. The most immediate thing I noticed was that there was almost zero end-grain tear-out because of the density of the wood. Softer woods almost always cut less cleanly than a hard wood such as Hickory. I was very pleased with this fine surface since it would make finish sanding immensely easier. Because I knew that Hickory would be hard, I changed the replaceable carbide bits in my Easy Wood Tools immediately before working with the wood, so my tools were at their sharpest, which made the turning operations much easier. The wood required little sanding and I was quickly able to achieve a very smooth and appealing surface finish. I was very pleased with the highly visible grain patterns which are strongly differentiated against the lighter color of the background wood. I had no desire to try to change the color of the wood so I applied a simple pure shellac finish as both sealer and final coat, with only a light 600 grit final sanding once the finish was dry to smooth and even out the surface to make it appealing to the touch.
Overall I was immensely pleased with my experience working with Hickory. In fact, as soon as I finished the piece I came inside and started hunting down dealers in Hickory bowl blanks. I have several large new ones downstairs that are in the process of slowly drying before I turn them into bowls. And, as anyone could tell you who has ever been in my shop, the last thing I need is more turning wood! But I was so pleased with the new experience of working with a Hickory bowl blank that I simply had to have more.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be, and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!