Sycamore, known to botanists by its scientific name of Platanus occidentalis, grows in all states east of the Great Plains except Minnesota. Its native range extends from southwestern Maine west to New York, extreme southern Ontario, central Michigan, and southern Wisconsin; south in Iowa and eastern Nebraska to eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and south-central Texas; east to northwestern Florida and southeastern Georgia. It is also found in the mountains of northeastern Mexico. Sycamore has naturalized in the state of Washington from introduced specimens and is now considered “native” by some authorities, including the United States Department of Agriculture.
Platanus occidentalis has been planted as specimen trees, especially for shade purposes, throughout the United States, in parks and on private home sites. It is one of the largest trees native to eastern North America, routinely reaching over 100 feet in height as well as prodigious trunk diameters of over 6 feet.
Sycamore may also be referred to as: American Plane or American Planetree (especially in European markets), buttonwood, and/or buttonball-tree.
From this point forward, for the sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to Platanus occidentalis simply as Sycamore.
Much like the case with Maple, most of the Sycamore wood that is found on the market is sapwood instead of the heartwood. In most species, it is the heartwood, which tends to be more heavily colored, that is the desired portion, but this is reversed in species such as Maple and Sycamore. However, sometimes darker heartwood streaks may be found in some lumber samples. On occasion, it is possible to find entire boards cut from the heartwood, so if the darker coloration is important, it might still be possible to use Sycamore.
The sapwood of the Sycamore is a white to light tan color. The heartwood of Sycamore is a darker reddish brown color.
Sycamore also has very distinct ray flecks present on quartersawn surfaces. This gives the wood a distinctive freckled appearance. Quartersawn lumber tends to be more expensive because of the high degree of waste inherent in cutting timber trees in this manner. And, as always, the higher the degree of figure, the higher the price commanded.
The texture of Sycamore is, again, very similar to Maple in that it is fine and even. However, unlike more Maple, the grain of Sycamore is inherently interlocked.
The end-grain of Sycamore runs to the diffuse and porous type. There are small pores that become less frequent the later the wood. The growth rings are generally distinct.
Sycamore is non-durable or outright perishable in terms of its resistance to rot and decay. Sycamore is also susceptible to attack by insects. For these reasons, it is not an ideal wood for outdoor applications.
To the delight of most wood workers who have had the opportunity to work with Sycamore, the wood works quite easily with both hand and machine powered tools. However, the inherently interlocked grain can create significant troubles with some machining operations, especially plane procedures. This is very common with interlocking grain. The most common solutions are an awareness of the tendency, patience, very sharp tools, and more patience.
Once properly surfaced, Sycamore glues and finishes quite well. Especially relevant to my purposes, Sycamore is known to be an excellent turning wood.
For all of its virtues as a wood, Sycamore is reported to respond poorly to steam bending.
Sycamore displays no specific or characteristic odor when being worked.
Pricing and Availability
Sycamore should be considered a moderately priced option; not the cheapest wood and also not the most expensive option. Because Sycamore is almost always sold as quartersawn lumber, the price is automatically higher because of the increased loss to waste that occurs in the quartersawing process.
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.
Unfortunately, neither of those favored vendors is currently offering Sycamore.
I have recently discovered two additional vendors with whom I have had considerable dealings and I have always been satisfied. They both specialize in the hardwoods of the southern United States.
The first vendor is NC Wood, based, as the name implies, in nearby North Carolina. He is offering Sycamore in spindle sizes suitable for salt and pepper mill making. The Sycamore he currently has in stock appears quite dark and may be heartwood as well as displaying some degree of spalting.
The gentlemen over at Got Wood? in, also nearby, South Carolina have a good deal of Sycamore for sale, including bowl blanks up to 10 inches round as well as large spindle blocks. Their wood is green, but wax sealed. Rough cutting bowls and allowing them to dry before final turn is a well-established process, but I cannot imagine safely attempting that with wood intended for mills. The wood would require extensive and careful drying before attempting to make the precision shaping required for salt and pepper mill making.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Sycamore, 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 in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.
The most common use of highly figured Sycamore is in the making of veneers to be applied to fine furniture or other decorative objects. Some Sycamore may also be used for interior trim, flooring, or for furniture exteriors or interior framing. At the more extreme end of the wood use spectrum, some Sycamore ends up in plywood, particleboard or even as pallets/crates. Some Sycamore may be even be pulped for commercial paper making. Some limited amount of Sycamore ends up being used for tool handles, but only hand tools that experience no great stresses. And, of course, as we know, some Sycamore is used by wood workers like me for other turned objects aside from tool handles.
Sycamore is not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Sycamore is not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.
I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon. I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Sycamore sourced their material legally and responsibly. In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors. I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price.
I also 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.
There have been no reports of adverse health effects associated with Sycamore. However, the long-term negative effects of exposure to sawdust of any species are well documented.
Appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
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 experienced no negative side effects when working with Sycamore.
My Personal Experiences
The piece turned quite easily although being a softer wood it did have some rough end grain issues, but this was mostly absent wherever cut at an angle. The wood cut easily and mostly cleanly provided that light cuts were made to clean up after the larger cuts, but this is true of most woods. Sanding was quite easy since the wood is relatively soft and any problem areas were quickly removed.
I wanted a simple finish that wouldn’t drastically alter the basic color of the wood, so I chose my standby Shellawax which maintained the natural color of the wood quite nicely and yet provided a decent shine.
What did surprise me was that although both mills are made from Sycamore there was a dramatic color difference between the two pieces, despite also using the same exact finish. This highlights the diversity inherent in using a natural material such as wood.
Sycamore is well known for its distinctive figure, causing some to refer to it by the name “American Lacewood.” Both pieces show good amounts of this distinctive figure.
Overall, I am pleased with the outcome. Sycamore could be considered to be relatively plain when compared to many of the more colorful tropical woods, but I think the unique figure coupled with the light color creates a uniquely pleasing effect where the eye is drawn to the grain and the figure instead of being distracted by strong coloration. It is always a matter of personal taste in choosing which wood to use for which project and purpose.
I would work with Sycamore again, especially because of the figure almost always present. An additional attraction of working with Sycamore is the ease of working with the wood; other highly figured woods can be very difficult to work with.
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!