Hickory’s tough-guy reputation still precedes it, but many have found useful applications for the wood’s steam bending properties as well.
When people talk about hickory lumber and wood products, the adjectives fly. Hickory is not just tough, it is very tough. The wood isn’t simply hard, it is extremely hard. As to being dense, strong and durable, well you get the picture. Albert Constantine Jr. writes in the book Know Your Woods, “Some woods are stronger than hickory and others are harder, but the combination of strength, toughness, hardness and stiffness possessed by hickory has not been found to the same degree in any
Hickory sold as lumber and veneer — the so-called true hickories — comes from a variety of Carya species, usually Carya ovata, Carya glabra, Carya tomentosa, and Carya laciniosa. Of the 16 species of Carya in North America, Carya ovata, also called shagbark hickory, is considered by many to be the most commercially important hickory. Carya illinoensis and other species of Carya are collectively and commercially known as pecan. Other species of the pecan group of hickory include Carya cordiformis (bitternut hickory), Carya aquatica (water hickory) and Carya myristicaeformis (nutmeg hickory).
Hickory grows from the Northeastern United States southwest to Mexico. Its many uses include furniture and cabinetry, athletic goods, flooring, lawn furniture and agricultural implements. Traditionally, one of the major uses for hickory has been in tool handles.
“Selected, straight-grained hickory is the first choice for handles of striking tools, particularly hammer and pick handles and axe helves, and for picking sticks in the textile industry, railway shunting poles and highly stressed parts of agricultural machinery,” writes B.J. Rendle, editor of the book World Timbers, North and South America.
Hickory also is known for its excellent steam bending properties. “Hickory is outstanding among temperate hardwoods for its combination of high bending strength, stiffness, hardness and shock resistance. It is particularly resistant to suddenly applied loads and almost 100 percent superior to ash in this respect,” Rendle adds.
Durability a Plus
Absolute Kitchen & Bath Marketplace LLC, Surry, ME, offers several cabinet looks in hickory, said Manager Barry Tuttle, who added that hickory cabinetry offers the advantage of supreme durability, which is a plus in kitchens.
“These cabinets stand up to use, year after year. This can be a big plus to homes with children. Hickory cabinets won’t ding or dent with use.”
Tuttle also said that hickory is popular in rustic settings, especially in vacation homes in the Adirondacks and the Rockies. “It is great for the cottage look or home in the woods.” The wood’s innate hardness does contribute to a slight blunting of tools and cutting surfaces, however.
Flat Rock Furniture Inc., Waldron, IN, takes a unique spin on hickory furniture, using hickory saplings to make high-end rustic designs including beds, dining and occasional tables, chairs, lounge seating and case goods. Amy McQueen, president, said the furniture is popular in resort areas and second homes, as well as in hotels, casinos and restaurants. McQueen added that the look is especially popular in mountainous areas like Vail, CO.
“For more than 300 years, Americans have constructed furniture from tree saplings, but the look went out of style somewhat during the Depression and when mass production methods became more popular. We saw a resurgence of the look in the 80s. While it’s often called rustic, we describe our styles as high-end, elegant rustic,” she said.
McQueen said the small, stunted trees are found in the shade of larger trees, typically 30 to 40 years old with diameters less than 6 inches. “Abundant in supply, their dense wood is perfect for steaming and bending to create some of the strongest wood furniture made today.”
Skip Kaise, Good Hope Hardwoods, Landesburg, PA, said his company carries a limited amount of hickory. He chose wide-planked hickory for flooring in his home, for its rustic look, interesting character marks and extreme durability.
Although Alabama custom woodworker Denis Hermecz made a table from hickory a few years ago, he says. “It’s not the most exciting wood out there. It’s like ash in that it doesn’t usually have an attractive grain pattern. It is extremely hard and durable. I've used it to make handmade tool handles and it’s a wonderful wood to barbecue with.”
Hermecz says that he finds the grain pattern and look of close relative pecan more appealing.