Wood of the Month:
American Sycamore - The Ghost Wood

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Platanus occidentalis.

American sycamore, buttonwood, buttonball, plane, ghost tree, American planetree, water beech, whitewood and Virginia maple.

Average height is 100 feet but can go up to 120 feet. Average weight is 35 pounds per cubic foot.

Sycamore has a close texture and interlocking grain. Moderately heavy, moderately hard, moderate strength, stiffness, and shock resistance. The wood is difficult to season and moderate to large shrinkage occurs in drying. Sycamore wood does not give off odors or taste and will not stain anything it is contact with, making it suitable for use as a food container.

Sycamore is one of those names used for a variety of species, and this common usage can lead to confusion. The authors of the Encyclopedia of Wood try to make sense of the situation. "What the British call sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), the Americans call maple, and what the Americans call sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) the British call lacewood. What the Australians, on the third hand, call maple (actually Queensland maple, Flidersia braleyana) is part of the satinwood family (rutaceae)."

This column focuses on American sycamore, which is known by a variety of names including buttonball and buttonwood, in reference to the fruit of the tree.

American sycamore grows alone or in stands primarily in the United States from Maine west to Nebraska and southward to Florida and Texas. The tree tends to be tall - up to 120 feet - with massive trunks and wide spans of branches. The central states rank first in production of sycamore lumber. American sycamore thrives in wet bottomlands and along streams, lakes and swamps.

Albert Constantine, Jr. in Know Your Woods, says the tree is called the ghost tree of the woods by some because of its distinctive white bark, "which is mottled with various shades of green and brown."

Sam Talarico, owner of Talarico Hardwoods in Mohnton, PA, says quarter-sawn sycamore has a highly decorative figure.

"The quarter-sawn timber is two-tone because it includes 5 or 7 inches of the sapwood, which is white to creamy. The rest is made up of the hardwood which has a light tan to cherry color - sometimes almost 'orangy'," Tallarico says. "You get a flake look because of the medullary rays of the wood that is very attractive. Woodworkers love it when they see it because it has an unusual look and is very attractive and easy to work with," he adds.

Sycamore Best When Quarter-Sawn
Contemporary uses for American sycamore include lumber and veneer, paneling, interior trim, furniture parts, slack cooperage and fuel. The wood is hard and almost impossible to split, so it has been used for butcher blocks for many years. Other uses include flooring and handles, boxes (especially those for holding food), pallets and fruit and vegetable baskets.

Talarico says he has sold quarter-sawn American sycamore for a number of years and has seen its popularity increase steadily. "In the last five years, it has taken off, but it isn't a widely sold wood. I have had to educate my loggers to look for it and cut it. The only way that it is attractive and useful for woodworking purposes is when it is quarter-sawn," he said.

Talarico says American sycamore is not a commercial hardwood, and is more likely to be found at specialty lumber outlets. It is used by woodworkers making high-end furniture or for architectural uses such as paneling and cabinetry. Its applications do not typically include outside uses, because the wood is susceptible to decay and insects. Talarico said the wood is hard to season because it is unstable and tends to hold water. "Plain-sawn sycamore is unstable and will warp and move. Quarter-sawn wood does not have these problems," he says.

Early Uses
Donald Culross Peattie writes about the tree in his book A Natural History of Trees of the Eastern and Central North America. "To the pioneer the sight of it was welcome, since in general its presence and enormous growth were correctly taken to denote rich soil. However, from its predilection for low grounds, where malaria also was harbored, it often worried the early prospectors."

Culross Peattie adds that sycamore was not strong in the position of beams or columns and had little resistance to decay, but its "wood was hard, fairly tough and almost impossible to split. The pioneer cut trunks of great dimension into cross-sections which he then bored through the center, to make primitive solid wheels for his ox cart. If the trunk was hollow, as it often was, he sawed it in lengths of three to four feet, nailed a bottom in it and so had a stout hogs-head for grain."

Other early uses included barber poles, wooden washing machines, lard pails, Saratoga trunks, piano and organ cases and phonograph boxes, according to Culross Peattie. The wood was also used for broad paneling in Pullman train cars.

Sycamores can grow so wide that in pioneer days hollowed sycamores were used to house animals. Culross Peattie writes that most sycamores "over one hundred years old are hollow at the heart, which does not prevent the tree from continuing to expand through the years. Pioneers often stabled a horse, cow, or pig in a hollow sycamore, and sometimes a whole family took shelter in such an hospitable giant, until the log cabin could be raised."


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