American sycamore offers impressive yields.

Family Name

Platanus occidentalis of the Family Plantanaceae

 Common Names

Sycamore, American sycamore, American planetree, American plane, California button, California sycamore, buttonwood, buttonball tree, planetree, water beech, ghost tree

Height/Weight

Average height is 120 feet, with 3-foot diameters, but the tree can grow to 175 feet or more. Average weight is 34 pounds per cubic foot.

Properties

Wood shrinks moderately in drying and may warp when flat sawn. The USDA Forest Service experts recommend a kiln schedule of T6-D2 for 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4 material and T3-D1 for 8/4 and 10/4.

 American sycamore is classified as moderate in weight, hardness, stiffness and shock resistance. The wood glues and holds nails well, holds its shape after steaming, and is odorless and tasteless.

American sycamore is going through a resurgence in popularity. Traditionally used in furniture, containers, millwork, flooring, veneer, plywood, pulp wood and particleboard, the species is growing in demand due to its low cost and lacewood-like appearance.

“American sycamore is a great species that is going through a resurgence in the marketplace for a variety of reasons,” said Nate West, account manager at Renaissance Specialty Veneer Products, Columbus, IN. “In today’s market, there has been a push for locally-sourced wood products. Add to that the current exchange rate of the dollar versus the Euro, and we see that some users find domestics a more attractive alternative.”

Myles Gilmer, president of Gilmer Wood Co., Portland, OR, agreed. “It is attracting some attention in the veneer world by people looking for higher end uses with domestics,” he said. Another growing market segment he noted is components, such as drawer sides.

West said the veneer generally is sliced into quarters to produce “a distinct medullary ray or flake. When cut into quarters it makes a beautiful flake that’s similar to lacewood. We are seeing it used in place of lacewood and platano. It has a nice light color and many of the logs are huge by today’s standards, so customers get tremendous yield.”

“It looks best when it is quartersawn,” Gilmer added. “With its conspicuous, lustrous medullary rays, the radial or quartersawn surface gives you the best bang for your buck,” he said. Another name for this effect, he added, is silver grain.

“American sycamore isn’t in our top 10 most used species, but its popularity seems to run in spurts,” said Rick Banas, vice president of Interwood Forest Products Inc. in Shelbyville, KY. “We have seen some big projects featuring quartered American sycamore. The flake figure can be great.”

According to West, a good example of American sycamore’s use in panels can be seen at the Indiana State Museum. Also, he added, “An American sycamore project at Carnegie Hall in New York City has randomly matched panels that create a beautiful array of flake sizes.”

The color ranges from nearly white to a reddish brown heartwood, though West noted, “Most of our clients prefer the lighter colored sapwood.”

Banas said American sycamore, or plane-tree as it is also known, is closely related to European planetree. “American sycamore (platanacae occidentalis) is identical in appearance to European planetree (platanacae orientalis) with the exception of color. The American is tan/yellow, while the European is pinkish.”

Naming Confusion

American sycamore’s range is the eastern United States, from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic Coast west to the Great Plains.

In the United States, sycamore is a name reserved for several species of Platanus, among them Platanus occidentalis, Platanus racemosa and Platanus wrightii. But in Europe, the commonly used term sycamore refers to a species belonging to the maple family, Acer pseudoplatanus. European members of the Platanus species, such as Platanus hybrida are instead called plane or planetree.

“In Europe, nobody would refer to planetree as sycamore, due to the fact that their sycamore is what we refer to as maple (acer),” said Banas. “To make things even more confusing, European planetree is commonly referred to as European lacewood in the USA and Europe as well. The word ‘planetree’ unmistakably identifies this species on both continents.”

“European plane is also known commercially as platano,” added West. European planetrees are often sold by country or area of origin, such as London plane, English plane, French plane. When European plane is quartered, the wood is usually sold as lacewood.

Duplicate names may sound like no big deal, but people in the lumber and veneer industry beg to differ. “When a name is used by several very different species, we have to be careful that the customer gets what they want. If someone calls for sycamore, we have to ask them if they want American or English, which are in no way similar in looks or properties,” said Banas. “We also have to be sure they want our American planetree and not the English version.”

Gilmer agreed that it is important to make the customer aware that sycamores in the United States are very different from the maple-like European sycamores. He suggested verifying orders with a photograph.

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