American Sycamore’s Image Rising in U.S. Veneer Market

American sycamore has always been one of those hardworking, utilitarian woods, more likely chosen for making butcher’s blocks and crates than upscale architectural or furniture uses.

Ben Clift of the David R. Webb Co. Inc. of Edinburgh, IN, says that has changed lately. His company is getting calls from clients eager to buy American sycamore veneer. “American sycamore has traditionally been used for non-glamorous applications such as drawer sides and pallets,” says Clift. “Lately that’s changed. I think American sycamore is an example of a species that’s catching on with a whole new market.”

Rick Banas, vice president of Interwood Forest Products Inc., says his Shelbyille, KY company has received several calls about American sycamore veneer and he plans to look at logs with the idea of purchasing some. “It’s closely related to European planetree, which we have always carried,” Banas says. “While we have the European planetree in stock, it’s higher priced than what American sycamore is selling for in the U.S.”

Banas thinks the veneer will be well suited to paneling and architectural uses.

Tim Sampson, vice president, Bacon Veneer Co., Hillside, IL, says his company has been a champion of American sycamore veneer for some time. “We like to work with domestic veneers, finding under-appreciated woods for architectural millwork and furniture uses,” Sampson says.

“We discovered that if you find the right log, American sycamore can be cut into a very dramatic looking veneer.” Sampson feels the best material is light and clean without “tobacco stain” marks.

Sampson says good examples of American sycamore have a kind of cross-fire figure, similar to figured maple with a flake characteristic somewhat like flaky oak. He says typical uses include architectural installations such as boutiques where clients are looking for variation in flake pattern from fine flakes to broad flakes.

A Pale Heart for the Ghost Tree
The Fine Hardwoods Selectorama describes American sycamore heartwood as “pale reddish-brown colored.” Others call the heartwood a light to dark brown. The sapwood is lighter in color and usually from 1.5 to 3 inches thick. American sycamore has a flaky pattern on quartered grain due to its “conspicuous, wide rays.” Note that American sycamore is Platanus occidentalis. What Europeans call sycamore is a completely different species—Acer pseudoplatanus. The close relative European planetree comes from the species Platanus hybrid, Platanus acerifolia and Platanus orientalis.

In the book Know Your Woods, Albert Constantine Jr. writes that some call American sycamore the “ghost tree” because of its eerie appearance: “white bark, which is motttled with various shades of green and brown.”
Constantine says the tree is most often found singly or in scattered groups from southern Maine westward to Nebraska and southward to eastern Texas and northern Florida. The trees also grow in southern Ontario and northeast Mexico.

A Welcome Sight to the Pioneers
Traditional uses for American sycamore include boxes, railroad ties, fence posts and fuel. The wood has always been popular for butcher’s blocks, food containers and kitchen ware, because it is tough and will not split or impart taste or odor. American sycamore is also used for flooring, millwork, furniture, toys, paneling and moulding.

Donald Culross Peattie provides an early history of the tree in his book A Natural History of Trees of Central and North America. “To the pioneer, the sight of [American sycamore] was welcome, since in general its presence and enormous growth were correctly taken to denote rich soil.”

The trees did not offer the strength or decay resistance needed for beams or columns, but the wood still had many practical uses. “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.”

Later, more “sophisticated” uses for the lumber included barber poles, wooden washing machines, lard pails, interior panels for Pullman cars, Saratoga trunk slats and piano cases. Another older, common use for the wood was in stereoscopes, optical instruments made of two eyeglasses and used to combine the images of two pictures taken from slightly different points of view, giving the effect of solidity or depth.

Some of the early growth trees in this country were considered giants. Peattie says the old growth trees usually became hollow but continued to grow. Pioneers used the stable, hollowed out trees as an easy means of housing farm animals—or even themselves. In really huge hollows, entire families sought shelter while building permanent homes.

Platanus occidentalis of the Family Platanaceae

American sycamore, buttonwood, American planetree, buttonball, water beech, ghost wood

Average height is 120 feet but trees can be as tall as 175 feet. Average weight is 34 pounds per cubic foot.

Wood can sometimes be difficult to season. It dries rapidly but has a tendency to warp with moderate shrinkage and little movement in service. Wood has fine, close texture and interlocked grain. It machines and glues well. Can be stained well if care is taken. The wood has moderate weight, hardness, stiffness and shock resistance. It has good steam bending qualities.

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