Hickory becoming more common in furniture
A few years ago, hickory was seldom used for cabinets and furniture as it had quite a bit of character (streaks, knots, swirly, busy grain), was known to be hard to machine as it quickly dulled cutters and was very dense (heavy). Today, it is showing up more and more in cabinets, furniture and flooring and looks great. Let's look more closely at this wood, especially for cabinets.

Its properties

In the United States, there are eight species of wood that are called hickory four are grouped together as pecan hickories (tree names are shagbark, pignut, shellbark and mockernut) and the other four are true hickories (bitternut, pecan, water and nutmeg hickory). Although the nuts produced, hickory versus pecan, are quite different in appearance and flavor, the wood of these eight species, once cut and dried, is very difficult to visually separate. However, I commonly hear that many cabinet makers want true hickories and not pecan hickories as they think the color and character is better.
Hickory is quite heavy, with a density of 50 pounds per cubic foot when dry; this is the densest U.S. commercial wood. Hickory is also very strong and hard. A dry piece of lumber 6 inches by 24 inches by 3/4-inch (1 board foot) will weigh more than three pounds.
This high density and strength also means that the knife or tooth used to cut hickory and the sandpaper granules used to sand hickory will have to do more work and therefore will dull faster. Sharp tools and fresh sandpaper are critical for premium surfaces. Dull tools will certainly result in chipped or torn grain; these defects are accentuated by using large rake or hook angles and low moisture contents.

Moisture content

Hickory is rather sensitive to changes in moisture content. Flatsawn lumber pieces will change size about 1 percent for a 3 percent MC change (20 percent RH change). This is similar to oak.
It is important to assure that the MC of hickory is as close to the in-use or final MC as possible (usually around 6.8 to 7.0 percent MC). It is also critical to avoid over-drying this wood, as low MCs (under 6.0 percent MC) encourage chipped grain.
Gluing hickory requires surfaces to be flat and true, as well as freshly prepared and at the correct MC. This wood is not easy to glue if things are not close to perfect.
Hickory colors can vary from species to species and geographical area to area. Drying procedures used also influence the color, adding pinks and darker colors when drying temperatures are higher. It is advisable to find one supplier and then stick with this supplier to assure little or no color variation from load to load.
Being a porous wood, hickory's large pores present the same finishing issues that oak, hackberry and similar woods are known for.
From a processing standpoint, hickory requires small changes in procedures, compared to less-dense hardwood species. These changes are easy to incorporate into any standard cabinet manufacturing operation.

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About the author
Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.