American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is widespread throughout the eastern half of the Unites States, with a few trees here and there rather than a large, dense forest.
The trees can be as large as 48-inch diameter and 100 feet high. In fact, sycamore is one of the largest hardwood trees in the forest; it is also very fast growing. Its white bark results in the name "ghost tree" and so the lumber is also called ghost wood. The button-shaped fruit also gives rise to the name "buttonwood." In Europe, it is often called lacewood. Early pioneers settling the eastern U.S. knew that when they found a sycamore tree that the soil would be deep and rich.
Sycamore is used occasionally in high-end furniture and cabinetry, but seems ignored for the most part - a shame as the wood has more character when quartersawn than any other hardwood, including white oak. The reddish hue is also is attractive too. Perhaps an entire suite of sycamore might be too much, but this wood can certainly be used for accents, trim, wainscoting, paneling and flooring. Before plastic contains, sycamore food boxes were common. Also, the interlocked grain (see machining section) resists splitting, so this wood was and is popular for butcher blocks.
Processing suggestions and characteristics
Density:The density of American sycamore averages 31 pounds per cubic foot at 7 percent MC. This is about 3/4 the density of red oak, but is equal to Honduras mahogany.
Drying: This wood dries very easily with little risk of checking, splitting or warping. However, the wood is prone to developing bacterial infections in the tree that lead to bad odors, water pockets, ring shake (or separation) and honeycomb when drying - even with mild conditions.
Shrinkage in drying is 6 percent.
Final MCs should be between 6 and 7.5 percent MC. Machining deteriorates if the wood is too dry; gluing and movement occurs if the wood is too wet.
Gluing and machining: The wood is easy to glue, but requires that the surfaces be glued soon after preparation to avoid shrinkage and swelling if the MC changes.
Machining can be difficult at times as the grain is interlocked. This means that the grain varies in direction from one growth ring to the next. Although this means an enhanced grain pattern with ribbon strips, it also means that there will be zones in which planing or surfacing is against the grain (chip-out likely) and then zones where machining is with the grain. Avoid high feed speeds, dull knives and high stock removal. Also avoid overly dry material.
Stability:Sycamore is subject to moderate changes when the MC changes - about 1 percent size change for 3.5 percent MC change with the annual rings (tangentially) and 6 percent MC change across the rings (radially). Some lengthwise shrinkage may be noted at times due to interlocked grain.
Strength: The wood is moderately strong and stiff - about 65 to 75 percent of red oak. The bending strength (MOR) is 10,000 psi, stiffness (MOE) is 1.4 million psi and hardness is 770 pounds. These are comparable to Honduras mahogany.
Color and grain:The color of sycamore heartwood is light reddish brown with darker browns found sometimes. Sapwood, which is 5 to 7 inches wide in the log, is nearly white with, at times, a slight yellowish tinge. If present, it is nearly white in color. The grain is fine textured, but the figure on quartersawn surfaces is very dramatic. The interlocked grain also means that the wood resists splitting.
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