Old hickory gains some new popularity

29_oldhickory_01Hickory may be one of the country's least known domestic hardwoods, but of late it has gained increased popularity in the cabinetry and flooring markets. The wood is hard, dense and relatively inexpensive; all fine attributes in today's economy. Originally known for years as the best species for handles on axes, hatchets, picks and hammers, hickory has enjoyed a slight rejuvenation in demand during the last several years.

"It's not a huge deal, but it is a steady seller," says Jerry Anton, a wholesaler with O'Shea Lumber in Glen Rock, Pa. "We have some customers who regularly buy it; normally the lower grades for flooring and even some of the No. 1 common for cabinets. But also some of the uppers and even the commons for cabinets if they are doing the character mark, and some of them want what they call the calico, which is a two-color kind of thing for more character. We do a steady business with it, but it is not one of our top dogs. But we seem to see more and more people asking about it over the past couple of years."

Hickory’s specific gravity: .82.

Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water.

Hickory’s radial shrinkage: 4.9 percent.

Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces.

Hickory’s tangential shrinkage: 8.9 percent.

Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces.

Hickory (Carya ovata) is also known as shagbark hickory, Carolina hickory, pignut hickory and about a dozen other names. It is closely related and often confused with pecan (Carya illinoinensis). The trees grow primarily in the Eastern and Midwestern United States and eastern Canada and reach heights up to 120' with diameters of 2' to 3'. The heartwood is a reddish-brown to brown and the sapwood is white.

"We move some; it's not a great seller, but we'll occasionally do a floor out of it," says Steve Wall, owner of Wall Lumber Co. in Mayodan, N.C. "Of course, we sell the plywood and related molding and stuff like that to go along with it. Hickory and pecan are sold interchangeably. I think a lot of pecan trees are grafted off of hickory root stock. You have to be pretty darn good to tell the difference, but I would say that most of the stuff that comes through here is actually hickory unless you know it comes out of a cutting from a specific pecan grove."

Hickory is heavy, hard and strong and usually sold in 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 and 8/4 thicknesses. Because the wood has a high shrinkage rate, drying must be conducted carefully to avoid checking, warping and other defects. Hickory is coarse and its grain is normally straight. It is a good steam-bending wood.

"It is a hard and dense wood and most of the people like the color variations," says Wall. "Sometimes, on the outer side, you are going to get totally white sapwood and, of course, the heartwood is going to be pretty brown. Occasionally you'll get a streaking running through it, but the biggest pizzazz is that streaking color, what we call calico. Most people want that calico look with the streaking and the color variations."

"It's a hard wood, it sure is," adds Anton. "To me, it has a pretty nice looking character for flooring. People are looking for rustic-looking flooring these days. A lot of people go for cherry or oak, so I think hickory makes for a very unique floor."

Working properties are basically fine as long as sharp tooling is used. However, the wood tends to split when being nailed. The wood is also susceptible to decay by various insects, including the hickory bark beetle.

"It is a little difficult for some of the novices to work with and it used to be really bad until we had prolific carbide tools," Wall notes. "When I first got into this stuff, people still used the regular saw [blades] and router bits and you couldn't do too much. But now with tooling, it's not as bad as a lot of the exotics as far as workability."

Nationally, retail prices - based on a minimum order of 100 bf - for kiln-dried 4/4 FAS hickory ranged from $3 to $3.40/bf, surfaced on two sides. Wholesale prices ranged from $2,200 to $2,600/mbf.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.