American sycamore producers strive for quality

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Quarter-sawn American sycamore.

Quarter-sawn American sycamore.

When dramatic figure is needed, American sycamore gives the most ‘bang for the buck’, say those that know the species. Though somewhat off the radar in the woodworking world, it’s really a rare gem that’s relatively inexpensive. The catch is that it is incredibly tricky to cut and process, according to suppliers interviewed by Woodshop News.

“Sycamore is a beautiful wood,” says Sam Talarico, owner of Talarico Hardwoods in Mohnton, Pa. “It’s not available commercially much because you really can’t cut it on a production basis and get the figure out of it. But when it’s quarter sawn, every piece has figure in it. However, it requires precision sawing to make sure every piece has figure.

“It’s got some of the most figure in it for the buck. It’s not all that expensive compared to other stuff. It’s just real tricky to produce. I only buy winter cut logs. It’s very difficult to quarter saw in the spring. You’ve got to be careful stickering it because it stains easily. A lot of people don’t know how to handle it properly, and if it sits around it will stain and become worthless.”

American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) grows in many parts of the United States with heavy concentrations around the East Coast, particularly in lowland areas near water. It’s a two-tone wood with a thick layer of creamy-colored sapwood surrounding a cherry-toned heartwood. The draw is the pinkish flake that appears in the quarter-sawn cuts where these opposite tones meet.

“A lot of people don’t even think of it for woodworking,” says Ben Barrett of Berkshire Veneer Co. in Great Barrington, Mass. “In solid form it’s not a very stable wood. It’s fine in veneer, but very squirrely out of a dry kiln. But it’s an exquisite wood when cut on the quarter. We just sold a bunch of American sycamore quarters to a gentleman in New Jersey to match existing doors that had been done years ago.”

“Sales have always been slower but steady compared to most of the other domestic hardwoods that I sell,” adds Rick Herbine of Herbine Hardwoods in Leesburg, Va., who has been producing quarter-sawn sycamore for about 25 years. “It is a very pretty figured wood with its ray fleck and ribbon stripe.

“In the past couple months customers have shared pictures of an entire room divider made out of 8/4, drawer fronts for a cabinet, and turned bowls. I have a customer in North Carolina who made a rocking chair out of quarter-sawn sycamore.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue.

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