Is Someone Sick of Sycamore?

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American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) has long been one of my favorite woods. I first started using it about 2001 when Frank Miller Lumber started offering it for sale at ridiculously low prices (less than $2 a board foot).

At the time I was building an addition on our house and saved hundreds of dollars by using sycamore instead of hard maple.

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It’s a wood that commands respect. Your tools have to be sharp and well set or you’ll just end up with a mess of tear-out. You have to insist on quartersawn stock – flatsawn sycamore moves quite a lot and looks like cheap Asian plywood. Quartersawn sycamore is beautiful – I call it “redneck lacewood.” Sycamore’s grain is interlocked, so it is one of my favorite woods for chairmaking, especially seats and armbows.

But recently it’s become hard to find in my area. Frank Miller doesn’t cut, dry or carry it anymore. Our local lumberyard never has it. Forget the retail outlets such as Rockler and Woodcraft. They just sounded confused when I called to inquire.

After striking out at my usual haunts, Megan Fitzpatrick and I hit the road last week to visit some rural sawmills and lumberyards. Between us, we called or visited more than a dozen places and came up empty-handed until I called C.R. Muterspaw lumber, which is an hour north of me.

They had four or five boards of it. I hopped in my truck and raced toward Xenia, Ohio.

It took about an hour of digging through the stacks at Muterspaw (they were very good sports), but I found four spectacular boards of the stuff for about $5 a board foot. And I’m using them to make a Welsh stick chair.

It all left me wondering: Why has sycamore disappeared from the local market? It’s not a rare tree. Platanus occidentalis is a junk tree around here and grows to a sometimes enormous size in low, wet areas.

I’m going to ask around. If anyone knows of a good source, speak up.

— Christopher Schwarz

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34 Responses to Is Someone Sick of Sycamore?

  1. Lignarium says:

    Hi Chris, here in New Zealand grows everywhere like a weed. Department of Conservation is tryng to get rid of it because is not a native tree. Beautiful wood to work with and you can get it nearly for free. Not a good source of timber for you I guess considering the distance between countries.

  2. greenebelly says:

    Hearne Hardware online

  3. I can’t speak to your area, but here in NH if I’m looking for something a bit less mainstream I check out the Wood Mizer sawyers list and start calling or emailing. It’s not a bad idea to have a couple of these guys who know you might be interested in a particular type of wood.

  4. Did you try the sawmill out in Connersville, IN? They claim to have quarter-sawn sycamore for $1.50 bd ft in stock. $1.00 bd ft flat sawn. Look on Craigslist.

  5. Try Roger Bonesteel in Sellersburg IN. He several hundred board feet at one point. He milled his floors out of it.

  6. jefski says:

    Hollingsworth Lumber in Russiaville, IN has 4/4 sycamore listed on their website. http://www.hollingsworthlumber.com/ They’re probably an hour farther from you than Connersville.

  7. tlhpkh says:

    Have you tried Bagdad Lumber in Bagdad, Kentucky? They show Quarter sawn sycamore 4/4 and 8/4 in inventory on their website, bagdadlumber.com.

  8. jbrocon says:

    I love sycamore. It turns beautifully on the lathe. A sawyer gave me a couple of spalted billets he had laying around to play with. I wound up using them for columns on a cherry bath vanity I was building for someone. Once turned, the spalting looked like marble veining…very cool! I really tried to sell the homeowners on leaving them unstained as nice contrast to the cherry, but the Mrs. was having nothing to do with that. I wound up staining them to match the cherry and the veining all but disappeared:( .
    Sycamore is also very good for drawer runners; the more it wears, the slicker it gets.

  9. gilgaron says:

    I know smaller sawyers like Kreis Sawmill will keep an eye out for stuff they know customers want, like Osage or so on. I got some sycamore at Woodwerks but I see it isn’t on their price list. A light googling makes it look like Yoder Lumber has 9k bdft of common and better. I have never been there. I do think muterspaw was running a sale on sycamore: unnoticed because my wife particularly likes it, when quartersawn.

  10. I second the mention of Hollingsworth. I think I bought some there a few years ago to make a wood smoothing plane with Scott Meek. All I could find was 4/4 quartersawn, but I had no trouble getting all I wanted of it.

    I made that hand plane about 4 years or so ago. I have not trued it up one time. Still as square and straight as the day I finished it.

  11. Jeff Hanna says:

    I have a small amount (not quartersawn) in my warehouse. I also have access to some large slabs. I could quartersaw a log if you are really interested in getting a decent size quantity. Out of respect for LAP, I won’t plug my business here. Get in touch if you’re interested.

  12. I’m excited to hear that you like this stuff, I thought I was the only one. My insight on why it’s hard to come by commercially: For one it’s incredibly hard to dry with an acceptable degree of degrade. It moves and twists like crazy in a kiln. Strictly quartersawn cuts dry much better and they look a lot better as you say but quartersawing requires both decent girth and straight shape. Sycamores tend to lean heavily which produces excess stress in the wood making it hard to saw (and dry) and much above 22″ in diameter they often start to rot from the pith outwards. 95% of the sycamores I’ve tried to harvest for lumber larger than 20″ dia were rotten inside. It’s just a characteristic of the species. All that said, I have two big logs worth of pretty pristine slabs of the stuff, 10-12′ long and 20-38″ wide, 10/4 – 12/4 thick. It’s been air drying almost 4 years under a good deal of weight. I’ll send pics of the slabs if you’re interested.

  13. waltamb says:

    It is plain simple economics.
    Landowners gt nothing for it on the stump.
    Loggers get very little for logs to the mills. It is basically pallet wood to them.
    Only large straight logs will yield nice QS material and onlt then when it is truely QS and not the QS / Rift combo.
    So the mills make very little on it and then there is the drying …
    It is a bugger to get to dry flat and defect free even QS.
    Lastly, there is little to no demand for it.
    I have 20-30 trees on my back lot some monsters, but to pay a logger just to go get them and brin a mill in here to saw them would all add up to probably $1 / bd ft, then another $1.50 / bd ft to get them vacuum dried to avoid staining.
    If the stars align and I can get a logger, sawyer and a kiln all ready at the same time I will one day harvest some or all.
    So, if money can be made… someone will do it. If not, it all goes into pallet lumber and RR ties.

  14. Joe Eberle says:

    Kettle Moraine Hardwoods in Hartford, WI has quartersawn sycamore for $6.00/BF
    262-644-7814

    Great people

  15. yrmh1 says:

    I frequently see sycamore slabs up for bid on a locale on-line auction site that sells everything (used). There are a few guys in the area who are salvaging trees, sawing them up with their own mill and then selling the slabs on-line. Most of the stuff here in W. Mich is maple, oak, cherry & walnut, but sycamore and osage orange make frequent enough appearances. Unfortunately they’re not rift/quarter sawing it – just straight across the trunk, so there’s only a couple of slabs that look quarter sawn.

  16. Mark Fox says:

    Yoder Lumber which has a yard located in Millersburg, OH offers 4/4 quartersawn Sycamore and according to an email inquiry this morning they have over 3,000′ in stock at the moment. They stated that they do not carry anything thicker than 4/4, but their price on 4/4 quartersawn sycamore is only $1.37/bf!

  17. jayedcoins says:

    I mentioned this in the other post, but I’ve got a fresh section of the upper trunk of a sycamore that was recently (and in my view, sadly) taken down just on the neighbor’s side of our property line to make way for the McMansion they are building.

    In the spring, I’ll see if I can do anything with it. There’s nothing I’m capable of on my own, and paying to have it milled is probably not economical for me, what with my day job being writing software and not making furniture. 🙂

    So Chris, if you find yourself having any occasion to be within driving distance of the Ann Arbor/Detroit suburban area next spring/summer, let me know. Most likely I’d have a sycamore log with your name on it. I’d trade it for a chat about good music and good beer, and hey maybe a few LAP stickers. 🙂

  18. Scott Taylor says:

    http://theworkbench.com/hardwood.php
    And they often have 8/4. Great place to buy hardwoods..

  19. tsstahl says:

    “You have to insist on quartersawn stock – flatsawn sycamore moves quite a lot and looks like cheap Asian plywood”

    That explains why my one foray into sycamore proved so fruitless. It was all flatsawn and behaved like wet egg noodles in slow motion. I looked for it because it showed up a lot in The Practical Woodworker. It _was_ cheap, though.

  20. Chris,

    You might check with Joe at http://woodslabking.com/. Email: joe@woodslabking.com

    He is outside of Evansville, IN, which is… well, not a terrible distance from you. Worth it, if you pick up a large quantity of wood. Prices are excellent. They were 1/3 the price of slabs in the STL area, hence my resultant 3 hour drive to pick up wood.

    He has lots of slabs and lumber that are unlisted on his site. I know he has sycamore because he gave me some the first time I bought a slab from him. Not sure if he has thicker slabs of it, but absolutely worth looking into. Shoot him an e-mail and see.

    If he doesn’t have it, maybe he can slab some FOR you at his reasonable prices, especially if it ends up being consistent business.

    Cheers,

    Ethan

  21. Bob Brown says:

    Hi Christopher,
    My go-to guy is Gary Chanin of W.G. Chanin Hardwoods, Edmonton AB Canada.
    (780) 447-4888. He has some Sycamore, if it’s not what you want Gary has good sources.
    I know that he direct ships to the US.
    Cheers, Bob

  22. charlie says:

    Find the guys with portable bandmills, they cut all sorts of wierd stuff youll never find at the regular yards. In my opinion, stick furniture should be built from less common woods like elm, pecan, sycamore, yew, etc, it adds to bespoken appeal of the piece.

  23. Muterspaw is about 2 0 minutes from home and that my go to lumber store. Chad and his family are great They will work with you to ensure you get what meets your needs. I needed just a shot piece of 12/4 stock and he was glad to crank up the fork lift and did a board out of a a 5 foot tall stack and cut what I needed. If you live anywhere SW Ohio he is definitely worth the drive

  24. richardmertens says:

    John Brown like to use elm for his Welsh stick chairs, perhaps because of the interlocking grain, and ash for the arm bows. He also says in his historical account of the chair that a chairmaker might use an “off-cut” of ash or oak for the seat. Brown also liked to use a single piece for the seat instead of gluing it up. I suppose elm is hard to come by these days. So I’m wondering why sycamore. Is it the looks or the interlocking grain? Would it be better to find something available in a single piece, such as ash or oak, for the seat? Of course Sam Maloof glued up his seat blanks (out of walnut), so there’s no shame in that.

  25. I’m guessing no one was buying it? It’s not well known and while plentiful in scrub forests has a pretty small growing area. Especially when compared to maple and walnut.

  26. muterspawlumber says:

    Just keep coming back and we can fix you up, Chris. We will be cutting some more shortly and we will have plenty in stock soon. Thanks for visiting us!!

  27. Chris,
    If you’re still looking, I have some 8/4 quartersawn Sycamore (approximately 80 BF, 12 boards with 8 of them being bookmatched pairs) Also four 4×4’s sawn on the diagonal for leg stock. All the above from the same log. Located in South Georgia.
    JD Johnson

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