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.
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