Sycamore is one of our favourite English timber species.
We treasure it for it’s delicate, pale lustred colouring and fine grain. The trees are sizeable so board size can be fantastic and it’s relatively easy to source excellent quality logs across the S.E.England.
Sycamore is already a big hit with furniture makers and manufacturers. We’d love to see joiners take up Sycamore as a go to locally sourced, sustainable alternative to North American Maple.
What’s in a name?
Acer pseudoplantanus is Sycamore’s botanical name but it’s also known as Great Maple, European Sycamore, Sycamore Plane, and Sycamore Maple. Confused? Well Sycamore & Maple are both Acers and as trees not so very different, plus Plane (Platanus) has similar qualities and appearance as a tree so it’s understandable they’ve all been mistaken for each other in the past. For us wood people they’re actually 3 quite identifiably different timbers, which of course means more choice for you if you’re a furniture maker or an interior designer or specialist joinery!
Sycamore trees are native to the UK, deciduous and fairly commonly found from well managed, sustainable woodland sources. The trees can grow to enormous dimensions of 50m height and 1.5m diameter or more and so it follows that Sycamore logs are substantial in size too. As a timber its hardwood, pale white wood. The sap and heartwood are the same colour size and visual qualities. It’s grain is broad, strong and vibrant because the annual growth rings of the tree are very marked. The overall colouring is creamy yellow with the marked growth rings a rich reddy-brown. We think SYP is a very handsome looking timber and have found that it’s graphic ‘woodgrain’ look means it’s growing in popularity all the time.
The European Sycamore is known to be the hard and strong but it’s not durable so must not be used for external doors, windows, exterior cladding or garden furniture.
For us the striking characteristics of this timber are it’s pale colouring, lustrous grain pattern, the substantial dimensions and it’s sufarce hardness. An interesting combination of qualities for a creative designer maker or joiner to work with.
It’s a native tree species that’s fairly common as a tree but not so much as a timber although we have been cutting and drying it for the last… oh uh um…. at least 3o years.
Sycamore’s been a staple on our stock but has maintained a niche timber status in the great scheme of things, sought out by artisan furniture makers and turners who know their stuff. Perhaps due to an increased consideration of environmental factors in making and manufacturing we’ve seen popularity rise and demand increase.
Wood sourced closer to home is gaining attention from sustainably minded designers and makers because as it has a fraction of the carbon footprint of an imported Sycamore from Europe or a comparable Acer like Maple from North America.
It could also be a reflection on a revival of interest in wood and wood culture. We’re thrilled if this is the case, not least of all because Sycamore trees and their useful and valuable timber deserve to be treasured.
Working With Sycamore
For projects that require a clean, white colouring or a crisp, strong contrast or an almost stoney hardness then Sycamore deserves consideration.
For use with food, kitchen worktops, chopping boards, turning for platters and serving dishes, plates and bowls or even rolling pins it should be considered over Oak, Chestnut, Cedar of Lebanon (another pale and interesting specimen) or Walnut because it is inert i.e. it doesn’t have an overt perfume and doesn’t taint or leach tannin.
The only snag with this particular Acer is is perishability. Not something most people know but it’s something we understand having handled it for so long.
Basically Sycamore just doesn’t keep when it’s wet so it’s not a species we can air dry. It’s judiciosly felled in deep winter and logs are not left long at roadside. Once logs are milled it’s necessary to kiln this species almost immediately. We leave a few days for a bit of initial moisture loss (we even stand boards vertically so water will run down through the grain) but after a few days it needs to be vacuum kilned to actively extract water, bring down moisture levels and prevent bacteria growth which blackens and stains the wood.
You can tell the wood that hasn’t been dried as it should because it has stick marks (no air drying, no stick marks!) and a murky grey coloration rather than the typical pristine white.
In our understanding the greying and stick marks are stains due to the active bacteria that begin to degrade the cells once the timber has been exposed to the air.
As for workability, this species is a dream. It cuts and planes well with hand or machine tools, it has good bending strength so is good for steaming and it takes stains and finishes well.
So it’s a sensitive little soul with a heart of gold, our Sycamore… and a bit of TLC is all it asks.
The proper Technical Info from TRADA
Wood Type: Hardwood
Mechanical Strength: High strength properties similar to those of Oak
Durability: Not durable (without further processing e.g. thermal modification)
Moisture movement: Medium
Density (Kg/m3 at 12% moisture): 630 but varies by up to 20% +/-
Sycamore trees can grow to enormous dimensions of 30m or more in height and 1.5m or more diameter so it follows that Sycamore logs are substantial in size too. Sadly it’s more often the timber handling equipment that determines the size of available boards. We aim to seek out and facilitate the drying of long and wide boards in homegrown timbers and Sycamore is included in that spec.
If you took the lack of durability of Sycamore as it’s bottom line, that keeps in within the interior realms. flooring, furniture making, kitchen worktops, interior joinery and variations along those themes. With thermal modification it’s possible to change that spec to use it for cladding and exterior furniture making too.
Do you use Sycamore in your work or do you won some Sycamore furniture? We’d love to see it!
Sycamore is pretty much always in stock as boules and waney edge (through and through) boards. We can machine it to order to but the raw wood is pretty raw! So in through & through we cut and keep thicknesses 27, 34, 41, 54, 65, 80 & 100mm thick.
Typical boards widths go from as small as 150mm on a crown board up to 1.0m or more sometimes for a centre board. The majority are 300-400mm and, as you can imagine, the super wide boards sell very quickly*. Lengths can actually be quite short, starting at around 2.0m and going up to 4 to 4.5m in length. Longer is harder to come by, but we’re working on it !
The boards are likely to encompass all the grades although Sycamore is a classic straight fine grain timber. It’s harder to come bu lots of character within Sycamore boards, in fact the prized rippled grain Sycamore might even be more common than a gnarled, burred, knotty board. Them the breaks we guess… horses for courses… that’s what Oak, Elm and Yew are for!
Alternative & Mixer Species
Ok, well here’s where you could have some fun. Sycamore’s so strikingly pale that you could have fun mixing it with any other species for a superb contrast. However if you wanted to stay with ‘pale and interesting’ some white Ash boards would work If you want seriously contrasting strip pick Walnut or even Black Walnut.
If you’re seeking hardness or strength Ash or Walnut are good alternatives but Beech or Oak will give you tough, hard, strong timber sto work with.
If it comes down to it and you really can’t find what you need with a Sycamore spec you might find something in north american sister species Maple.