American Sycamore. Tonewood Database

Platanus occidentalis| Tonewood Profile | ”American Sycamore”

American Sycamore Tree

Tonewoods Database

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Sycamore is a term used differently in Europe and America. In the UK, Sycamore is actually the European Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), whereas in the US, Sycamore refers to Platanus occidentalis/Platanus racemosa. To confuse the matter further, American Sycamores are referred to as Planes. Hence London Plane is Platanus × hispanica. There is a third sycamore, and it is Ficus sycomorus which is the african/middle eastern species mentioned in the Bible and if my memory serves me correctly, Quran. It’s a fig tree so contains latex and although it’s used in the Caskets of some egyptian mummies, I think it is rather inferior from a tonal stand point.


Quick Facts
Scientific name:Platanus occidentalis
Trade names: Sycamore
Janka: approx 770 lbs force
Uses: Back & sides, drop tops, veneer
RIYL: Maple/ Ash
Bling factor: Figure is uncommon but displays large medullary rays
Availability: Relatively Common
CITES status: Not listed. No restrictions

Natural History

Platanus occidentalis is one of the different species of sycamores (planes) found in the US. It occurs mainly in wetland areas ranges from Northern Maine, Western Nebraska and Texas. Sycamores can reach large sizes up to 40 metres high and 2 metres in diameter.

American Sycamore is recognized by a mottled exfoliating bark. The bark flake off in large masses, leaving the surface a mottled green-white and brown. This is due to the relative lack of elasticity which is unable to accomodate the growth of the trunk.


Status

The America Sycamore is not currently endangered- it has been extensively planted as a shade tree in the past due to it’s ability to survive in an urban environment. However, London Plane is now surplanting it as it is more resistant to fungus infection.


Physical properties

The heartwood usually displays straight, even textured fine grain which is pale reddish brown. When quarterswan, possesses a distinctive fleck figure. It has good workability but may bind on saws and may display high shrinkage with warping tendency.
It has a Janka rating of approximately 770 lbs force and a specific gravity of 0.49. Air drying takes long….and like it’s cousin, is very stable in service once dry.


As a tonewood…

As a tonewood, it is moderately easy to work with and produces a striking guitar.
Rick Davis of Running Dog guitars says:”In density, stiffness and hardness, P. occidentalis is closer to mahogany than to the maples. It can be as soft as cardboard, floppy and generally a terrible wood for anything other than pulp. Some trees seem to produce harder, denser wood and that’s the stuff for guitars. It may be somewhat tighter-grained but grain alone isn’t indicative of the better wood. I can only say that I weigh each board (by hefting it, not quantitatively), knock on it, push a fingernail into the surface — generally get a feeling for the individual piece before purchasing it for guitars.”


“Quartersawing is essential for the sycamore look: the rays and fleck only show up when the wood’s pretty well quartered. Some is reddish in color and, in limited experience, seems to be very dense and stiff. But the light colored wood can be equally stiff, too. Or not. Individual pieces have to be evaluated. It’s pretty easy to work. Sands and scrapes cleanly, bends well, is easy on edge tools. It is porous though so use excess glue and expect to add an extra coat or two of lacquer. I found that resawing it was OK but it’s fibrous and tends to clog the lower guides.”


Subjective tone…

I would classify this wood as somewhere between mahogany and maple- good clean overtones like maple but with that punch and elasticity of mahogany.

Rick Davis again: “Tonally I liken it to good mahogany: it’s more clean, trebly, and melodic than dark and complex. Projection is OK. The softer sycamore does not produce much volume and gets muddy; I avoid it. As with mahogany, I like to use it with Engelmann or European spruce rather than the denser spruces. I don’t think sycamore’s lightness of tone would couple well with, i.e., red spruce’s bassiness or with cedar’s or redwood’s darkness”.


Availability

Fairly good.


Similar woods/ Alternatives

Platanus racemosa and wrightii are also American sycamores which have similar properties to P. occidentalis. London Plane (Platanus x hispanica) and Plantanus orientalis are more common in Europe and worldwide and have their own profile coming up soon. “P. racemosa tends to be denser and stiffer than occidentalis. “


Tonewoods Database

References:

Wikipedia

Fine woodworking: encyclopedia of wood

Rick Davis, Running Dog guitars

Pictures copyright individual holders. Sycamore picture courtesy of RC tonewoods.

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©Terence Tan

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6 comments

  1. jack damico says:

    I never would have thought that this roadside swamp tree would have ever been used for anything other than fence posts and timber framing. I think that as a builder myself, living in central Maryland, people will try most any wood out there that has a reasonable hope for producing sound. It seems to me to be a sign of the times and an out growth of the new green culture. While it is necessary and true that we as builders need to be concerned with the future of tone woods in general and for future generations, I can not help to think that for the last several millennium of instrument makers in the world, There are certain woods that have always been used and done so for obvious reasons. they look good and produce instruments that sound good. As many fads in all walks of life will continue to come and go, so too it will be for musical instruments. It is just that as a builder and a professional furniture designer and custom builder, I never would have thought that sycamore would find its way into high end furniture or guitars.

  2. John Forbus says:

    If we limit ourselves to only the materials “Tradition” perceives to be acceptable as “Tone Wood” then I fear our heads and imaginations would as empty as many of the forests leveled daily. Not mention then I would have nothing I would enjoy doing. I think a good test to determine if a species would make a good tone wood is if it makes a sound when you fell it. If it doesn’t, it’s no good. If it does, the rest is up to you.

  3. Dave Pannell says:

    I am a woodturner, and an amateur luthier in the south eastern US. In my experience with sycamore, I have turned multiple bowls and hollow forms, and you get a feel for the different properties of it after a while. I had noticed after turning a hollow form, once it dried, that the acoustic properties of this wood is fantastic. This wood is beautiful, tough, and i think that it would be a marvelous choice for most stringed instruments. I will be making some hand drum shells in the near future, as i have about 12 trunk sections in my possession, all around 2 1/2′ dia x 5′ long. The poster above that could not believe sycamore has found it’s way into high end furniture or instruments, needs to read his history. This wood is excellent for furniture, and due to it’s figure when quartersawn, or turned, has been used for centuries by high end furniture builders. As a side note, it smells horrible when you work with it green, but is not noticeable when dry. Especially the heartwood, which is dark red/burgandy colored. The sapwood is fairly white, but still produces the distinctive rays.

  4. I am a luthier and I found this page from comments on another site.I have found all the statements quite interesting. I have built several guitars and a hand carved F mandolin with american sycamore. They have been some of the best sounding instruments I have made and I will go on making instruments with it. The quartersawn wood I have used looks like the best lepord wood or closer to snake skin with huge patterning and swirling. The colors have been in different colors of brown and sort of gray to several boards that were whiter than maple. The only problems I have had, have been in trying to bend too small a loop like on the curl of an F mandolin where the quartered grain wants to split out. That and when I carved the back of the mandolin and necks I lost the quartered look as you go off the quarter with a curved surface, as the pattern is in the quartered wood not through the wood like flame maple. Maybe I got lucky with getting the harder variety ans a better tone quality. I have stained some with good success and a variety of colors.

  5. chris zurawski says:

    I own a Washburn that is made completely from sycamore, top, sides, and bottom. And not only is it a stunning guitar to look at. The tone on it is amazing. So for those with doubt for sycamore as a tone wood, my opinion would be that it’s a tone. It can have a nice soft mellow tone, and if played can also have a very nice kick to it. The guitar is a Washburn D17E BR Timber Ridge and I believe it was built in 1992. It’s also an acoustic / electric, and when plugged in, the sound is just fantastic. So I’d have to say if you get the opportunity to pick up a washburn like this one, then I wouldn’t hesitate. And I’d also have to say if given the opportunity to pick up any sycamore piece, then you won’t be let down. Especially if the sides, and back are sycamore as well.

  6. Tom Barclay says:

    Chicago guitarist Jeff Kust (‘A Cuatro Christmas,’ ‘Illumination,’ ‘My Guitar’) has just come into possession of a sycamore/cedar classical guitar made by William Cumpiano. Sides, back and neck are sycamore. Jeff reports it exceeds all his expectations for a cedar-topped instrument. I expect Jeff will do some new recording work with it this coming year.

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