Platanus occidentalis| Tonewood Profile | ”American Sycamore”
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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.
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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
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.
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.
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.”
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”.
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. “
Fine woodworking: encyclopedia of wood
Rick Davis, Running Dog guitars
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