Sycamore Wood (Acer pseudoplatanus)
It still makes my eyebrows rise when I consider that sycamore is from the same family as, amongst many others, the lychee. The ‘soapberry’ family, scientifically known as the ‘Sapindaceae’, is so named because the members often contain saponin – a soap like substance found in the leaves, seeds, or roots.
From the Bible to Buttonwood
The name ‘Sycamore’ comes from the Greek for “fig-mulberry”. This is the sycamore that was referenced in the Bible and is actually a species of fig native to the Middle East and Africa. Fig-mulberry is different to the sycamore used in furniture but the name crossed over. We prefer to call the furniture wood by one of it’s nicknames: ‘buttonwood’ or the ‘buttonball tree’ which it gets thanks to the golf ball looking 1” orbs that hang from the branches throughout the winter covered in fuzzy spikes.
Camo Bark and Inside Out Fungus Shelter the Troops
The bark is very distinctive due to its patchy cream, light green, and brown pattern making it look like camo. The species is thought to have been in existence for over 100 million years and a sycamore tree can tower up to 40 meters high during its potential 600 year lifespan. Growing so big, the tree has another curiosity that made it the perfect shelter for George Washington’s troops during the Battle of Brandywine – as the tree ages, a fungus attacks and eats the heartwood but doesn’t kill the tree. This renders the tree hollow, allowing wildlife to use the trunk as storage chambers for nuts, shelter, and nesting – and troops! As a result, sycamore (and notably maple from the same family) are unlike almost all other hardwoods around as, for furniture making, we use the sap wood instead of the heartwood. Sap wood is the outer wood which is the more recently grown part of the tree whereas heartwood is the inner (older) part of the tree.
Uber Fertility Dominates the Wood
Sycamore was introduced to the UK in the middle ages and is now a naturalised species. Other members of the family are maples, horse chestnuts, mangos and cashews; frankincense and myrrh; mahogany and neem. They have extremely fertile seeds that can travel far, which explains it’s rise to become the prominent species from the maple family in the UK. Sycamore is hardy, germinates easily and, as such, it can now be found growing from the southeastern base of the UK up to the northern tip of Scotland.
Victorian Growth Shades The City
In the 17th century sycamore was hybridised with oriental plane to create the new London Plane tree – which has become one of the most popular city trees in the temperate world largely as a result of Victorians recognising it’s tolerance to pollution and extensively planting it in cities.
Chaucer to Jay-Z
There are so many cultural references to sycamore it’s hard to choose from them. Chaucer mentions the tree in his poem The House of Fame, Shakespeare several times in Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labours Lost, and Othello. Due to the significance in American history, the sycamore is featured a lot in contemporary culture to represent strength and stability, for example as mentioned earlier in Jay-Z’s December 4th:
“I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves
Who made love under the sycamore tree
Which makes me a more sicker MC”
(Jay-Z, December 4th)
Upon a stage of sycamore
Perform a stranger thing to tell;
I saw him place a whole windmill
Underneath a walnut shell.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, The House of Fame)
So Tough it Blunts Steel
When it’s dried and is being milled, sycamore can be quite unpredictable and difficult to work with. You might cut it open to rip the lumber into thinner widths, and it springs out on you with a significant ‘pop’. This is the unleashing of tension from inside the wood and can be problematic for furniture makers. It is dense with a very tight grain and so it takes finish well which can buff to a high sheen. It’s a hard, strong wood and excellent for furniture making if used correctly and designed with appropriately. It can be pretty tough on tools in the workshop though – causing even the sharpest steel blades to blunt quickly and even overheat and burn.
Depending on the way the log is cut, the wood will often show a silky, rippled figure which gives a spectacular deep chatoyance to furniture. However, the lumber can also be plagued by spots and dark patches which a woodworker has to think about when setting out cuts and planning components. But, when it’s properly selected and worked intelligently, the beautiful creamy white colour and strength combination is well worth the challenge and results in some of the most beautiful wooden furniture imaginable.
Concrete Slab – WeybridgeSolid black walnut tapered legs and a central beam construct an immensely strong base on this table. The walnut slats provide a contemporary design aesthetic to support the top which consists of three concrete slabs hand poured, hand polished, and hand worked engendering a deep colouring within the concrete which continues the Lowry London ethos of treating contemporary materials with the same application of craft skills as those of their traditional counterparts. Click for more information
Made with Leather Exhibition at Playground Gallery
The Lasdun Hallway Bench on show at the Made With Leather Exhibition, Playground Gallery, London