European (aka English) Sycamore is tree with a historical pedigree and has long been appreciated by European woodworkers. The wood is known for its creamy white sapwood and the spectacular curly figure it can produce. The choice of the master luthiers: it is the preferred wood for violin and cello backs and sides.
First though, lets clear up some confusion around common names. European Sycamore is not a true sycamore. Sycamores are members of the genus Platanus, but in fact, European Sycamore is a true maple and as such is a member of the Acer genus. There are a few superficial similarities between this maple tree and the sycamores such as palmate leaves and a peeling bark. But, the distinction is important as European Sycamore is a very different wood with a unique appearance and its own characteristic working properties.
European Sycamore is a large tree growing to 115 feet with diameters approaching 4 feet. It is endemic to continental Europe, from France eastward to the areas bordering Asia and south to the mountains of Italy. It was introduced to England around 1500 AD and quickly established itself there. Currently, it is one of the most common trees throughout the United Kingdom.
The sapwood of this tree is large in size and is a very consistent creamy white colour, almost as white as holly. The heartwood is much smaller and is typically a reddish-brown. It is critical to dry European Sycamore properly if you want to maintain the white colour as it is very prone to sap and sticker stain. It must be milled and kiln dried immediately after felling. Air drying is problematic as it will be conducive to fungal growth. It also must be cut in the winter before the sugars flow to prevent sugar stain.
The grain of European Sycamore is straight, and it has a medium to fine texture. The most desirable characteristic of this species is its tendency to produce spectacular curly figure which can range from a deep fiddleback to a broader curl. Quarter cut or quarter sliced material will further enhance the visual appeal of the curl. Given European Sycamore’s large size, you can access figured wood of much greater width than any other maple species. This material commands a high price and there is lots of competition between veneer mills and instrument makers to obtain it.
European Sycamore is easier to work than most maples either by hand or machine. Tools and cutters must be sharp. Figured material can pose problems with tearout. Woodworkers should try slower feed rates or lowered cutting angles. It can also burn when being machined. Lower cutter speeds should help with this problem.
The wood glues well. Keep an eye on clamp pressure to avoid squeeze out of glue and subsequent starved joints. Nails and screws should be predrilled. It can blotch when stain is applied. I recommend a pre-conditioner or a gel stain to minimize this problem. It takes all finishes well, although it will yellow under a clear finish.
Sycamore end grain
European Sycamore is used for furniture, joinery, kitchenware, turned objects, boxes and flooring. Figured material is sliced into veneer or is used in musical instruments. It is not durable, so it is used exclusively for interior applications. Plain European Sycamore is moderately priced for an imported species. Expect to pay a lot more for the figured wood.
It is important to get the nomenclature straight when purchasing English Sycamore. I have witnessed woodworkers that have ordered American Sycamore only to have European Sycamore arrive – to their disappointment. Reputable wood dealers will help you find the right wood and should be able to provide photos to help with proper identification. It is also helpful to remember that Europeans tend to saw flitch cut style. This means that you may only find live edge material available along with its high waste factor.
There are no concerns with European Sycamore in regards to sustainability. Veneer is plentiful and often a wise choice for many projects. If you like working with maple and a need some visual drama for your next project, European Sycamore is a great choice. Of course if you build string instruments, you don’t have to look any further.