‘Ee be a weed tha be growing thare’. I turned round from the sycamore tree I’d just felled in my woodland copse and saw Harold. Harold ‘s a Devon boy, born and bred, spent most of his working life on the farm adjacent to our land and knows pretty nearly everything about the trees and ecology of the land about here. ‘They be no use for firewood, they be no use for building, they no use for tool handles’ Harold, who is an intensely practical and extremely intelligent man is absolutely right sycamore is not the most useful timber. But sycamore is also very beautiful and has it’s place in furniture making, particularly contemporary furniture making.

The beauty of sycamore is that of the blonde haired girl. Long legged, gold haired, the surface of sycamore has a whiteness when new that yellows and honeys in the first few years of ownership that will always remind me of the colour, the hair of a beautiful blonde haired woman. This is not a bimbo by the way. This is not a dumb blonde. This is a sensual sexy woman with a dangerous side to her character.

The tree we are cutting down is not a big one, like Harold said sycamores around us grow like weeds and this tree is probably less than thirty years old. The timber from the butt and only the butt is used for furniture making as bough wood can have tension and compression stresses. The butt on this sycamore is about 10 feet long. As it was grown in a copse it’s been sheltered from the extremes of weather and grown reasonably straight and true. The girth of this tree is about 18 inches in diameter, a usable not too large not too small tree but still by Harold’s rating a ‘bloody weed’.

Now the fun and games with sycamore usually revolve around cutting at the right time of the year, planking it up real quick and getting it dried as fast as you can. For the beauty of the blonde is just that, being blonde, and the surface of a sycamore can easily be discoloured by a grey stain. This is a stain, a bit like a fungal stain, that actually penetrates the board, often quite deeply. This grey stain sycamore is often sold in the trade as ‘weathered sycamore’. Now if you fancy weathered blondes, then that’s your business, but in this case I ‘d agree with my old friend Harold, I wouldn’t even use it for tool handles.

The correct way to dry sycamore and avoid this weathering involves careful handling at the point where the sycamore is sawn into planks. In our case, mostly 1 inch planks but with a couple of 2 inch boards from the middle. As these boards are coming off the saw, they are carefully being stacked up, not as usual horizontally with stickers between them to let air reach both sides, but in this case we are standing the boards on end, it’s called end racking. The time you do this is relatively short. A good windy day will do the job and dry the surface of the sycamore. You’re not drying the whole board, you’re not drying it’s inside, you’re just getting the moisture off the surface of the board. Once that surface of sycamore is carefully dried it can then be stacked out with good bone dry inch square stickers between the boards to air dry as usual. Better still the whole log can be transported and put in a vacuum kiln. Now I’m not a big fan of kilns, most of my wood is air dried, and then carefully finished off inside our workshops, but a modern vacuum kiln will extract moisture from a log relatively quickly and keep sycamore white. The time to buy sycamore is in the early spring, most logs are felled between Christmas and the end of january and converted and vacuum dried between the end of January and the beginning of March, so if you’ve got a sycamore job go hunting in the spring. When you get it home, you find that like most blondes it responds to being spoken to gently and stroked in exactly the right manner. The grain and figuring on sycamore is not wild or pronounced, it’s subtle and soft. Quite often it can be planed in both directions, but will come to  a shimmering finish with a correctly used cutting tool. Most of our finishes on sycamore now are coming directly from the cutting tool.

Shown here in construction is LInenfold 2, a sideboard made in sycamore with a Caucasian elm top. The vertical sycamore surfaces were formed to emulate the rippled folds of fabric curtains. All of the doors and side carcass components are made from solid sycamore, probably starting off at about 3 inches thick. I then drew the profile on the top and bottom of the doors and Si Smith who was responsible for this part of the job first table sawed within a hair of the line, then cut back to the line with an assortment of weapons including moulding planes, routers, block planes and anything else that we could lay our hands on that would give us a halfway decent surface. The most successful of these in this instance were old fashioned moulding planes which we found we could adopt and fiddle with to give us the shapes we wanted for the job. You can see here in one of the illustrations Si Smith is using as a fence a series of strips of ply or hardboard. As each section is completed a strip of ply is removed and the moulding plane moved that bit nearer to the fence. In that way the strokes of the moulding plane, which is a pretty unjigged tool suitable for the finest workmanship of risk, is made pretty controllable. Moulding planes need very careful sharpening. Usually the irons on these planes were made in the late 19th Century and are of genuine high carbon steel. These kinds of blades put modern cryogenically treated blades to shame, but they do require skilled sharpening and if treated properly can form and hold the keenest of edges. Combine this with a high cutting angle and a careful hand and the silky white shavings should be produced as a matter of course.


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