Tougher than nails, and versatile too
hickory profile

Because he fought tenaciously at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, General Andrew Jackson's soldiers nicknamed him Old Hickory. His Tennesseans knew the wood well enough to make that comparison because it grew abundantly in their state. If something had to be tough and strong, they made it of hickory--from ax, hammer, pick, and shovel handles to wagon spokes, hitch trees, and rims. Worked green, it became chairs.

The Choctaws and other Indians of the lower Mississippi River Valley had long used hickory for bows and baskets, but they also drew on its sap for sweet syrup and sugar and its nuts for cakes and meal. The pioneers who followed Davy Crockett valued hickory as firewood, too. (It produces 24 million Btus per cord, abut the same output as 200 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil.) They also smoked ham and bacon with hickory.

North America claims 16 species of hickory, of which the most abundant and commercially important is the shagbark (Carya ovata). Other species native to the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada include the shellbark, bitternut, mockernut, pignut, water, swamp, and pecan. The hardwood lumber industry, though, doesn't distinguish between them.

Although hickory grows best in bottomland soils, you'll find it on loamy hillsides as well as rocky slopes. In the forest, hickory will grow to 140' tall and a diameter of 30", frequently with no branches for 50-60'.

Shagbark and shellbark hickory have long, loose plates of gray bark that appear to be peeling off the trunk. The bark of other hickories varies from furrowed to ridged, but always has a gray color. Hickories generally have from five to seven oblong, pointed leaflets per leaf stem, including a grouping of three at the tip. The fruit develops during the summer into woody four-lobed husks up to 2" long that contain the nut.

Generally straight-grained and coarse-textured, air-dried hickory weighs about 50 pounds per cubic foot. Hickory heartwood varies from tan to brownish-red. The sapwood is nearly white. Although some woods equal hickory in a single property, such as hardness or stiffness, not one commercially available wood can match it in the combination of hardness, bending strength, stiffness, and shock resistance.

Traditionally, hickory has been used for objects that require strength and must take abuse--tool and implement handles, ladder rungs, and wagon wheels. In sports, hickory became hockey sticks, tennis rackets, bows, skis, and even fishing rods. Man-made materials have repleaced hickory in many of these products today, but the wood still lends itself to chairs, rockers, stools, and tables--and any project requiring bent wood.

Hickory is plentiful throughout the eastern U.S., and its cost is low—about $1.50 per board foot. You'll find hickory plywood available, too, but if it's specifically pecan, it commands a premium price. Veneer costs 50 cents a square foot. Remember that hardwood retailers may mix pecan boards in with other hickories and sell them all as hickory. Because pecan tends to have a more pinkish tone, it could alter staining and finishing results if mixed with tan-colored hickories in the same project. So for best results, sort if it's possible.

Because hickory's hardness even tops sugar maple, you'll definitely need carbide-tipped blades and cutters for your power tools. With that caution in mind, follow these additional tips:

  • To avoid surface chipping when planing hickory, feed the wood at a slight angle.
  • Feed hickory slowly when ripping, allowing the blade plenty of time to clear itself of sawdust. Crosscutting with a carbide blade poses no problems.
  • Jointing straight-grained stock should be effortless, but occasional wavy-figured wood may chip, so take lighter cuts.
  • In steam-bending hickory, use only the straightest-grained stock, and then make arcs slightly tighter than needed. Pull the arch wider for an exact fit.
  • Use only spurred bits and slower drill-press speeds when drilling hickory, and clear the bit often on thick stock to avoid burnishing.
  • To avoid tearout, take light routing passes with a consistent feed rate.
  • Avoid cross-grain sanding on hickory because it scratches. Where grains meet at right angles, do your cleanup with a cabinet scraper or random-orbit sander.
  • For best results when gluing, use an adhesive with longer open time, such as white glue. Lay down a light coat, briefly join the pieces, and then pull them apart to allow the glue to partially setup before reassembling the pieces.
  • Always drill pilot holes for fasteners in hickory, otherwise the wood may split.
  • Although hickory responds to all stains and finishes equally well, you may want to fill the grain for ultimate smoothness.
  • Although hickory seldom finds its way into carvers' hands because of its extreme hardness, should you wish to tackle some of this tough wood, try these tactics:
  • In addition to a shallow gouge bevel of 15°-20°, grind a bevel of 10° on the backside of the gouge tip, an always helpful trick for difficult hardwoods. Begin with medium cutting burrs if you plan to power carve. The heavy bite of coarse cutters will chip the wood.
  • Like most very hard woods, hickory poses no problems in between-centers turning, such as for chair parts, if you use sharp shearing tools (and resharpen them as they become dull).
  • If you have to sand before applying a finish, avoid scratches by sanding with the lathe shut off, and only with the grain.