The hardwood giant of the virgin forest.

Although few woodworkers become acquainted with the wood of the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), that wasn't always so. Back when the United States was still a new nation, and its western frontier was just beyond the Allegheny Mountains, sycamore was the giant of the forest. It wasn't uncommon for pioneers in the Ohio River Valley to come upon huge sycamores. In 1802, one growing on an island in the Ohio River measured 13' in diameter 4' above the ground. Such old, large trees were usually hollow, and thriving despite the malady.

For some purposes, the hollowness made the tree all the more desirable. A frontier farmer would fell the hollow sycamore, then crosscut it to appropriate lengths. By nailing on bottoms of tightly joined board, the industrious plowman had grain-storage containers. Left standing, hollow sycamores also were handy for stabling goats, pigs, and other livestock until a shelter could be built for them. And how many wandering woodsmen might have found refuge in a hollow sycamore?

Although hard, tough, and resistant to splitting, sycamore posed some difficulty in drying. That's why it was used only on a limited basis for shipping trunks, piano and organ cases, washing machine bodies, and pails. It also was the choice for countertops and chopping blocks in butcher shops because it withstands the relentless punishment of cutting edges.

While still the largest hardwood tree of American forests, yesteryear's giants have long fallen. If you do spy an elderly sycamore, bang on it. The trunk may resonate with historic hollowness.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson