Sycamore vs. Maple
Forestry is a challenging and exacting science, and most who are in the business
of managing woodlots, harvesting trees, and selling lumber have a pretty good
idea of the nature, region, value, and structural merits of the materials they are
For the untrained botanist, it's very easy to spot the difference between
deciduous and evergreen trees. While most people can pick out the maples from
the oaks (during the summer with leaves intact), determining the specific species
within families of trees gets a bit more difficult. And, once the leaves and bark
have been removed, it takes a reasonably well-trained eye to separate poplar
from cherry or black spruce from yellow spruce.
Trees are classified into various genus (groups) and species (sub-groups) and
are given Latin names to more precisely define their scientific classification.
For example, Picea
is the genus of spruce, and sitchensis
is species of Sitka
spruce. Red spruce is Picea rubens
. (By the way, there is no tree or wood named
"Adirondack Red Spruce" even though we hear so much about it. This wood is
more properly called "red spruce" and was given its "Adirondack" nickname by
the CF Martin Organisation whose Nazareth, PA facilities are at the southern
end of the Adirondack Mountain range, and who at one time, got much of its
soundboard wood from that area.)
Of the four common members of the maple (Acer
) genus used for luthierie, three
of them are not often confused, but the fourth one is. The common maples we
use are sugar maple (Acer saccharum
), red maple (Acer rubrum
), and big leaf
maple (Acer macrophyllum
). Then, there is the odd ball, (Acer pseudoplantanus
more commonly known as Sycamore. "Pseudoplantanus" actually means false plant which leads to why this wood is often mistaken for maple. (Acer pseudoplantanus
is the common sycamore in Europe. Plantanus
is the common sycamore in North America.)
Sycamore weighs 44 pounds per cubic foot compared to 47 pounds for sugar
maple. And, while it is very common to find curly figure in sycamore, the striping
is typically very consistent and regular, with close parallel curls. These close
parallel curls are what most luthiers refer to as "fiddle maple" with the wider,
more irregular stripes being referred to as "tiger maple" or "flamed maple."
So, sycamore is a member of the maple (Acer
) genus and is often sold as maple
but its hardness, stiffness, and weight are quite different from red or sugar maple.
(From a weight standpoint, sycamore is more similar to big leaf maple.)
When we were building the prototype F5L mandolins at Gibson in 1978, we were
using sycamore, and most of the F5L's produced by Gibson up to about 1983
had sycamore backboards. Here's a picture of the backboard on one of the first
three F5L prototypes (left) compared to an original Loar-signed F5 (center).
Notice the very straight and parallel figure lines on the sycamore backboard
compared to the more tiger-stripe appearance of those on the original F5s.
The mandolin on the right is one of ours from 2012 and features a backboard
made from big leaf maple. Big leaf maple has unusual curly figure, and if you
carefully study the figure of the original F5 mandolin (center) to the big leaf maple
we used (right), you see huge similarities in the irregularity of the figure. Many
luthiers suggest that Gibson used sugar ("hard") maple on the original F5s, but
if you study both the grain and figure carefully, and if you take into consideration
the abundance of highly figured big leaf maple that is and was available in
Michigan - surrounding Gibson's Kalamazoo plant - you'll quickly come to the
conclusion that these Loar-signed mandolins featured big leaf maple backboards
(which contributed greatly to the instrument's dark and woody tone). Big leaf
maple is ideal for mandolin backboards because it weighs quite a bit less and
is more supple than red or sugar maple, and these attributes lend themselves
greatly towards improved mid-range and bass response of the instrument.
Using sycamore isn't a bad thing. Since sycamore is in the weight class of big
leaf maple, it produces similar results. However, I much prefer big leaf maple
because of the wonderful irregular appearance of its curly figure. I don't like using sycamore for necks though, because it doesn't have the rigidity of red or sugar
Some wood dealers are providing sycamore today in place of maple. Technically, they are selling an Acer
, but while the figure may be very pronounced, it is not the same wood that was used in the early Loar-signed F5s.
To make a long story short, if you get some maple with tight straight figure and if feels a bit on the light side, it's most probably sycamore, not maple (even though it's a member of the same genus).