In the book “The Natural,” by Bernard Malamud, the main character fashions a baseball bat from a hickory tree split in two by lightning – and goes on to make baseball history. Fiction yes, but hickory does provide the right combination of properties – strength, hardness, very high shock resistance and relatively light weight – that make it a perfect choice for sporting goods like baseball bats, golf club shafts, skis, longbow backs, heavy sea fishing rods and lacrosse sticks. As Albert Constantine Jr. explains in his book Know Your Woods, there are stronger woods than hickory and tougher woods than hickory, but it is the combination of properties that makes hickory stand out from other commercial timbers in the United States.
Hickory: strong and firm
The word “hickory” has come to stand for strength in our culture. Early pioneers made hickory part of a stern parent’s “arsenal,” using hickory switches or sticks to bestow punishment. By the 1800s, hickory came to mean unyielding firmness. Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was called “Old Hickory,” a nickname he earned for being tough in disputes. Jackson vetoed more bills in Congress than all of his six predecessors combined.
Hickory also became synonymous with the baseball bat in the early 1900s. Hickory was used to manufacture walking sticks and was an ideal wood for making wagon wheels. The slang term “hickory cloth” or “hickory shirt” was used to refer to strong cotton material.
The true hickories
Hickory belongs to the genus Carya, sometimes referred to as Hicoria, and the walnut or Juglandaceae family. Pecan hickory trees are also members of the Carya genus, but this column will deal with the woods referred to as true hickories.
Of the 18 or so species of hickory, four are important for their wood. Shagbark or Carya ovata, is found mostly in the eastern half of the United States. Also commercially important is shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) which looks a lot like shagbark, mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), and pignut hickory (Carya glabra).
The true hickories grow in ranges from eastern Canada through much of the eastern United States all the way into southwestern Mexico. The biggest use for hickory is in tool handles. Common uses include the handles of striking tools -hammers, picks and axes – and wheel spokes, chairs and ladders rungs. It is used for furniture, drumsticks, picking sticks for textiles, tennis rackets, skis and vehicle parts, especially heavy-duty farm equipment.
It is also a fine wood for sculpture and carving and is rotary cut for plywood faces and sliced for decorative veneers for uses including paneling. Lower quality hickory is used to make pallets.
Hickory is also used extensively to smoke and cure meat. And while the pecan hickories are the most famous for their nuts, shagbark hickory also yields edible nuts.
Hickory wood resembles ash but has a reddish-brown heartwood. When appearance is important, the so-called white hickory, referring to the white sapwood, is often preferred to the heartwood sometimes called red hickory. Hickory, ash and oak are ring porous woods, meaning that the pores of the spring wood form a well-defined ring. It is believed that the toughest timber comes from wide-ringed trees. True hickories usually have a straight grain but it is sometimes wavy or irregular.
Second-growth exceeds virgin stand
Unlike many other woods, true hickories’ second-growth trees appear to exceed the virgin stands in many properties. One expert contends that second-growth trees which grow in the same area as the first growth stands, can be heavier and stronger than the old-growth hickories. However, true hickories grow very slowly and it is not unusual for a tree to take 200 years to mature.
In the book Encyclopedia of Trees, Hugh Johnson writes about the unique hickories. “It is not hard to characterize the hickories as a race. They are like taller and more graceful walnuts; more finely textured; in brighter colors….Their wood is the finest of all for the traditional offices of ash – for tool handles and firewood.”
Johnson says the most readily identifiable of all hickories is the shagbark hickory. “If ever there was a case where the botanist who christened the tree in Latin should have seen it first, it is this. But he was Philip Miller, 3,500 miles away at the Chelsea Physic Garden and all he had was a few leaves and a few oval nuts. Had he seen the amazing trunk of the tree he would have ransacked mythology for some old witch in moth-eaten rags to express its appalling look of wear and tear. It is when the shagbark comes to fruiting age at 30 to 40 years that its trim trunk starts to tatter. It may well be an evolutionary adaptation which has proved successful in keeping squirrel away from the nuts.”
Shagbark’s nuts are white and always quartered. The shagbark nut is the sweetest of the true hickories. Mockernut gets its name because the nuts of its tree are often empty. Bitternut is also a hickory, so named because its nuts are inedible.
Carya ovata, Carya glabra, Carya tomentosa, and Carya laciniosa of the Family Juglandaceae
Shagbark hickory, white hickory, red hickory, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, shellbark hickory
Height ranges from 60 to 120 feet with straight cylindrical boles and diameters of two to three feet. Weight ranges from 45 to 56 pounds per cubic foot with an average weight of 51 pounds.
Wood is heavy and strong, but shrinks during drying. It is dense, with high toughness, bending, stiffness and crushing strengths and exception shock resistance. It can be difficult to machine and has a moderate blunting effect on tools. Experts recommend a 20-degree cutting angle when irregular grained-wood is used. Stains and finishes very well.