About the Background of the Wood Hickory


The U.S. Forest Service includes four true hickories in the eight species of wood that are sold commercially as hickory. The true hickories are shellbark (Carya laciniosa), pignut (Carya glabra), shagbark (Carya tomentosa) and mockemut (Carya tomentosa). The related pecan hickory (Carya illinoinens) is larger and grows faster than true hickories; the bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) is the most widespread and abundant of the related species.


Shellbark hickory grows from western New York to Iowa and Kansas and as far south as Arkansas and Tennessee. Pignut hickory is found in all states east of the Mississippi. Shagbark hickory, found in all states east of the Mississippi, has the greatest range of the true hickories. The slow-growing mockemut hickory grows from New Hampshire to Iowa and south to Florida and Texas. The pecan hickory grows from the Atlantic coast to the Great Plains and from the St. Lawrence River and northern states to the Gulf Coast. Kentucky, West Virginia and Louisiana account for 30 percent of the combined harvest of true hickory and pecan hickory. Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia account for 45 percent.


A 2 to 4-inch-deep layer of white sapwood surrounds the the reddish brown to pale brown heartwood. The wood has a coarse texture with a straight grain that is not uniform. The wood is dense and often shrinks and warps during drying; it is also difficult to glue and machine. Hickory wood is both strong and hard. Its combined hardness, stiffness, strength and toughness is unequaled among native American hardwoods. The U.S. Forest Services says it is 30 percent stronger and 100 percent more shock resistant than white oak. True hickories have a density rate of 50 to 78 pounds for each cubic food; the density rate of pecan hickories is 46 pounds per cubic foot. Hickory trees grow more rapidly in the southern states than in the north so their growth rings are wider. Pieces of wood sold as "calico hickory" contain both heartwood and sapwood.

Commercial Uses

Hickory is used mainly for making handles of hammers and other tools. It is also used to make lacrosse sticks, dowels, ladder rungs, hardwood flooring, furniture, kitchen cabinets, plywood, skis and walking sticks.

Smoking and Barbecue

The smoke of hickory wood gives food a distinctive flavor prized for smoking and barbecuing. Hickory burns evenly and gives lasting heat, qualities that make it useful for fuel. Professor Dan Cassens of Purdue University reports that one cord of air-dried hickory firewood produces almost the same amount of heat as a ton of coal.

Woodworking Characteristics

Cabinet makers used slender nails with blunt to prevent hickory from splitting. Sanding tends to raise a kind of fuzz on the wood, so quality sandpaper has to be used, working down from larger to smaller grits.

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About this Author

Richard Hoyt, the author of 26 mysteries, thrillers and other novels, is a former reporter for Honolulu dailies and writer for "Newsweek" magazine. He taught nonfiction writing and journalism at the university level for 10 years. He holds a Ph.D. in American studies.