Working with Hickory

Hard, dense, and splintery, Hickory does not take finish well either. You might want to consider Butternut as an alternative. November 15, 2011

I have two kitchens coming up that are hickory. I have never worked with this wood before. Pretty much everything I have done is oak, alder, or cherry. I've heard it is hard. What should I expect? Any tips for a quality final product?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor G:
Hickory is incredibly hard. Much harder than oak. It will wear the carbide on your blades and bits, so check your equipment after two dozen cuts or so. This stuff splits easily along the grain. I got jabbed really good once while ripping a piece of it. The splinter went in about 3/4" and left a 4" chunk dangling from my hand. I've only done clear coats on it, so I don't really know how it stains.

From contributor R:
Hickory is the one wood I outsource doors on. It's beautiful but a pain to work with. Every time a hickory job comes around I get to try out new cuss words. It does stain nicely, but don't expect it to take a lot of pigment because it's so hard/dense.

From contributor C:
Very hard to work with and the final product is rather gaudy. Most people have seen it at Home Depot or somewhere. It is rather tasteless. The open grain and hardness make it difficult to get a finish that will not fail over time when exposed to moisture. The ply is alternating white and brown stripes in most cases. The only hope for a nice appearance is to stain it. It makes very good railroad ties. I am usually able to talk them into rustic cherry, since it is the character they are after.

From the original questioner:
They don't want to see the variation with the whites and brown heartwood and they don't want them rustic. So it will end up being made from brown hickory (all heartwood). The cabinets will be stained a light color, the crown a dark color to match the dark island (not a fan of 2 tone myself). The floor is a medium to dark oak so they want lighter colored cabinets and they saw some hickory cabinets that they liked. I tried talking them out of it but that didn't work.

From contributor G:
Take a look at butternut. It has that same warm brown tone with similar grain pattern with a hardness and texture like walnut. I think hickory, walnut, and butternut are all in the same family of trees.

From contributor O:
Butternut is wonderful but much softer than hickory or walnut.

From contributor M:
For what it's worth, butternut is sometimes called "white walnut" and is closely related to black walnut, but is indeed much softer. On the other hand, also beautiful, in my eyes. Sapwood is creamy colored, just like un-steamed black walnut.

There are many species of hickory, including pecan, and they are often sold interchangeably, but probably most is shagbark hickory, which is the hardest, strongest, and heaviest North American wood normally commercially available.