How Sustainable Is Hickory Wood? Here Are the Facts

How Sustainable Is Hickory Wood? Here Are the Facts

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Quynh Nguyen

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Hickory is among the hardest and strongest woods native to the US. As hickory trees grow in abundance throughout the US forests, this long-lasting material is readily available. However, as the hickory trees support a lot of mammals, birds, and insects, cutting down the trees hurts wildlife. So we had to ask: How sustainable is it to buy products made out of hickory wood?

Hickory wood is sustainable thanks to the trees’ carbon sequestration. Using locally-grown hickory products has lower transporting carbon emissions compared to imported woods. Also, hickory’s large growing stock means that it is possible to harvest the timber without harming the forests.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of hickory wood used for furniture, flooring, and household items. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potentials, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable hickory wood. 

Here’s How Sustainable Hickory Wood Is

Hickory wood is a sustainable material because of the hickory trees’ carbon sequestration potential and the carbon offset value at the end of any products made with hickory wood. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of hickory wood, we assess the life-cycle of hickory furniture or flooring. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of each stage in a product’s life cycle, from the making to the recycling. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life cycle of furniture and flooring made with hickory wood. However, you will also find some cradle-to-gate data where relevant. 

The life-cycle stages of hickory woodEach stage’s sustainability
Growing of hickory woodGrowing hickory trees is sustainable thanks to these tree species’ large growing stock, their other usages, and, most importantly, the potential for carbon sequestration. 
Manufacturing of hickory woodTurning hickory wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint. Kiln-drying – the most carbon-intensive step in manufacturing – results in 42.7 kg CO2-eq for 1m3 of hickory lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick. Wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 
Transporting of hickory woodTransporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of hickory wood furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores. As hickory trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of hickory wood furniture or flooring would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods.
Usage of hickory woodUsing hickory furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 
End-of-life of hickory woodThe end-of-life stage for hickory furniture is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

Overall, we can say that hickory wood is sustainable. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a table or a high-traffic floor, depends on many factors, especially the distance and mode of transportation. Let’s dive deeper into each stage and find out how it can be more sustainable. 

How Sustainable Is the Growing Hickory Wood

Growing hickory trees is sustainable thanks to these tree species’ large growing stock, their other usages, and, most importantly, the potential for carbon sequestration. 

What Type of Wood is Hickory and What Does This Mean for Sustainability

The term “hickory” refers to a group of Carya tree species. This genus has about 18 nut-producing hardwood tree species, sharing the same plant family with walnut.  

The hickory tree group is divided into two main groupings: true-hickory and pecan-hickory. The former tend to give denser, harder and stronger wood than the latter. 

True hickory species include: 

Pecan hickory species include: 

Growth varies from slow to medium among all hickory tree species. In general, harder and heavier woods tend to come from faster-growing trees with wider-spaced growth rings (true-hickory species). On the other hand, less hard and heavy woods are likely to be of slower-growing trees (pecan-hickory species). 

Here is an example with growth speed of bitternut hickory (pecan-hickory) – the most abundant and uniformly distributed of all the hickories: 

After 10 years, bitternut hickory trees reach a height of around 10 feet and a diameter at breast height of 2 inches. After 60 years, these trees can reach 69 feet in height and 11.4 inches in diameter. 

In Appalachian hardwood stands, bitternut hickory trees grow slower than northern red oak, yellow poplar (or tulipwood),  black cherry, and sugar maple but at about the same speed as white oak, sweet birch, and American beech

How Sustainable Does Hickory Wood Grow

Hickory’s sustainability lies in the potential for carbon sequestration potential, high availability, and the harvest of edible nuts in some hickory species. 

  • Carbon sequestration: As hickory trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while releasing oxygen. They act as a carbon sink during their long lifespan. For example, the lifespan of bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) averages 200 years. In comparison, a mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) tree can live up to 500 years. 

Being a carbon sink means that these trees take greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere, helping to mitigate the climate crisis

And they can store fair amounts of carbon because they can grow big and tall. For example, pecan trees – Carya illinoinensis –  can reach 130 feet in height and 4 feet in trunk diameter.

  • Availability: The US hickory growing stock is 742.3  million cubic meters – about 4.7% of total US hardwood growing stock. Hickory’s population is not as large as that of some other American hardwoods like white oak, red oak, or tulipwood, but more than birch, beech, or cottonwood, for example.

It takes 4.33 seconds for US forests to grow 1m³ of American hickory. In comparison, growing 1m³ of tulipwood takes much less time (1.82 seconds). However, timber like beech or walnut requires a longer time to replace: it takes more than 13 seconds for the US forests to grow 1m³ of either hardwood.

The US forests add about 8.6 million cubic meters of hickory every year after harvesting. The surplus means it is relatively sustainable to cut hickory trees for timber.

  • Other usage: Some hickory species have edible nuts enjoyed by both animals and humans. Pecan nut from the Carya illinoinensis species has very high commercial value. Other hickory species like shagbark hickory (Carya ovata, shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa), and mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) also provide edible nuts. 

Where Is Hickory Wood Usually Grown

Of 18 hickory tree species, 15 are native to North America and 3 to Eastern Asia. In the US, these tree species grow throughout the eastern part, northbound to Canada and southbound to Mexico. 

Harvesting hickory wood from natural forests, especially the ancient old-growth forests, can result in biodiversity loss regarding the tree species and wild animals that feed and shelter in those woods. 

One example is when loggers only cut down the biggest and tallest trees. That pattern would cause a reduction in the genetic diversity and quality of the trees within the stand, leading to gradual degradation of tree quality

Cutting down hickory trees also disrupts the forests’ wild animals, which depend on the forest for food and shelter. 

The long-lived mockernut hickory, for example, is very important to wildlife, especially squirrels, which eat green nuts. Other animals that eat the nuts and occasionally the bark are black bears, foxes, rabbits, beavers, white-tail deer, and white-footed mice. Nuts from mockernut hickory also make part of the diet of ducks, quai, and turkeys. 

Illegal logging in the US is unfortunately not non-existent. The only way for you as a  consumer to tackle problems caused by illegal logging is to source sustainable woods. We will point you in the right direction with birch wood at the end of this article. 

In total, logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss, which is a combination of deforestation and forest degradation. However, the loss in bio-diverse forests in tropical climates is more significant (and sometimes less properly recorded) than in temperate, well-managed logging forests. 

Illustration of long-term forest loss
Our World in Data: Decadal losses in global forest over the last three centuries

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Hickory Wood

Turning hickory wood into furniture has a relatively low carbon footprint because wood waste can be recycled fully as by-products or biomass pellets to offset the carbon emissions during harvesting and processing. 

The first step of manufacturing hickory furniture and flooring involves cutting down trees and turning them into lumber in a sawmill. Electricity is needed to run sawing machines. 

The next step is to dry lumber before turning it into furniture. If a piece of lumber can be air-dried to the desired moisture content, no added energy is needed for this step. However, if a kiln is used, it requires extra energy, which could mean higher carbon emissions.

It can be difficult to dry hickory wood. Also, shrinkage during the drying process could be significant for wide boards. When drying hickory from 80% to 6% moisture content, the shrinkage rate is 14.3%

The carbon footprint of the drying step for 1m3 of hickory lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick, is 42.7 CO2-eq, according to the life cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council. That is 

  • lower than the carbon footprint of drying, for example, white oak (98.3 kg CO2-eq) and red oak (89.7CO2-eq),
  • similar to the carbon footprint of drying, for example, black cherry and willow (42.7 kg CO2-eq), 
  • but higher than the carbon footprint of drying, for example, ash (38.5 kg CO2-eq), or tulipwood (25.6 kg CO2-eq).

However, a high proportion of energy (to power sawing machines and kilns) can come from burning wood waste. At least 90% of all thermal energy used for kiln drying in the US hardwood sector is derived from biomass (instead of fossil fuels).

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Hickory Wood

Transporting is a relatively carbon-intensive stage in the life cycle of hickory furniture due to the emissions associated with operating the hauling vehicles that take timber to sawmills and factories, then furniture to stores.  

As  hickory trees are distributed widely in the US, a piece of hickory wood furniture would have a lower carbon footprint than that made from imported woods like mahogany, teak, rosewood or ipe, providing they are both sold in the US. 

Calculations made by the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute showed that smaller wood hauling trucks emitted more CO2 per transported cubic meters of timber: 1.25 times more than larger wood hauling trucks, 1.3 times more than sea vessels, and six times more than freight trains. Therefore, the sustainable transportation option would be rail or large trucks running on biofuel. You can check with your wood suppliers how their products are transported and opt for the more sustainable option. 

According to the life cycle assessment tool of the American Hardwood Export Council, transporting 1m3 of hickory lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick from the forest to the kiln results in 66.4 kg CO2-eq, and from the kiln to the customer in Western Europe 267 kg CO2-eq. Transporting carbon footprint (in this scenario) is more than seven times higher than the drying step in manufacturing. 

Compared with some other American hardwoods, the growing, manufacturing, and transporting of willow wood have a carbon footprint amongst the highest

For example, PE International AG assessed the environmental impacts of 19 American hardwoods through stages from cradle to gate plus transport. They found a carbon footprint of 463 kg CO2-eq for one cubic meter of kiln-dried willow lumber, 4/4 (1 inch) thick. That is 

  • lower than the carbon footprint of white oak (559 kg CO2-eq) and red oak (496 kg CO2-eq), 
  • but higher than the carbon footprint of the rest of the woods assessed including: hard maple (394 kg CO2-eq), cherry (301 kg CO2-eq), and tulipwood (270 kg CO2-eq).

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Hickory Wood

Using hickory furniture can be sustainable thanks to the carbon capture during the products’ long life. 

Hickory wood is heavy, hard, and strong (more so than even white oak). The good bending strength and shock resistance make it an excellent material for long-lasting floors, especially in high traffic use. Hickory floors can last for 100 years or more

When hickory wood is decayed, either naturally in the forest or because of damage caused by usage at home, the carbon stored in the wood is released back to the atmosphere. Therefore, long-lasting furniture can be considered a good way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. If the wood is then reclaimed for making another piece of furniture, its positive carbon storage environmental impact is even higher. 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Hickory Wood

The end-of-life stage for hickory wood furniture and flooring is sustainable when the wood is reused or burned as bioenergy. 

There are a few scenarios for wood products – furniture, flooring, and household items- at the end of their life: 

  1. They can end up in landfills and don’t decompose. In this case, it keeps its role as carbon storage.
  2. Wood products can also be upcycled and reused, extending their role as carbon storage and reducing the fossil CO2 emitted as much as four times when comparing, for example, a recovered hardwood flooring with a new one. New wood products often travel much further to their markets, compared with recovered wood products. The latter is typically made in urban centers and sold locally, which lowers the transportation environmental burdens.
  3. In another end-of-life scenario, products like a hickory wood desk can be burned for biomass energy displacing coal or natural gas in generating electricity

With smaller household items, like a bowl or a chopping board, the offset won’t be as high as there is much less waste for burning. However, if such products are made from manufacturing wood waste as by-products, their carbon footprint is minimal. 

According to the life-cycle assessment done by the American Hardwood Export Council, the carbon emission of willow wood is negative, largely thanks to the enormous carbon uptake during the forestry stage. 

How Can You Buy Hickory Wood More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying any wood is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. Reliable certifications for sustainable woods are: 

An FSC certification ensures that the hickory wood comes from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

PEFC’s approaches to sustainable forest management are in line with protecting the forests globally and locally and making the certificate work for everyone. Getting a PEFC certification is strict enough to ensure the sustainable management of a forest is socially just, ecologically sound, and economically viable but attainable not only by big but small forest owners. 

Why Is It Important to Buy More Sustainable Wood

Buying sustainable wood also means helping to prevent illegal or unsustainable logging, which harms the forests’ biosystems and accelerates climate change. 

Logging of forestry products from plantations accounts for 26% of forest loss. Cutting down trees for wood has a lesser impact on carbon storage than digging up the whole forest floor and turning it into farms or mines. However, if logging is not sustainably managed, it can badly damage wildlife.

When logging happens in tropical forests – the bio hotspots of our planet – the biodiversity loss can be much more damaging. Subtropical and tropical forests are packed with unique wildlife – endemic mammals, birds, and amphibians. The displacement of such wildlife during poorly managed logging would be a major contributor to global biodiversity loss. 

Sustainable management of forests also means that trees are cut down for timber only when they are mature. These trees will then be able to regrow and eventually replace the loss of canopy, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the effect of climate change. 

Illustration of drivers of tropical forest degradation
Our World in Data: Drivers of tropical forest degradation

Final Thoughts

You can buy sustainable furniture made from hickory wood as long as the material comes from sustainably managed forests. And, to make it even more sustainable, use any hickory furniture for as long as you can, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled fully.

Stay impactful,



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Quynh Nguyen

Quynh loves to research and write about how we can live more sustainably. Before joining Impactful Ninja, she managed communications at the social enterprise Fargreen. And when she's not writing, she likes to run in the woods, dig in the garden, or knit the next jumper.

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