WoodSense: Spotlight on Maple

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This article is from Issue 23 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Pete Stephano

When a woodworker’s mind turns to maple, it revives images of golden autumn hues, sweet syrup, and honey-colored country furniture. And why not?  Fall foliage of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) draws millions of leaf “peepers” to New England and the Great Lakes’ states each year.

Its sap is the backbone of Vermont’s syrup industry, as well as that of Michigan and Wisconsin. Then there’s its reputation as the “rock maple” employed in Early American tables, chairs, and other durable furniture.

Yet, sugar maple is but one of six commercially available maple species, although the most renowned.

Sugar and black maple make up the “hard” category, while bigleaf maple, silver maple, red maple, and boxelder comprise the “soft” maples.

History in woodworking

Maple may have been the primary stock of early New England craftsmen for rustic furniture and other household goods as well as farm tools and implements. We do know that hard maple was also widely used for stocks on Kentucky long rifles and, in curly figure, for the backs of violins, hence the term “fiddleback” maple (see photo opposite page). And oddly enough, the heels of women’s shoes were made from it until the turn of the century. Hard maple has long been the standard for butcher block and cutting boards, too, because it imparts no taste to food and holds up to cuts and scratches.

Today, the hard variety is widely used for home flooring, furniture, paneling, bowling alleys, gymnasium floors, kitchen cabinets, benchtops, tabletops, toys, kitchenware, and millwork such as stairs, handrails, moldings, and doors. Turners cherish figured stock for bowls and platters.

Soft maple (25% “softer” than hard maple or equal to oak) often substitutes for hard maple or is stained to resemble other species such as cherry.

Where it comes from

As a cold weather tree that favors a more northerly climate, hard maple grows best in the upper Midwest and New England (two-thirds of the lumber originates there). You’ll find the greatest stands of hard maple around the Great Lakes, in the St. Lawrence Valley, and northern New England, where trees can attain a height of 130'.

Except for the bigleaf maple, a stalwart resident of the Pacific Northwest, most soft maple comes from the Mid-Atlantic States, principally southern Virginia through the Carolinas, although it does grow around the Great Lakes. Due to soft maple’s widespread growth, it’s more susceptible to regional color variations than its cousin hard maple.

What you’ll pay

Combined, hard and soft maple account for nearly 10% of all commercially available hardwoods, so it’s safe to say that maple is widely available. You’ll pay less for hard maple closer to its source, but count on a board foot cost of about $4.80 for 4/4 stock surfaced two sides (S2S). Soft maple should run $1 or so less, and figured wood quite a bit more.

Plywood (4x8 sheets) comes in thicknesses from 1/8" to 3/4", with the thickest and best grade running close to $125 a sheet. You can count on a price of $20 or so for a square foot of figured veneer.

How to select the best stock

In grading maple, variance in color makes no difference. Some sellers, however, may up the price for the more highly desirable, whiter sapwood boards. Stock with heartwood and mineral streaks won’t cost you less, so be sure to sort and select the boards that match best. (Who knows, you might run across some figured stock in the sorting!)

Hard maple normally appears light tan to almost white in color, especially the most-valued sapwood. Soft maple tends to have a reddish tinge. And plain sawn stock traditionally exhibits straight, close grain. Figure, in boards and veneer, is more abundant in maple (both hard and soft) than in any other commercially available species. You’ll commonly find burl, curly, quilted, and bird’s-eye. Note that “curly” is a very general term covering tiger, fiddleback, and flame. Tiger has wider stripes spaced further apart than fiddleback, and flame looks like flickering flames of uneven width. “Fiddleback”, as you might expect, commands a premium price.

Two premium-priced types of figured maple are created by decay.

A somewhat rare type called spalted has dark fine streaks caused by decay fungus, and ambrosia maple consists of long dark broad streaks created by worm infestations.

It's a Fact That...

  • The sugar maple is the state tree of Wisconsin, Vermont, New York, and West Virginia, and is memorialized on Canada’s flag.
  • In the North, during the cold nights and warm days of late winter, the sugar maple is tapped for its sucrose-containing sap. It takes up to 30 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
  • Look for the largest sugar maple tree in Lyme, Connecticut. According to the National Register of Big Trees, it’s 115' tall, has a spread of 89', and a circumference of 223" (6' diameter).

Maple Finishing Secrets

  • Want to retain maple’s light look? Coat it with a clear water-based finish. Be sure to damp-sponge the wood to lift the grain, then sand, both before and between coats.
  • Give maple an aged look with dye and oil/varnish. Sand to than 220 grit and wipe off dust. Then damp-sponge the wood and sand as above. Wipe on a dye stain to suit, and let dry. Then sand with a fine grit (320 or 440), remove dust, and add a coat of oil/varnish blend, wiping off the excess. After it dries, apply a brown varnish-based stain and wipe off lightly (until it looks right to you). Let that dry, then give it an oil-varnish blend topcoat.

Working maple in the shop

Few woods are as beautifully clear (no knots), close- and straight-grained as maple. However, its hardness can cause difficulty. Follow the advice below for shop success.

• Ripping and routing.  Always employ carbide blades and bits for hassle-free cutting. To reduce burning at the table saw (a rip blade with fewer than 28 teeth recommended), keep the wood moving at a moderately fast, even pace. (See “Tips for Burn Free Table Saw Cuts” on page 38) Likewise, don’t slow down your router.

• Jointing and planing. Straight-grained maple machines like a dream, but figured maple is completely different. Feeding it across jointer and planer knives at an angle (a skewed cut tends to slice more and tear less) can help with lightly figured stock, but for serious curl, your best bet is a high-bed angle hand plane, a scraper, or power drum sander. If you’re planning to machine a pile of figured stock, you might want to ask your sharpener to add a 15° back bevel to your machine knives. This adjusts the blades’ angle of attack so that they scrape more and slice less. Your machines will work a little harder, so you’ll want to take lighter cuts, but they’ll be less apt to tear out the grain.

 • Assembling.  Because of its tendency for slippage during clamp-ups, change to a glue that offers longer open time, such as Titebond II Extend Wood Glue (Woodcraft #140442, $6.99 for 16 oz). Then let the glue set up a bit before you clamp. Drill pilot holes if joining project parts with screws. In some cases, you may need to make screw slots to allow for wood movement. If you sand after assembly, don’t overdo it. Using grits finer than 220 for finish-sanding tends to burnish the wood, adding problems when staining.

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