WoodSense: Spotlight on Maple

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This article is from Issue 82 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Hard, soft, straight, or figured, but never plain.

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) entertains millions of “leaf peepers” every fall with its fiery foliage, and pancakes everywhere drip with syrup made from the tree’s sap. As for woodworkers, we also enjoy the treasure of its trunk. For almost as long as maple has been tapped for sap, the wood has found its way into everything from furniture and flooring to musical instruments.

Although sugar maple enjoys a certain celebrity status, it’s only one of six commercially available species in the maple family. Sugar and black maple (Acer nigrum) make up the “hard” category. “Soft” maple includes several different species, with the stock at your local lumber dealer likely reflecting your region. For instance, if you live in Oregon, soft maple may be bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). East Coast and central state woodworkers are most likely buying red maple (Acer rubrum) or silver maple (Acer saccharinum). Although each species has slightly different characteristics, the wood from these trees looks and performs similarly, with hard maple getting extra points for hardness and durability.


History in woodworking

Maple has been a favorite for woodworkers since Colonial days. New England craftsmen relied on maple for furniture, household implements, and farm tools. Hard maple, particularly curly stock, was reserved for musket stocks and violins (hence the term “fiddleback” maple).

Hard and soft maple are both found in flooring, furniture, paneling, cabinets, benchtops, tabletops, toys, kitchenware, and millwork. Hard maple remains the standard for butcher blocks and cutting boards because it imparts no taste to food and resists cuts and scratches. Turners cherish figured stock for bowls and platters.

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, the source of two-thirds of all the commercial stock. You’ll find the greatest stands 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 hard maple.

What you’ll pay

Combined, hard and soft maple account for almost 10% of all commercially available hardwoods, so it’s safe to say that maple is widely available. It’s also reasonably priced. Hard maple costs about $4.60 per board foot, but you’re likely to pay less the closer you are to its source. Soft maple costs less than hard maple, but this margin lessens with wide, clear boards. Not surprisingly, figured wood prices vary greatly.
Plywood comes in thicknesses from 1/8" to 3/4", with the thickest and best grade running close to $125 for a 4 × 8' sheet. Figured veneer starts at around $20 per square foot.

How to select the best stock

Hard maple normally appears light tan to almost white in color, especially the most-valued sapwood. Soft maple tends to have a reddish tinge. Plainsawn stock traditionally exhibits straight, close grain.
Although color variance doesn’t factor into commercial grading, some sellers charge extra for the more desirable, whiter sapwood boards. Stock with heartwood and mineral streaks won’t necessarily 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!)

Maple (both hard and soft) is more prone to figure than any other commercially available species. You’ll commonly find burl, curly, quilted, and birds-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.

Arrested decay creates two premium-priced types of figured maple. Spalted maple’s characteristic dark veins result from a fungus, while “ambrosia” maple features long, dark streaks caused by wood-boring worms.

Working maple in the shop

Because plain, unfigured maple is easy to work and holds fine detail, it’s prized for cabinetry, turning, and carving. With sharp tools, it’s possible to create a surface that requires little or no sanding. But maple is prone to burning, so take care to keep boards moving on the table saw, and don’t let your router linger in mid-pass.
Thanks to modern machinery, hard maple isn’t more difficult to work than soft maple, but it does have a moderate blunting effect on blades and bits. The differences between the two types become clear when working with hand tools. To make life easier, some chairmakers and turners work with green maple lumber when possible.

Working with figured maple can be challenging, as it’s prone to tear-out. Feeding it across jointer and planer knives at an angle can help with lightly figured stock. For highly figured boards, skip the thickness planer and use a drum sander instead. When smoothing with hand tools, try a plane with a high bedding angle and/or a cabinet scraper.


As a group, maples accept all finishes well. If you sand after assembly, don’t overdo it. Using grits finer than 220 for finish-sanding can burnish the wood, creating problems when staining.
Although less dramatic than cherry, maple does darken over time, gradually achieving color reminiscent of light maple syrup

Maple Finishing Tips

  • 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 an oil/varnish mix. Sand to 220 grit, 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.

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