Woodsense: Spotlight on Boxelder

The softest of the maples has lots to offer woodworkers of all ages.

Technical Consultant: Larry Osborn

The forest products industry classifies boxelder (Acer negundo) as a “soft maple,” along with silver maple and red maple. The three are normally mixed and sold together under the soft maple label. At 27 pounds per cubic foot dry, about the same as white pine, boxelder rates as the lightest and weakest of the maple species. It works easily with hand and machine tools, making it suitable for woodworking novices to practice on and use for a variety of projects, including shop projects.

Except for being a bit brittle, boxelder stock is light-colored, fine-textured, and close-grained. Normally lackluster, the wood sometimes displays raspberry-colored streaks caused by fungal infection. When wet or unseasoned, boxelder offers up a nasty aroma that fades once the wood dries.

History in woodworking

Boxelder has been used for food containers such as crates and barrels. Crafters have cut wooden utensils (treenware) from the wood. Add to this list toys, basic furniture, and cabinets, as well as carvings. Beyond that, both woodturners and box makers prize the red-streaked stock for making eye-catching turnings and decorative boxes. Commercially, boxelder pulp has gone into the making of fiberboard.

Boxelder Quick Take

COST Moderate
WEIGHT About 25% lighter than sugar maple
HARDNESS Roughly half as hard as sugar maple
DURABILITY Low (due to rot and insect attack)
TOXICITY Skin irritation possible
TOOL TYPE Hand and power tools with sharp blades and cutters
COMMON USES Decorative and ornamental pieces, carvings, turnings, boxes, crates, some furniture, and toys

Where the wood comes from

In North America, the greatest quantity of boxelder grows from the Great Lake States to the central Atlantic states and from southern New England to northern Florida. However, because the tree grows rapidly, especially along streams and in lowlands, it was planted extensively in the West and Northwest, even into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, for erosion control and windbreaks, and because it can thrive in cold, punishing climates. The largest trees of this species–70' tall and up to 4' in diameter–are found there.

What you’ll pay

Like sugar maple, boxelder lumber grades range from FAS (first and seconds, the highest) to No. 3B Common (the lowest). However, you’ll have to shop local sawmills or small outlets for boxelder within the species’ growth range.

An FAS, 4/4 (1"-thick) boxelder board foot should run about $3. Expect to triple that cost for red-streaked stock. You won’t find any boxelder veneer, but specialty dealers will have carving and turning blanks, and possibly live-edge slabs.

How to select the best stock

While boxelder lumber is normally mixed with the other soft maples, some specialty sawmills within the tree’s range may separate boxelder and sell it for a very reasonable price. Except for those trees that display wood with the unmistakable fungi-produced red streaks, there’s little noticeable difference between boxelder sapwood and heartwood, so selecting boards for a project isn’t a difficult chore. Because of the wood’s poor resistance to decay, avoid it for all outdoor projects. Boxelder may also display small, tight pin knots and birdpeck, neither of which affects value and are allowed in grading.

Working boxelder in the shop

If you’re familiar with machining the “hard” maple known as sugar maple, you’ll find the much softer boxelder a lot easier to work. That said, like sugar maple, it, too, will burn if precautions are not taken. When ripping boxelder, feed the workpiece at a constant moderate rate to reduce or eliminate burning. The same is true when routing, only here trim excess wood in several light passes.

When drilling, eliminate burning by using high-quality sharp bits at a moderate to slow speed and by occasionally raising the bit and clearing the hole of chips. To fasten boxelder project parts together with screws, drill pilot holes first to avoid splitting.

All adhesives work well on boxelder, but its tight grain won’t absorb glue easily. Spread the glue evenly on the mating surfaces, rubbing them together if possible before clamping for a complete bond.

Boxelder sands wonderfully, but blotches when stained, just like sugar maple. For best results, use a sanding sealer, dewaxed shellac, or a thin coat of a wipe-on finish to partially seal the wood before staining. Make sure the sealer and stain are compatible by testing them on a piece of boxelder scrap. Another trick is to go with a gel or heavy-bodied stain that you wipe off and reapply to achieve the desired color.

Because the wonderful red streaking on fungal-infected wood turns brown after prolonged exposure to sunlight, slow down the process with a clear finish having UV protection. Some woodturners and others who regularly work red-stained boxelder fortify the streaking with aniline dye of the same color to prolong its vividness.

It’s a fact that…

Native Americans sought out the burls and knots on the lower trunks of boxelder trees for pipestems, bowls, dishes, and drums. They boiled the inner bark to make a tea that served as an emetic. They also boiled down the sap for syrup and treats.

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