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.
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 figured, for the backs of violins, hence the term “fiddleback” maple. 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, bench tops, tabletops, toys, kitchenware, and millwork such as stairs, handrails, moldings, and doors. Turners cherish figured stock for bowls and platters. So 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 so maple comes from the Mid-Atlantic States, principally southern Virginia through the Carolinas, although it does grow around the Great Lakes. Due to so maple’s widespread growth, it’s more susceptible to regional color variations than its cousin hard maple.
What you’ll pay
Combined, hard and so 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). So maple should run $1 or so less, and figured wood quite a bit more.
Plywood (4×8 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. So 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, and fiddleback. Tiger has wider stripes spaced further apart than fiddleback. “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 ne streaks caused by decay fungus, and ambrosia maple consists of long dark broad streaks created by worm infestations.
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. For shop success:
- Ripping and routing
- Jointing and planing
- 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 finish. Sand down to 220 grit and wipe off dust. Then damp sponge to raise the grain, then sand. Wipe on a dye stain to suite, and let dry. Then sand with a fine grit (320 – 400), remove dust, and add a coat of oil/varnish blend, wiping off the excess. After it dries, apply brown varnish-based stain and wipe off lightly (until it looks right to you). Let that dry and then topcoat with an oil/varnish blend.
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. Likewise, don’t slow down your router.
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. is 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.
Because of its tendency for slippage, change to a glue that offers longer open time, such as Titebond II Extend Wood Glue. Then let the glue set up a bit before you clamp. Drill pilot holes if joining parts with screws. You may need to make screw slots to allow for wood movement. If you sand after assembly, don’t overdo it. Using fine grits for finish-sanding tends to burnish the wood, adding problems when staining.
Information for this article is sourced by permission of Woodcraft.