The information presented below is accurate for Big Leaf Maple wood, the species from which the burl I made this bowl with was harvested. However, having said that, very little of the character of the tree itself can be transferred to the burl form because burls oftentimes behave in ways completely different from the tree from which they are derived and harvested. In many ways, burls are a species unto themselves regardless of which species tree they grow out from.
The proper scientific designation for the tree commonly known as the Big Leaf Maple is Acer macrophyllum. For those who might have read my numerous other posts about various types and forms of Maple, you are likely to recognize that this is a “true” Maple as it belongs to the Acer genus. A. macrophyllum, as the common and Latin names imply, is known for its enormous leaves, the largest by far in the Acer genus, which can reach up to 12” in width.
A. macrophyllum is the only Acer species native to the western parts of the North American continent. Several other Acer species are found in the eastern and Midwestern portions but these do not cross the Rocky Mountains. A. macrophyllum is native to a very narrow band of the Pacific coastal areas ranging from the southernmost reaches of Alaska, along the coast of British Columbia, and on down as far south as northern California. There are also limited populations that extend further down the Pacific coastline of California as far south as Orange, and potentially even San Diego, counties. There are also isolated populations located in the southern Cascade ranges and the northern Sierra Nevada where the two ranges overlap, especially around the Yuba River of northern California. Very small and isolated stands exist in Idaho as well.
As the only native Acer species in western North America, A. macrophyllum is a valuable commercial hardwood in the area. Due to the ready availability of other Acer species elsewhere in the United States and Canada, it is unusual for A. macrophyllum to be exported as the cost of transportation would be greater than the commercial value, in most cases, given that local stocks of other Acer species with equal, or even greater, desirability characteristics are available.
For the sake of simplicity, from this point forward I will refer to A. macrophyllum by its common name, Big Leaf Maple. Another common name for A. macrophyllum is Oregon Maple, which reflects some of the geographic distribution, although certainly not all or even the majority, for this species.
The most valuable and the most used part of most of the hardwoods of the world is the heartwood towards the center of the tree. Heartwood volume versus the outer sapwood volume varies widely between species as does the existence of differing degrees of clear demarcation between heartwood and sapwood. However, unlike most every other hardwood species commercially harvested, it is the sapwood of all of the commercially harvested species of Maple, or Acer genus that is most commonly sought after and used.
The sapwood ranges in coloration from almost white to at most a lightly golden or reddish color, although most all Maple timber I have ever seen is quite plain in terms of color, although various degrees and types of named figure do exist which adds considerable interest to an otherwise rather plain wood. Potential figures that can occur, but are not guaranteed or even known until the tree is felled and sawn, include but are not necessarily limited to: curly, quilted, tiger stripe, and bird’s eye. It is not known with any certainty what causes any of these figure patterns to appear in some trees and not in another only a few feet away. Other variants caused by beetle infestation, fungal infection, or some degree of decay include ambrosia and spalted Maple.
The grain of the Big Leaf Maple is generally straight but may be wavy. The wood features a fine and even texture once properly surfaced. As a member of the Soft Maple group, the growth rings are likely to be lighter and less distinct than that which is commonly seen in the so-called Hard Maple group.
While I have written about these two groups in the past, suffice it to say here that not all members of the “soft” Maple group are measurably softer than those in the “hard” Maple group. The naming is intended simply to distinguish A. saccharum (hard, or sugar, Maple), and sometimes Acer nigra (Black Maple) from all of the other Acer species. Common naming conventions such as this frequently do not represent scientific fact but they persist due to familiarity and because those who use the terms understand what is meant by them, even if those not familiar with timber or forestry are clueless.
Big Leaf Maple is considerably softer than the related “hard” or “sugar” Maple common in the eastern parts of the North American continent. In fact, A. saccharum measures at twice the hardness of Big Leaf Maple.
When burl wood is included then all remarks about coloration, figure, pattern, and even hardness must be tossed out the window. Burl wood is commonly highly figured with wildly interlocked grain patterns and coloration that can include reds, yellows, purples, browns, and outright black. Added to that is the common burl figure, small knots, which represent buds that failed to develop. These knots or buds are one of the most recognizable and desirable patterns commonly seen in burl woods from many species. And, for reasons not clear, but likely having to do with the wildly interlocked and swirled grain patterns so common in burls, burl wood may demonstrate considerably greater hardness and density than the wood from the non-burled portions of the parent tree.
Unfortunately, Big Leaf Maple is non-durable to outright perishable when it comes to a rating for resistance to rot. It is also susceptible to insect attack.
Big Leaf Maple is considered to be fairly easy to work with both hand and machine powered tools. That said, many users report that the wood has a tendency to burn when being machined with high speed cutters, especially when a router is being used to finish edges or create decorative designs. This tendency to burn is usually seen in harder woods but clearly it can happen in softer woods as well.
Big Leaf Maple is reported to glue well.
Finishing Big Leaf Maple, as well as other members of the Acer genus, can be problematic as many stains and dyes will appear blotchy, especially darker where the stain or dye is first applied. This characteristic of Maple can be difficult to overcome and in my experience only those with a great deal of experience and practice can reliably dye or stain Maple. When done properly, stained, and especially colorfully dyed, Maple can be quite stunning as these treatments tend to highlight highly figured pieces. I have seen figured pieces of Maple that have been dyed in vibrant shades of blue, yellow, and green that were simply stunning. Achieving that effect is not, however, simple. To make the process of staining or dying Maple successful, it is often useful to use a pre-conditioner, gel formula stains or dyes (as opposed to liquid formulas), or a toner. If you are unfamiliar with staining or tinting Maple, seek reliable, experienced, professional advice on techniques, materials, and chemical products that may be helpful. Such advice is outside of any scope I possess.
Big Leaf Maple has no characteristic odor when being worked either green or dried.
The most common uses of Big Leaf Maple wood include, but are certainly not limited to: pulpwood for paper production (sadly), boxes, crates, and pallets. In addition to those highly utilitarian uses, Big Leaf Maple may also be used for: veneer (if highly figured or burl wood), musical instruments, turned objects, and other small specialty wood items such as duck calls, pens, pencils, and other desk or purse items.
The Big Leaf Maple tree can be tapped for sap to boil down into maple syrup or crystalize into maple sugar if desired. Although this is not commonly done in the western parts of North America, it is entirely feasible and the sugar content of the Big Leaf Maple is actually higher than that of the actual sugar maple itself.
Pricing any Maple is entirely dependent on what you want. Plain timber or turning stock should be moderately priced, provided you are in the native area of the species you are seeking. Big Leaf Maple should be quite affordable in its native areas in western North America. Outside that area the wood is unlikely to be available for purchase at all, or will command a premium due to the cost of transportation. The most readily available and affordable type of Maple will depend entirely on where you live and shop for wood. Internet shopping can make it easier to find a Maple species not native to your area, but beware the prices of shipping wood, which can easily become more expensive that the wood itself.
That said, if there is any figure present, or if you are seeking Big Leaf Maple burl wood, then you will inevitable pay a great deal more. Burl wood, including Big Leaf Maple burl, always commands a premium price. I have seen many large burls, up to 12”, sell for well over $100 each, even for common species such as Big Leaf Maple.
I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
I have also recently discovered and have had fantastic experiences with two vendors selling strictly, or mostly, domestic woods native to the Southeastern United States. Those vendors are NC Wood and TurningBlanks.net (Got Wood?) of North and South Carolina respectively.
West Penn Hardwoods has limited stocks of what they refer to as “Western Maple” in both curly and quilted figure. If the wood is truly from the western parts of North America then they have misidentified the species, which is not entirely uncommon among hardwood dealers oddly enough, as they are claiming the wood to be Acer saccharuin, a species spelling that I cannot verify. The closest matches are either A. saccharum (Hard, or Sugar, Maple) or A. saccharinum (Silver Maple) both of which are woods of eastern North America. So, we have to take the descriptor of “Western” at its face value.
In any event, West Penn Hardwoods is only selling dimensional lumber of the curly variety and the quilted pattern stock is only in the form of guitar sets. If curious, the dimensional lumber sells for around $15 per board foot while guitar sets go for $185 each.
Bell Forest Products has only 10 specific, “hand-picked” pieces of curly Big Leaf Maple dimensional lumber, ranging in price from $19.70 to $39.80.
Neither NC Wood or TurningBlanks.net are selling Big Leaf Maple at this time, although both sell a great deal of Hard Maple of eastern extraction.
This limited availability and relatively high pricing reflect the fact that the Big Leaf Maple wood that is available is highly figured and also the fact that these dealers are well outside the native area of this wood. Dealers in the Pacific Northwest will surely have Big Leaf Maple available at reasonable prices, but I am not very familiar with dealers so far from my home base. I do, however, know of one dealer in Oregon, Cook Woods, and they are selling Big Leaf Maple, but mostly in the form of quite expensive and large burl pieces. Some of these burls are retailing for over $1,000, but it can be fun to just look even if you can’t buy.
While the four dealers above are personal favorites, Big Leaf Maple is likely to be readily obtainable from other hardwood dealers, probably including one near you if you live in the Pacific Northwest. If you don’t have a favorite supplier that you have worked with extensively in the past, by all means shop around for the best prices and the best selection to meet your particular wood working needs.
Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for Big Leaf Maple, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms (Big Leaf, Western, and Oregon Maple, for example) to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer near their home in person to hand pick nice pieces at a comfortable price.
I did a quick check of Woodfinder and they list 90 dealers that claim to have Big Leaf Maple, however, in my experience, some dealers list woods on Woodfinder that they may have had in stock at one time, but no longer carry, having failed to keep their listings entirely up to date. It is always a hit and miss search process, but it is at least a place to start.
Personally, I obtained my Big Leaf Maple burl from a Woodcraft store in Louisville, Kentucky. This was a very odd find since Kentucky is well outside the range of Big Leaf Maple. The store had two pieces, and I bought both. I paid $21.25 for a piece that measured 2.5”x6”x6”. Those measurements represent the most usable part of the piece that included some bark segment, part of which I was able to preserve in the finished piece, giving it a very unique appearance that I am quite pleased with.
They were stickered with standard price tags and much to my surprise the product code number when entered into the Woodcraft website reveals that Big Leaf Maple Burl is a standard stock item. I never would have guessed it but there it is. So, Woodcraft proves to be a nationally distributed source of Big Leaf Maple Burl. Go forth, buy, and turn! One customer did note that the piece he received did not contain any natural edge, and while the stock photos show generous natural edge material, you can’t count on stock photos to tell the whole tale. Whenever possible, obtain photos of the actual piece you will be buying, or better yet, pick your blanks in person. This is especially sage advice when in the market for especially pricey pieces of turning wood.
Big Leaf Maple, or Big Leaf Maple Burl, are not listed as being in any way threatened or endangered by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices nor does it appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Big Leaf Maple, or Big Leaf Maple Burl, woods are not subject to special restrictions by any United States government agency.
However, I realize that inherent in working with wood is the killing of a part of the natural world that may be slow to return and if I become deeply concerned about this fact, I will have to find a new hobby. I hope that such a time does not come to pass or at least not any time soon. I am also very confident that the vendor from whom I purchased my stocks of Big Leaf Maple burl sourced their material legally and responsibly. In part because I am concerned about legally and responsibly obtained wood, I am reluctant to buy from sellers outside of well-established and known vendors. I am highly unlikely, for example, to purchase exotic, or burl, wood from auction sites, such as Ebay, because of uncertain sourcing and documentation, as well as the potential, even likelihood, of material being misidentified in order to achieve a higher selling price.
Burls are especially prized and therefore especially threatened in the wild. Redwood burls are especially prized and poaching of burls occurs with alarming frequency even in the National Parks designed to protect these trees. Burls that are removed with a chainsaw leave the tree vulnerable to disease or fungal rot, and sometimes poachers will simply fell the entire tree to obtain burls higher on the trunk. It is especially important when buying burl wood to have a high degree of confidence in, and familiarity with, the vendor. Always ask where and how the burl wood you intend to purchase was obtained. Although you cannot guarantee an honest answer, you can at least perform due diligence to the extent you are able to do so, and if in any doubt, don’t buy wood from unreliable or unknown sources both for the protection of the forests as well as your own protection. The possession of illegally obtained forest materials can land you in trouble with the Federal government even if you were not the one who originally poached the burl to begin with. In short, KNOW AND TRUST your burl wood sources, especially burl wood from trees, such as California Redwoods, that have at least some degree of protection.
It realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchasing any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine, including those you can access on your phone as you are standing in the lumber yard or store. Unfortunately, you simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered.
Big Leaf Maple, along with other maples in the Acer genus, has been reported to cause skin irritation, runny nose, and asthma-like respiratory effects. In addition, the standard risks posed by prolonged and repeated exposure to dust from any wood species also exists with Big Leaf Maple, and its burl, wood and steps should be taken to avoid prolonged dust exposure. In addition, appropriate protective equipment is always recommended when working with this, or any other, wood, exotic or domestic, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with Big Leaf Maple burl wood.
My Personal Experiences
I was very excited to try using this burl wood as I have only rarely ever attempted to work with burls in the past. Burl wood is notorious among wood turners because it is often unstable and has been known to simply fly apart on the lathe. Burls do not grow in the same predictable and stable manner as tree trunks usually do and therefore they are not inherently stable, free of debris, or even solid. These defects cannot always be known prior to working with the material so be prepared for anything.
I was pleased that I was able to preserve at least a small amount of the natural bark edge that was present on the piece when I purchased it. Some of the material that was there in the beginning did not, unfortunately, survive but I think enough did to make it interesting and to also create a less than perfect outer edge. I toyed with the idea of putting the natural edge on the bottom of the piece, but I was concerned that instability, or large voids, on the bottom might make the entire piece unworkable so I went the more “traditional” route and kept the natural edge on the top of the bowl.
While it is true that Big Leaf Maple is about half as hard as the Sugar Maple native to the eastern parts of North America, this Big Leaf Maple burl wood was quite hard and dense. I suspect that the heavily interlocked grain, swirling figure, and the presence of multiple small knots, the remnants of buds that failed, all contributed to making the burl portion considerably harder than the sapwood or heartwood would be.
I was able to cut and shape the piece with relative ease, albeit with patience and moving slowly, using my standard Easy Wood Tools equipment including the Easy Rougher, the Easy Finisher, and the Easy Hollower # 1, as my only tools. Well, I do use a skew chisel, very briefly, to finish the inset of the divot for the Super Nova 2 Chuck on the bottom of the piece, but otherwise I only use Easy Wood Tools.
Because I knew the wood was very dry and quite a bit harder than I expected from this species. Because burls are unpredictable and I could easily see that the grain was wildly twisted and interlocked, I made the divot for the Nova chuck a bit deeper, and therefore stronger, than I might otherwise do. I was able to easily shape the bottom and bring the entire piece into round as the initial round cut on the band saw was quite reasonable. To do this I first used the Easy Rougher and then made light passes with the Easy Finisher to smooth out the cut.
Once I had the bottom divot cut, the bottom sloped to my satisfaction, and the blank completely round, I proceeded to sand the sides and bottom down to 800 grit as is my standard practice. The Big Leaf Maple burl cut nice and clean so it was simple to obtain a very nice sanded finish. The burl being fairly hard, it presented a very nice and silky texture to the touch and in fact the wood had a natural sheen that made it appear as if perhaps it had already been finished.
I reversed the piece into a 50mm Super Nova 2 Chuck to perform the hollowing of the face. I often use the Easy Wood Tools line Easy Hollower, # 1, for this procedure as the tool is designed specifically for hollowing and it works quite well for this task. The very small cutter head allows for precise control over the process while still working a good rate of cut speed. As is true of all Easy Wood Tools, there is never any sharpening, you simply replace the worn out carbide cutter heads, although each head can be rotated to expose fresh cutting surfaces at least once, or in the case of the Easy Rougher, four rotations on each cutter head is possible.
Once the bulk of the hollowing was done I used light passes of the Easy Finisher on the inside surfaces. For the rim, being especially conscious of the natural edge, I used the small size Easy Finisher, intended for pens, because I sometimes feel it gives me greater control on very small surfaces and for very light cutting than is possible with the much larger standard Easy Finisher.
Again, once the cutting was finished and all walls measured no more than ½ inch in thickness, with the side walls much thinner indeed, I finish sanded the inside of the bowl down to 800 grit, again obtaining a silky texture and a high sheen natural appearance that seemed as though a finish had already been applied.
At this point I applied the finish, Shellawax liquid formula, to the interior, the sides, and the parts of the back that I could reach despite the chuck. The Shellawax simply wipes on, while the lathe is off, with a soft and lint-free rag, in my case old t-shirt material. Maple takes on very little color from most any finish and it was difficult to tell, visually, where the finish had been applied and where not. However, the finish tends to be a bit tacky as it dries and this helps to determine where more needs to be applied. I was careful to use the air compressor to blow out any finish that tried to accumulate in the natural check void on the sidewall, an imperfection I couldn’t see until the turning had started. Once the finish dried a slight bit, I turned the lathe on and using the damp portions of the rag applied pressure against the spinning wood and then switched to dry areas of another clean rag to achieve a nice hand rubbed shine. I greatly enjoy the ease of working with Shellawax and I especially enjoy the wonderful finish it produces. I completely agree with their marketing message which says that their gimmick is that the product works!
The only thing left to do was to reverse the piece again on the Cole Jaws to finish the back, including the removal of the divot, finish sanding, and the application of the finish and buffing. All in, the bowl was finished from beginning to end in less than three hours.
I noted that there was a check that was not visible until the piece was on the lathe and being cut. At least one other small check would show itself in time as well. The large check does go completely through the side wall of the bowl, if only because I chose to make the walls fairly thin. Sometimes, especially in burl piece, checks are present that simply can’t be seen until the turning process starts. Sometimes actual voids, or even debris, can be present in burls, especially if the burl grew underground. Some wood turners will toss a piece that has any checks or imperfections but I have never felt that way about the pieces I work with. I recognize that wood is a natural material and sometimes there will be “imperfections” that weren’t anticipated or counted on, but for me that is part of the fun. I intentionally preserved some of the rough natural edge, even though I could easily have removed it at the band-saw stage, because I think it adds value to the natural object being created. While this is not a universal sentiment amongst wood turners, it is my personal philosophy that works well for me.
Finally, I refer to this piece being Big Leaf Maple burl wood, but what exactly is a burl. Simply put a burl is a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. It is commonly found in the form of a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk or branch that is filled with small knots from dormant buds. Many burls also form underground and are not visible until the tree has fallen over or is otherwise removed. Regardless of whether the burl is above or below the soil line, it will always be completely covered in bark. Burls can reach great size with the record being a 26 foot monster. No one is entirely sure why burls form but it is most likely in response to an injury or infection that occurs to the tree at the site where the burl forms.
Regardless of the why, burls are highly sought after and frequently command premium prices in part because they are popular and also because only a minority of trees will ever produce burl. Burl can be hard to work because of the wildly interlocked grain and the greater density compared to the non-burl portions of the tree and these characteristics can cause the material to break apart unexpectedly. Regardless of the potential difficulties in working with the material however, burl remains a favorite of wood workers of all types, including wood turners, and also a favorite of customers who purchase wood crafts products and furniture. If you haven’t braved working with burl yet, I highly recommend it. You can even start with very affordable pen blank size pieces to get a feel for the material before committing to a bowl blank size piece. And when you do decide to go for the bowl blank sized piece, remember that Big Leaf Maple burl can be affordable and forgiving, two great characteristics for a trial and experiment material.
As always, I wish all my readers a great experience in whatever their wood working interests happen to be and to those who like working with lathes especially, do a good turn today!