Birdseye Maple is not a distinct species of Maple, but rather the name refers to a figure that’s occasionally found in Acer saccharum (Sugar Maple) trees. It’s named “birdseye,” sometimes simply written out as bird’s eye Maple, because the figure resembles small bird’s eyes.
As indicated above, Maple of this type, and there are others, regardless of figure, is properly known as Acer saccharum. A. saccharum is native to the hardwood forests of northeastern North America, ranging from Nova Scotia west to southern Ontario in Canada, and as far south as Georgia and Texas. However, the bird’s eye figure is considerably more common from northern sources. This type of Maple is best known for its bright fall foliage and for being the primary, although not sole, source of Maple syrup.
Details about the Figure
As it is the unique figure that attracts consumers and users to this type of Maple, it is sensible to consider the origins of the figure in some detail.
Bird’s eye is a type of figure that occurs within several kinds of wood, most notably in hard Maple. It has a distinctive pattern that resembles tiny, swirling eyes disrupting the smooth lines of grain. It is somewhat reminiscent of a burl, but it is quite different: the small knots that make the burl are missing.
Trees that grow in the Great Lakes region of Canada and the United States yield the greatest supply of this figured wood, along with some varieties in the Rocky Mountains.
The bird’s eye figure is most often found in A. saccharum, but the figure has also been found in a number of other unrelated species including, but not necessarily limited to: red Maple, white ash, Cuban mahogany, American beech, black walnut, and yellow birch. It is also not uncommon in Huon Pine, which grows only in Tasmania.
Although there are a few clues in a tree’s bark that indicate the lumber might have bird’s eye figure, it is usually necessary to fell the tree and cut it apart to know for sure.
According to some reputable sources, the figure is caused by unfavorable growing conditions. The Maple attempts to start numerous new buds to get more sunlight, but with poor growing conditions the new shoots are aborted, and afterward a number of tiny knots remain.
However, other reputable sources claim that it is not known what causes the phenomenon. Research into the cultivation of bird’s eye Maple has so far discounted the theories that it is caused by pecking birds deforming the wood grain or that an infecting fungus makes it twist. Ultimately, no one has demonstrated a complete understanding of any combination of climate, soil, tree variety, insects, viruses or genetic mutation that may produce the effect.
Bird’s eye Maple doesn’t vary in its general or working characteristics from non-figured specimens, therefore additional characteristics should be considered common to all specimens of hard Maple.
The wood is one of the hardest and densest of the Maples. Unlike most other hardwoods, the sapwood of hard Maple lumber is most commonly used instead of the heartwood. Sapwood color ranges from nearly white, to an off-white cream color, sometimes with reddish or golden hue. The heartwood tends to be a darker reddish brown. Hard Maple can also be seen with curly or quilted grain patterns. The wood displays a fine and even uniform texture with pores that are small enough to not require filling.
Because the sapwood is the most commonly used part of the wood, resistance to decay and insect damage is very low. However, for the most common uses of this wood, this should not present difficulties.
Maple of this type is fairly easy to work with both hand and machine tools. User familiar with softer forms of Maple may find it more difficult to work with because of the increased hardness and density, although in most applications this feature is to the advantage of the wood worker as a very finely textured finish it easy to achieve provided that sharp tools are used, as opposed to the more ragged cut finish of softer species of Maple. Some users report that Maple may burn easily with high-speed cutters such as drills or routers, but careful technique and consistently sharp tools should help minimize this issue.
Maple can be notoriously difficult to stain or otherwise color. The pale wood tends to resist most any colorant and when coloration can be achieved, it has a troublesome tendency to finish with blotches, usually darkest where first contacted and then fading to nonexistent elsewhere. Some uses find that a pre-conditioner or toner may help, as may the use of gel instead of liquid stains.
There is no characteristic odor associated with this wood species.
Unfigured Maple should be relatively inexpensive to obtain while figured pieces can be more expensive, depending on the degree of figure and the size. Figured pen blanks can be purchased for no more than $1.50 each, while a more substantial figured bowl blank size measuring 6”x6”x2” retails for slightly over $11 at an exotic wood retailer such as Bell Forest Products, a reliable source for bowl blanks from many species at fair prices. Other exotic wood suppliers may also have bird’s eye Maple in stock, however, I have found it to be relatively uncommon to find it in bowl blank sizes, being much more commonly sold as either pen blank stock, doweling, or in flat board form for its more common uses in furniture and flooring construction. Woodfinder is a website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers and I can’t speak to the quality of any of them, but they do have the advantage of performing searches based on your location which might allow you to visit a wood dealer in person to hand pick what you want to work with at a price you are comfortable paying.
Bird’s eye Maple, and hard Maple in general, is prized for furniture and flooring. Flooring, and other, uses are especially common in the sports world with bowling alleys and bowling pins both being commonly manufactured from this wood. Maple is also the wood used for basketball courts, including the floors used by the NBA, and it is also a popular wood for baseball bats.
Hard Maple is also widely used in the manufacture of musical instruments, such as the members of the violin family, where it is used for the sides and back, as well as for the necks of guitars, and the shells of drums. Figured specimens are highly prized for these uses due to their beauty.
Highly figured pieces also commonly find use in veneer form to gain the maximum usage of relatively uncommon forms. The wood may also be used for more prosaic uses such as pulpwood (sadly), cutting boards, butcher blocks, workbenches, as well as lathe turned objects and specialty wood items.
Severe negative allergic reactions are uncommon but Maples of the Acer genus have been known to cause reactions in sensitive individuals, usually manifesting as nothing more severe than skin irritation, runny nose, and asthma-like respiratory effects. Therefore, care should be taken especially if an individual has experienced allergic reactions with other woods or wood dust.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of hardwoods is available from The Wood Database along with additional information about the best use of a dust collection system, coupled with the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, which is highly recommended when machining this wood. Fortunately, I have never experienced any negative side effects from working with either hard or soft Maple.
My Personal Experiences
I suspect I will always be partial to Maple, especially the more highly figured forms, since the very first bowl I ever turned on a lathe, in 2009 I believe, was made from a small piece of 1” thick Maple. See below!
It is truly an ideal turning wood in my experience since the hardness of the wood allows for beautifully smooth cuts with sharp tools that require little to no sanding, a characteristic further enhanced by the demonstrated low porosity and relatively minor end grain tear out. The wood can be turned extremely thin; I have several pieces that allow for light to shine through, greatly enhancing the figure and grain but the wood is also tough and holds up well to tooling without breaking easily. Granted, the wood is essentially impossible to color effectively, but I have found that a standard shellac finish allows the natural beauty of the color and the grain to show through and in most cases Maple is beautiful enough to not need color enhancement. I think it is an excellent wood for both experts and beginners and I only regret that wood dealers do not more readily stock bowl blank sizes of the this wonderful wood!
Extensive additional photos of bird’s eye maple can be viewed here.