- 1The FINAL Word on Maple, Figured and Otherwise
- 2Making the Distinction: Hard Maple versus Soft Maple
- 3Geographic Distribution
- 4General Characteristics
- 5Working Characteristics
- 6Figured Maple: Varieties and Causes
- 6.1Ambrosia Maple
- 6.2Birdseye Maple
- 6.3Curly Maple
- 6.4Quilted Maple
- 6.5Spalted Maple
- 6.6Maple Burl
- 10Health Hazards
- 11My Personal Experiences
Maple of all species is fairly easy to work with both hand and machine tools. Users familiar with softer forms of Maple may find it more difficult to work with the harder species 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.
Finishing Maple can be problematic because 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.
There is no characteristic odor associated with Maple.
Figured Maple: Varieties and Causes
There are several different types of figured or otherwise unusual types of Maple that are widely recognized. These are: Ambrosia, Birdseye, Curly, Quilted, and Spalted. I will address each of these varieties individually below.
Ambrosia Maple is not a distinct species within the Acer genus, instead Ambrosia refers to a beetle that infests maple trees, causing distinctive damage. There is no one single species, or even genus, of beetles that cause the ambrosia effect, instead there are numerous such types around the world. The beetles also allow for the entry of fungus, which they are symbiotic with in nature, which causes the typical discoloration of the wood. Maple wood without the ambrosia effect is usually very pale, colorless and without any figure.
Ambrosia is, in effect, just another of the several identified figure and color variants of existing Maple species. Of these variants, Ambrosia most closely resembles the effect of spalting. However, Ambrosia maple may have greater structural integrity than some spalted samples, although arguably, the introduction of the fungus by the Ambrosia beetle can be considered a form of spalting, although one with a specific cause.
As is true of any figured or colored sample of maple, prices will be higher to reflect the rarity of the effects and also because it is impossible to know prior to harvest if such effects or figure will be found.
It’s named “birds-eye,” sometimes simply written out as bird’s eye Maple, because the figure resembles small bird’s eyes. This figure is seen to best effect on flatsawn, as opposed to quarter-sawn, boards.
Plain sawn, also commonly called flat sawn, is the most common lumber you will find. This is the most inexpensive way to manufacture logs into lumber. Plain sawn lumber is the most common type of cut. The annular rings are generally 30 degrees or less to the face of the board; this is often referred to as tangential grain. The resulting wood displays a cathedral pattern on the face of the board.
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.
As is the case with any of the figured types of Maple, Curly Maple is not a distinct species. Instead the name is descriptive of a figure in the grain. For reasons that are not clear, curly figure is most commonly found in the group known as “soft Maple,” but it certainly can occur in the “hard Maple” group as well. The name refers to ripples in the grain pattern which create a three-dimensional effect that causes the grain to appear as though it has curled along the length of the board. Curly figure has several other common names that may be used by retailers of lumber as well as my makers of furniture or other objects. The common names that you are most likely to encounter that refer to a curly figure include, but may not be limited to: Tiger Maple or Flame (or Flamed) Maple. The term “Fiddleback Maple” came about because a common use of Maple with a curl figure was in the manufacture of the sidewalls and backs of violins, commonly referred to as “fiddles” in early America.
Maple is still used as a “tone-wood” for the manufacture of fine musical instruments to this day, and pieces with figure are especially sought after for this purpose. Many times, figured Maple destined for use in musical instruments will be dyed in a vivid color, or first dyed dark brown, or black, then re-sanded until only specific parts of the figure remain dark colored and the re-dyed a bright color to highlight contrasting aspects of the figure. This procedure is described in greater detail under Quilted Maple.
Curly maple is most obvious when the board is quarter-sawn. On flatsawn boards the curls are usually much less pronounced or even absent. Therefore, on wide boards where the grain tends to be close to vertical (quarter-sawn) near the edges and horizontal (flatsawn) in the center, the curly pattern will be most evident on the edges of the board with the figure diminishing in the center.
Quarter sawn wood has an amazing straight grain pattern that lends itself to design. Quarter sawn lumber is defined as wood where the annular growth rings intersect the face of the board at a 60 to 90 degree angle. When cutting this lumber at the mill, each log is sawed at a radial angle into four quarters, hence the name. Quarter sawn wood has an amazing straight grain pattern that lends itself to design. Dramatic flecking is also present in red oak and white oak.
No one knows with any certainty why or how the Curly Maple figure comes to be in some trees and not in others, even in a tree immediately adjacent to one that is highly figured. Some experts postulate that environmental conditions are the cause, but again, this is not known to be the case with any certainty.
What is known with a great degree of certainty is that there are different grades of Curly Maple and the grade to which any one piece belongs will have a huge effect on the price you will pay to own it.
Grading criteria include: color (both uniformity and lightness: whiter wood is preferred and receives a higher grade); frequency of the curls (tight, closely-spaced curls are preferred); and intensity (more depth is preferred).
Prices can range from just slightly more expensive than regular soft maple for lower grades of curly maple, to triple, quadruple, or higher for prices of the highest grades, sometimes referred as “exhibition grade.” But in general, higher grades of curly maple tend to be less expensive than quilted maple, and offer an economical solution for a “figured” hardwood.
Again, Quilted Maple is not a distinct species of Maple but is simply another descriptive term that refers to a figure sometimes found in Maple wood. As is true of the Curly figure, Quilted figure, for reasons not known, is more likely to occur in the “soft Maple” group of trees but certainly can occur in the “hard Maple” group as well. The highest grade, most sought after, and therefore most expensive grades of Quilted Maple occur most commonly in Big Leaf Maples from the extreme western areas of the North American continent.
The name Quilted maple is references the resemblance of the figure to the patchwork patterns sometimes seen on fabric quilts. Much like birds-eye maple, the figure on quilted maple becomes most pronounced when the board has been flatsawn, which is the opposite of curly maple, which becomes most prominent when quarter-sawn, as was discussed above.
The Quilted figure may also be referred to by vendors of both lumber and finished items by any of the following terms: blistered, curly-quilt, sausage-quilt, tubular-quilt, and angel-step.
As is the case with Curly Maple, as well as with other types of figure in both Maple and other woods of varying origin and type, various grades or degrees of quilted figure are assigned which greatly influence both retail and wholesale pricing.
The grading criteria for Quilted Maple are quite similar to those applied to Curly Maple and include: the perceived depth of the quilt and the purity of color of the wood itself with a pure and uniform white being the most valuable.
Quilted maple billets (a thick piece of wood not yet completely milled into lumber) frequently command astronomically high prices when sold to high-end guitar manufacturers (such as Gibson in Tennessee) for use in making the tops of electric guitars. Guitar manufacturers frequently dye such guitar tops very bright outlandish colors including blue, green, or purple to give an “electric” effect to the grain pattern.
One technique that is used to further enhance the grain pattern is to initially dye the wood a very dark brown or black, and then sand it back almost to raw wood, leaving just a residue of black dye remaining in the low spots of the grain’s figure. Then the guitar maker will re-apply a dye of the final, brighter, color. The final result will be accented and shadowed by the darker dye that was left in the low portions of the grain, while the primary color is brought out in the body of the wood.
Much like Ambrosia Maple and other forms of figured maple, Spalted Maple is a distinct species of Maple but is instead a general description of any type of Maple that has been allowed to begin the initial stages of decay, and then subsequently dried. The drying prevents further decay from occurring. The partial decay, called spalting, gives the wood dark contrasting lines and streaks where fungus has begun to attack the wood. If the wood has been rescued from the spalting at the right time, the lumber should still be sound and usable, with little to no soft spots or rotten wood. While partially rotten wood might not sound appealing, don’t judge until you’ve seen it. The dark brown or even black lines and streaks add a great deal of interest to the wood which is otherwise very pale and often plain.
Some examples of spalted Maple are “stabilized.” This refers to a process by which spalted material is infused with a polymer under very high pressure. This process allows for wood that is otherwise too soft or even rotten to be safely used to be turned into a highly stable matrix. Some users and consumers might not like the inescapable fact that a “stabilized” material is at least to some degree plastic. Sometimes the stabilization polymer is highly colored although this is usually only seen with pen blank sized pieces.
Burls can occur on many different species of tree including Maple. While burl isn’t technically a “figure,” burl wood is almost always figured in its own right so I have included the variant here as anyone shopping for Maple will likely come across burl harvested from difference species of Maple.
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. The figure resulting from these dormant buds can very similar to Birdseye Maple figure as the cause is the same: buds that could not come to maturity.
Many burls 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 why they form 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.
Burl wood, including Maple burl, may sometimes be sold as “stabilized.” This process was explained above with spalting.
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
Maple is also a popular wood for baseball bats; however, ash and hickory are more commonly used for this purpose today since they do not shatter as readily as maple does when broken.
Because maple wood carries sound waves well it is also known as a tone-wood, and therefore hard Maples are 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, including Gibson brand modern and classic guitars.
Maple, especially figured and highly artificially colored Maple is used in the shells of drums although birch is gaining in popularity for this application.
Bassoons and double basses may also be constructed from maple.
Figured maple specimens are highly prized for use in musical instruments of all types due to the unique beauty. Some musicians consider that it produces a better sound than Mahogany, the other major tone-wood used to make instruments.
Highly figured pieces also commonly find use in veneer form to gain the maximum usage of relatively uncommon forms.
Butcher blocks are frequently made from maple because of the hardness of the wood resists cut marks, but care should be taken to only use wooden butcher’s blocks for either cooked OR uncooked foods, never both, to avoid the risk of cross-contamination with food borne illness causing bacteria.
Perhaps the two best known applications of maple are the collection and concentration of its winter sap for syrup making and as the national emblem, and prominent feature on the flag of Canada since 1965.
The wood may also be used for more prosaic uses such as pulpwood (sadly), workbenches, as well as lathe turned objects and specialty wood items.
Unfigured Maple should be relatively inexpensive to obtain while figured pieces can be more expensive, depending on the degree of figure and the size. As would be expected, the larger the piece of the blank, the higher the price will be.
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.
West Penn Hardwoods, while mostly dedicated to exotic imported woods, does sell a relatively small selection of domestic woods including Maple. They offer the following types of Maple, including figured pieces: Ambrosia, Birdseye, Curly Western, Hard, Quilted Western, and Soft. Most all of these varieties are only available in dimensional lumber formats, and when turning blanks are available, they are only available as spindles; no bowl blank stock is available from this vendor. Prices vary widely depending on the type and degree of figure present. Plain curly Maple sells for slightly over $10 a board foot while quarter-sawn curly sells for slightly over $14 a board foot. For comparison, plain hard Maple sells for slight under $4 a board foot. Ambrosia Maple sells for as little as $3.50 a square foot and Soft Maple sells for $5.00 a board foot. Any figure, clearly, increases the price quite dramatically, unless you are seeking Ambrosia Maple and that is a bargain.
Bell Forest Products, in part, bills themselves as the best source for Maple in the country, which would stand to reason given that they are located in the epicenter of Hard Maple harvesting, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They offer the following varieties of Maple: Barkpocket, Birdseye, Curly Hard, Curly Red Leaf, Hard, Hard Maple Burl, Quilted Western, Red Leaf, Rift-Sawn Hard, Spalted, Tiger Hard, Tiger Red Leaf, and Western Maple Burl. Whew! That’s a lot of different types of Maple. Prices are all over the map, but again, you will find very few, in any, bowl blank sizes of any type of Maple being sold through this source. As examples, Barkpocket is roughly $20 per board foot while Birdseye lumber can be as much as $54 per board foot. Red Leaf Maple, on the other hand, can be as little as $3.10 per board foot when purchased in large quantities. Prices for Maple will all depending on the type, the figure, and the size. This is always true of lumber but especially widely variable amongst the different types and figures of Maple.
There are few new terms that require explanation from the above text.
I have not talked about Barkpocket Maple up to this point. Barkpocket refers to any Maple species in which the bark is “ingrown” and therefore visible in the sapwood even after milling. Some users consider this a defect while others celebrate the unique look. It is unusual and always expensive. It is not considered one of the “standard” figured types of Maple and therefore was not mentioned before.
Rift sawn wood can be manufactured either as a compliment to quarter sawn lumber or logs can be cut specifically as rift sawn. In rift sawn lumber the annual rings are typically between 30-60 degrees, with 45 degrees being optimum. Milling perpendicular to the log’s growth rings produces a linear grain pattern with no flecking. This method produces the most waste, increasing the cost of this lumber. Rift sawn lumber is the most dimensionally stable cut of lumber available and has a unique linear appearance.
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.
NC Wood sells a good bit of Ambrosia Maple. A quite large bowl blank size of 10”x10”x4” sells for as little as $22. That comes out to as little as $7.92 per board foot, a great price for a blank of this size. Smaller pieces are, of course, less expensive. A very nice piece of Curly Maple at 9”x9”x2” sells for $22.00 (almost $20 per board foot) while a smaller spindle size of Curly Maple, 2”x2”x12” sells for only $7.00 ($21 per board foot). I suspect the expensive nature of Curly Maple is now clear.
I have also recently discovered and fairly extensively used Wood Turningz, a retailer located in Indiana. This company mostly sells pen kits and other component materials. It seems that a relatively recent addition to the main line items they have been selling in the past, especially re-selling products from Penn State Industries, are large bowl blanks in an impressive range of species, including some that I have not seen sold by any other retailer. They sell a nice selection of very high quality Maple bowl blanks including: Burl; Curly (regular and exhibition grade); Maple segmented and bonded with Paduak, Purpleheart, and Walnut; Quilted; Spalted; and stabilized Spalted. In terms of pricing, regular Curly goes for about $32 per board foot to $42, for exhibition grade, per board foot. Maple Burl goes for a whopping $68 per board foot! Quilted Maple goes for $32 per board foot (same as Curly). Spalted goes for $57 per board foot while the stabilized Spalted sells for an astounding $89 per board foot! As always, in lumber grade, figure, and treatments massively affect price. Again, in lumber pricing, grade matters enormously! Note: To ensure fair comparisons, all prices are based on 6”x6”x2” blanks, or 0.5 board feet. Larger blanks are available in some varieties. Often, the larger blanks will sell for a higher total price, but reflect lower per board foot pricing, such that while you pay more per piece you get more material per dollar.
While the five dealers above are personal favorites, Maple, figured and otherwise, is likely to be readily obtainable from other hardwood dealers, probably including one near you if you live in the eastern United States or Canada. 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 Maple, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms 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.
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, including highly figured pieces of Maple which almost always sell for a premium price.
Maple is 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.
Maple is not subject to special restrictions by any United States or Canadian government agency.
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 White Ash 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 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.
I also 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.
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.
In addition, the standard risks posed by prolonged and repeated exposure to dust from any wood species also exists with Maple and steps should be taken to avoid prolonged dust exposure. 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 woods 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 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. It was more of a dish, or perhaps even a Frisbee-type saucer but it was the beginning of a much enjoyed hobby.
I find Maple to truly be an ideal turning wood since the relative hardness of the wood, regardless of the species, generally 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.
Maple can be turned extremely thin; I have several pieces that allow the light to shine through, greatly enhancing the figure and grain. And Maple 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 more highly figured examples, probably because most figured logs end up sliced into veneer which provides for the maximum profit from the relatively uncommon trees that display high degrees of figure.
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!