Q: Will the price of hard maple (or sugar maple) lumber ever stop rising? How does soft maple compare to hard maple? We have tried a little and it seems to work well.

A: The two groups of woods (hard maple is actually two species and soft maple is three) compare very closely in some aspects. They look very much alike; it is impossible to separate the two species without magnification.

However, often the soft maple tree has a small bug that gets in the tree right under the bark, leaving small (an inch or so long and perhaps 1/4 inch wide) streaks, sometimes called worm tracks or flecks, in the wood. (Should we call these streaks "character marks" rather than defects? Maybe we should start calling such wood "Wild Turkey Maple?")

These streaks often can be used to identify soft maple, although they are not always present and they sometimes appear in hard maple. It is important to note that the lumber grade designation "WHND" does not consider flecks to be a defect.

I do think that there is a slight sheen difference. When I look at soft maple from different angles and with different lighting angles, it seems to have more changes in character than hard maple. Two adjacent pieces that look to be the same color from one angle will show substantial color difference when viewed from another angle. Have you noticed this?

When drying the two woods, hard maple is just a little harder to dry. Both hard and soft maple are subject to stain when dried too slowly. Both can be dried to a very white color. However, as soft maple is often considered of low value, it may be dried at higher temperatures and therefore it will normally appear darker in color. Soft maple lumber also shrinks a little less than hard maple - soft maple is a little more stable.

Soft maple is lower in density than hard maple. In other words, soft maple is actually softer than hard maple-it is easier to dent soft maple with your fingernail than it is to dent hard maple. This low density also means that the wood is weaker. Fasteners will not be as strong, and in soft maple they may be pulled out with three-fourths to one-half the effort or strength as from hard maple. (Note: Soft maple strength is like any other similar, low density species. In fact, soft maple is stronger than many softwoods like spruce and fir).

Generally, lower density woods glue much better, and soft maple glues better than hard maple. Low density woods also have less tendency to develop chipped and torn grain when machining, but they do seem to have more microscopic fuzz and less natural polish to the surface, so you will have to make sure that tools and sandpaper are kept very sharp.

I look for higher prices in maple and most other fine grain species at least through the rest of the year. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 20 percent increase in most species, with hard maple, cherry, and walnut perhaps going up 35 percent or more.

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