June 2005

Curly Maple Rare, Valuable and Slightly Misunderstood

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Maple's ride continues after a decade or more as one of the top-selling North American commercial timbers. Why the appeal?

One obvious factor is that maple is a light-toned wood in a time when furniture designers, cabinetmakers and architectural woodworkers are clamoring for pale colors. Now, even when darker tones are coming back in style, maple is a big seller.

Maple is a long-time favorite with flooring manufacturers and is equally prized by luthiers and other musical instrument makers. For many, it boils down to the look of the wood, which can be both plain without being boring and fancy with figures that range from subtle to outright eye-popping.

Family Name

Acer rubrum, Acer saccharinum, Acer saccharum, Acer nigrum and Acer negundo of the Family Aceraceae.

Common Names

Soft: red maple, silver maple and box elder. Hard: sugar maple, rock maple, black maple, maple and white maple.

Height/Weight

Hard maples grow to 130 feet tall with diameters from 2 to 3 feet. Soft maples vary in height, with silver maples growing to 131 feet and red maples to 98 feet. Hard maples average 45 pounds per cubic foot. Soft maples weight ranges from 38 pounds per cubic foot for red maple and 38 pounds per cubic foot for silver maple.

Properties

  • Soft maple is slightly softer and lower in strength than hard.
  • Soft and hard maple have a good steam-bending classification.
  • Both have a slight blunting effect on tools.
  • Hard maple requires preboring for nailing.

Maple, as much as oak, cherry and walnut, is a national treasure. The United States and Canada are home to more than 13 species of maple. Wood of the Month has focused on bird's eye maple previously, but this column is devoted to the other prominent figure, curly.

Paul Taran, owner of Maple Leaf Hardwoods in Hughesville, PA, agrees that maple is a very sought-after property in both lumber and veneer, and he does not see its appeal waning anytime soon. Taran, who has been in the business for 40 years, sells lumber. "Maple is a close-grained wood, and that's desirable. The curly figure is found in both soft and hard maples and a lot of other species, including ash and cherry," he says.

Taran says curly maple is a kind of catch-all term for most of the figures that maple yields, excluding bird's eye maple. "It's important to make sure the customer goes into detail about the look they want because curly means different things to different people," he says, adding that one person might be looking for a tiger maple with uniform stripes, while someone else might want a blistered or quilted look.

"Curly figures are rare in maples," Taran states. "Soft maples only have curly figures in approximately 3 to 5 percent of the trees cut, and it is even more rare in hard maples, with approximately only 1?2 of 1 percent yielding curly maple or any kind of a figure."

Taran says some clients specify either hard or soft maple when searching for a curly look. "Some will ask for one or the other, especially for a specific application. Luthiers often want hard maple. Slightly more specify soft curly maple because it has a more vivid figure," he says. "Cost also will be a factor because when you factor the ratios of figured material, you see that you have to handle a lot more wood to get the material you need. Sometimes you have customers who want lumber in a figure that God hasn't even made yet."

Jim Kirby, owner of Sandy Pond Hardwoods, Quarryville, PA, says that in today's market, curly refers to the figure in any wood that is linear and repeating, "like a washboard or putting your fingers together, occurring at a perpendicular line to the direction of the grain."

Skip Kise, sales manager at Good Hope Hardwoods, Landesburg, PA, always asks a client to describe and define what he is looking for when he asks for curly. "A customer might say he wants curly or tiger stripe, but he's really looking for a quilted figure," he says. Kise also has seen a rise in calls for figured woods as more and more

people take up woodworking as a hobby.

Uses for the wood have evolved, too. One of the oldest uses of maple is in musical instruments, which continues to be popular. "We got the term fiddleback because curly maple was used on the backs of violins," Kirby says. "Any good acoustic stringed instruments, like violas, violins, cellos and double bases, are still using curly maple."

Kirby says figured maples like bird's eye and curly were not in demand 15 years ago the way they are now. "Back then, it was common to see bird's eye maple being burned in boilers at some of the major furniture manufacturing places in the South," he says. "The production people wanted clear, clean maple and had no use for figured stuff."

Kirby also says the situation has changed 180 degrees with manufacturers occasionally using figured maple in production runs.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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