Red maple is growing in popularity for sporting goods, cabinetry and furniture.
Fall is a good time to pay homage to domestic maples, a group of some 10 species of Acer that provide a palette of gorgeous red, yellow and-orange leaves against the autumn sky. Maple trees, the domestics here and in Canada, most often are divided into two commercial groups â hard and soft maples.
Red maple, also known as Acer rubrum, belongs to the âsoftâ maple category, although all maples are hardwoods. Other commercially significant species included in the soft maple category are Acer saccharinum (silver maple), Acer negundo, (Manitoba maple) and Acer macrophyllum (Oregon maple, Pacific maple and big leaf maple).
Rhode Islandâs state tree, red maple likely earned its name because the tree displays the red color most of the year, from its red buds in winter to the red flowers in spring, red twigs in summer and its deep red fall foliage.
Red maple is considered one of the most important timbers of the soft maple group, although hard maples like rock maple and black maple display a greater range of figures and edge out red maple for texture. Although it often displays a plain grain, red maple can sometimes yield an attractive curl figure.
Jim Kirby, owner of Sandy Pond Hardwoods Inc., Quarryville, PA, said curl has become a generic term, usually signifying a âlinear wave figure, generally perpendicular to the direction of the grain.
âIt goes marching across the face, and the curl will vary from species to species,â he said, âlooking different in red leaf maple [compared to] its relative big leaf maple. The curl in red leaf maple is usually 1/2-inch to 5/8-inch in diameter and also is known as tiger or tiger-stripe maple.â
Kirby added that figures are more rare in red maple than in the hard maples. âIf you looked at 4 million board feet of red maple, curl would be a small percentage of figured wood. A smaller fraction would be quilted and an even smaller fraction would be birdâs-eye maple, which is the rarest of rare figures in red maple.â
Veneers â A Fritz Kohl Handbook, describes curl in maple as a âspecial form of growth occurring in only 2 to 5 percent of all maple logs,â including hard and soft maples.
While both hard and soft maples glue and bend well, âHard takes a stain more uniformly than soft maple,â Kirby said. âDepending on the geographic area the lumber is from, red maple sapwood can be brighter than hard mapleâs, which is usually a creamier color. Both hard and soft maples machine well, although hard maple tends to hold an edge and profile a little better,â he said.
Another marked difference between hard and soft maples is the color of the heartwood, Kirby added. âHard mapleâs heartwood is a cappuccino brown, while red mapleâs heartwood is more of an olive gray/green. Fifteen years ago, soft maple would be more of a hard sale, but today there is more of a following for âcharacterâ grades,â he said.
Variety of Uses
While early colonists chose red maple for furniture making, more recent uses for red maple include flooring, furniture, cabinetry, interior joinery, sporting goods and paneling. The wood is also ideal for shoe lasts, musical instruments, piano parts and turnery, with limited use in architectural woodworking and decorative veneers.
Kirby said he thinks that the recent increase in popularity of hard maple, particularly in cabinetry, has had a beneficial effect on sales of soft maple, especially as prices of hard maple have risen.
Myles Gilmer of Gilmer Wood Co., Portland, OR, said he has sold some red maple, although most of the soft maple is western big leaf. However, he added, red maple with a curly figure would be of interest to his customers.
âHard maple is by far more popular for high-end uses,â Gilmer said. âThere is a considerable difference between hard and soft maple species, although you do see them mixed occasionally.
âSoft maple is used in kitchen cabinetry and furniture,â Gilmer said, âand in small specialty applications like guitar tops. [However] I prefer hard maple for its machinability and overall looks,â he added.
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