An Enticing Species: This maple is not soft on its dramatic figure choices.

Family Name

Acer rubrum, Acer saccharinum, Acer macrophyllum and Acer negundo of the Family Aceraceae.

Common Names

Red maple, silver maple, Pacific maple, Oregon maple, bigleaf maple

Height/Weight

Silver maple can grow to 131 feet or higher while red maple is typically 98 feet tall. Pacific maples range in height from 40 to 100 feet. Acer rubrum’s (red maple) weight averages 38 pounds per cubic foot. The average weight for Acer saccharinum and Acer macrophyllum is 34 pounds per cubic foot.

Properties

Soft maple has a medium density with good bending and crushing strengths.

It has low stiffness and shock resistance and a good steam-bending classification.

The wood dries slowly with little degrade and medium movement in service.

The wood works well with hand and machine tools with moderate blunting on cutting tools.

The commercially important Acer species native to the United States is roughly divided into two categories: hard and soft maple. Hard maples include: sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and black maple (Acer nigrum). Soft maple, the focus of this column, includes red maple (Acer rubrum), silver maple (Acer saccharinum), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) and the less commercially important box elder (Acer negundo).

The wood of soft maple is similar in some respects to hard maple, but is generally 25 percent softer. It has a similar range to hard maple, but it is found further south; although bigleaf maple is found along the Pacific coast.

While soft maple is considered lower in strength than its harder counterpart, it has many similar uses, among them furniture and interior joinery. It is also a popular choice for: turnery and woodenware, musical instruments and piano parts, sports equipment, shoe lasts and bobbins. Selected logs are sliced into veneer used in: cabinetry, furniture, architectural millwork, doors and paneling. Although hard maple is well known for its excellent flooring properties, soft maple also can be used for light domestic flooring applications.

A Dramatic Figure

Jim Dumas, owner of Certainly Wood Inc. in East Aurora, NY, said that while soft maple may not finish as lustrously as hard maple, the soft maple trees offer some very dramatic figure types, particularly curly figures, making them an affordable and attractive option.

“We carry one figure from soft maple that we call ambrosia beetle — others may call it wormy soft maple — mostly because the worm holes are caused by the ambrosia beetle making small holes where ground water and sap from the tree pick up minerals and cause a discoloration, making long streaks of blue and green and orange. When it happens, it can result in what I call a very affordable, exotic-looking domestic.”

Dumas said he has seen highly figured soft maple used in a variety of applications, from kitchen cabinetry to boat interiors and interior paneling for cottages.”

Another source of highly figured soft maple is from bigleaf maple, said Dumas. “Bigleaf maple is almost always highly figured. It can have quilt, fiddleback and curl, but I’ve also seen it with just about every figure there is, including bird’s-eye, pommele, angel stamp and spalting. Soft maple’s uses seem to be either common utility or high end, highly decorative with a wide range like cherry or walnut,” said Dumas.

Kent Mace, owner of Collector’s Specialty Woods in Gardner, CO, agrees that many beautiful and dramatic figure choices are available from the soft maple group. “We feature a large collection of bigleaf maple burls and slabs with curl and quilted figures. It’s a very beautiful wood and it is popular in high-end applications, such as furniture and musical instruments,” he said.

Mace added the bigleaf trees thrive along river beds and up the coast, some growing to massive heights and diameters, thus lending themselves to a large presence of figures. “The soft maples do have many high-end uses, precisely because of the presence of figure. Bigleaf has various grades of curly and quilted and some fiddle, although the really tight fiddle seems more often found in the eastern soft maple species. For me, there’s nothing better than a big, colorful bigleaf burl transformed into a coffee table,” said Mace.

Species Characteristics

Acer rubrum, or red maple, is so-called for its distinctive red leaves in autumn. It is the state tree of Rhode Island and known by other names, including: scarlet maple, soft maple, swamp maple, water maple and shoe-pet maple. In the book, Know Your Woods by Albert Constantine Jr., red maple is described as one of the most valuable of the soft maples and has been well regarded since Colonial times, when it was widely used for furniture before early Colonists imported mahogany. Red maple grows in roughly the same states as the sugar or hard maple, but as a rule is found in lowlands, swamps and along riverbanks.

Bigleaf maple, also known as Oregon maple, Pacific maple and broadleaf maple, is a large tree ranging in size from 40 to 100 feet in height, with diameters of 2 to 4 feet. As its name suggests, bigleaf maple has impressive-sized leaves, ranging from 6 to 12 inches in diameter.

The tree’s native range is the West Coast, from California to Washington, as well as in British Columbia. The greatest volume of sawn timber from the species is said to come from Washington and Oregon.

Editor’s note: 136 Wood of the Month articles are now online, with more coming soon. Visit the Wood of the Month archive here.

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