A favourite wood of furniture makers since Colonial times, maple is known for its strength and beauty. Two types of maple -- hard and soft -- offer endless possibilities for many commercial and residential projects, including new cabinets, doors and flooring. It is the most common wood used for musical instruments. The colours range from pale beige to a light to medium reddish-brown. Sturdy and with a beautiful tight grain, maple is a good wood option for traditional and contemporary furniture styles.
Hard Maple Characteristics
Resistant to splinting and naturally durable, hard maple is used to manufacture many items including baseball bats, billiard sticks and bowling pins. Two varieties, sugar and black, are used in furniture making, flooring and cabinets, and sold as veneers. Its density makes hard maple a poor choice for carving and inlay work. While it holds nails and screws well, it is best to drill pilot holes due to the tight grain. Maple's sugary sap gives the wood a sweet aroma that is ideal for smoking meats.
Soft Maple Characteristics
While soft maple is not as hard and heavy as hard maple, it is still strong enough for making things like furniture, boxes, veneer and cooking utensils. Silver and red maple trees make up the bulk of soft maple lumber, which has about the same density as cherry. Soft maple has a straight, delicate grain with colours ranging from cream to light brown with dark red or black streaks. It holds nails and screws better than hard maple, but soft maple can shrink more over time.
Maple's hardness makes it one of the most difficult woods to stain evenly. According to professional furniture restorer Doug George, who has worked for the Texas State Preservation Board, applying a transparent aniline dye is the best choice for maple. Unlike stains, aniline dyes penetrate deep into the wood fibres giving a uniform appearance. Dissolved with water or alcohol, the powdered dye applies easily and does not leave a blotchy appearance. Available in multiple colours, aniline dyes range from soft hues and bright colours to dark tones. Always practice with the dyes on a scrap maple piece to ensure the proper colour before dying your actual workpiece.
Maple's Grain Patterns
Some of maple's uncommon grain patterns make it an excellent choice for making pieces with an unusual look. Tiger or curly maple has a stripped appearance, while quilted maple resembles ripples of water. Tiny swirls with a dark centre give bird's eye maple an abstract look. Maple burl has a twisted grain and spalted maple consists of black streaks caused by wood fungus. Tap maple has a man-made spike pattern that results from tapping the tree many times to drain the sap. After the taps heal, they darken the wood creating a decorative pattern. All of these maples are more expensive and not as readily available as ordinary maple.
Maple's Acoustic Properties
Sound waves reverberate very well through maple making it a desirable wood for many types of musical instruments. The necks of string instruments such as guitars, violins and basses, are commonly made from maple, usually sugar or silver, due to its brighter sound. Since maple is a heavy wood, the instrument bodies are not made from it, however maple is normally used for the tops.
Maple's distinctive grain patterns makes it a perfect wood for quartersawing, which produces an appealing look. First, a maple log is cut into quarters to reveal the grain. Then each quarter is cut again, but this time alternating from the two sides of each section. This process helps keep the wood from warping, and makes it easier to shape maple for musical instruments and furniture.