Maple is one of the most iconic trees in the North American forests. In certain situations, it is also one of the most valuable. That’s because maple is a tree that produces a gorgeous wood with a great variety of uses. It’s warm, golden grain is used for lumber for furniture and veneer, its energy-dense fiber is used for firewood and energy production, and, of course, who could forget maple syrup! It also can produce sought-after specialty products like birdseye maple and curly maple to create brilliant works of wooden art. In this article, we will take a deeper look into maple trees and what they are used for, as well as a few of the key differences in uses between maple species.
Lumber and Veneer for Furniture and Flooring
One of the primary uses of maple wood is as lumber and veneer. Maple (and sugar maple in particular) is a beautiful honey-colored wood with an aesthetically-pleasing grain that adds depth and color to the wood. Thus, maple trees are used as lumber and veneer for furniture or any wood surface where the visual, cosmetic value is important, including cabinets, doors, tables, and even gun stocks! Flooring is also a particularly popular use for maple. In fact, many gym floors are made of maple, including those used in the NBA!
Not every maple tree is suitable for these uses, however. To be used as a sawlog for lumber, a maple tree must be larger and have minimal defects. Moreover, maple sapwood is considered the most desirable. The heartwood on maple is gray-brown and not as pretty, so only maple trees with a high degree of sapwood and minimal defects make the highest grades.
Veneer is made by “unspooling” logs with sharp knives and creating sheets of thin wood to overlay on less-cosmetically aesthetic surfaces. Logs sold as veneer must meet even more stringent standards. To be sold as veneer, a maple log must be considerable in size (usually over 16 inches in diameter) and have virtually no defects and minimal sapwood. However, logs that do meet the cut as veneer are sold at quite the premium, often fetching over $1,000 for a single log! Not bad.
Pulpwood for Papermaking
While most people think of spruce, fir, and other softwoods when it comes to papermaking, hardwoods can be used too, and maple is an important component of that. Generally, hardwoods are considered worse stock for papermaking due to shorter fibers and thus a looser, lower-strength final product, but it is more economic to process due to less lignin in the wood. Thus, hardwood is particularly suitable for certain types of paper.
Biomass Green Energy
Believe it or not, low-quality maple and slash debris from logging operations can be sold as biomass to be burned for electricity production. However, Biomass is a relatively small component of the US’ total electricity, accounting for only 1.3% of total production. And of course, not all of that production comes from maple, which only makes up a small fraction of the wood used. Nonetheless, in areas with a biomass market, maple is often an important part of that mix.
When wood is sold as biomass, typically it will be piled separately on a logging job with tree tops and lower-quality stems put into a biomass pile. From there, it is run through a chipper on site and then trucked to a facility where it is then burned and converted into electricity.
When maple trees are used as biomass, it is also a form of green energy. The trees originally sequester the carbon through photosynthesis, and the carbon is released into the atmosphere when the wood is burned. New growth then re-sequesters carbon, creating a renewable, net-zero emission. This is especially beneficial when you consider that maple wood sold as biomass is often the lowest-quallity, and would otherwise be left to release carbon anyway in the form of decomposition.
Even when it isn’t in the form of biomass, maple is great for burning! Maple is one of the best woods to use for firewood. With a high heat content and slow burn rate, it is a favorite for camp fires and woodstoves nationwide. If you want to learn more about maple firewood, we have a whole article on the subject here.
Along with being a great firewood, maple is also used as a component in a lot of wood pellets, and not just for heating. Those who enjoy backyard smoking use maple pellets for the unique flavor it imparts on meats, especially pork and beef. I’m getting hungry already!
speaking of food, probably the most famous use for maple is the delicious syrup made from its sap. Maple sugaring is big business. Across the forests of the northeastern United States and Canada, hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland are dedicated specifically to its production. In fact, the largest producer in Vermont has around 24,000 acres in taps alone.
Of course, while maple syrup is a forest product, the maple sugaring industry operates mostly parallel to the rest of the forest industry. Unlike products that utilize maple wood, maple trees must be standing to produce sugar, and collecting sap requires completely different processes from other forest products, which is why it can be so expensive. Nonetheless, it is still a crucial and time-honored piece of forest economies.
Maple As a Landscape Tree
Perhaps one of the most-appreciated uses of maple is as a landscape tree. Maple is a long-lived tree with regal form and an ancient-looking, crevicing bark that instantly gives a sense of history to any land it grows on. In the fall, the foliage of maple is unparalleled. Sugar maple gives brilliant hues of orange and yellow, and red maple displays a deep crimson. In the northeastern United States, it really is maple that defines the beauty of autumn.
Along with all the other uses, maple trees do occasionally produce two specialty products as a result of abnormalities in their wood grain. Namely, they are Birdseye maple and curly maple.
Birdseye maple is the name for a grain anomaly in maple trees that creates a speckled pattern, such as in the photo below. It is considered highly desirable for all sorts of applications in which cosmetics is valued. As such, a good Birdseye log can fetch quite a premium! Birdseye comes almost exclusively from sugar maple, and while most believe it is a result of the tree growing in a stressful environment (disease, weather, soil), there is no scientific consensus on what causes it.
Similar to Birdseye maple, curly maple (sometimes called fire, quilted, or tiger maple depending on grain variation) is a grain anomaly that creates wave-like patterns in the wood. Much like Birdseye, it is highly valued for its beautiful appearance, and it has historically been used in applications like furniture, musical instruments, and gun stocks, such as the stock of William Clark’s (of Lewis and Clark) rifle below.
Notes on Individual Species
Below are a few notes on the nuances in the uses of the many species of maple.
Sugar Maple (Hard Maple)
Sugar Maple is by far the most valuable of the maple species, and it is the species of maple primarily responsible for maple lumber and veneer. Additionally, sugar maple is the primary species used in the production of maple syrup.
Sugar maple is also the best maple species to burn for firewood, being the densest and containing the most BTUs (24 million BTUs per cord compared to 18.6 for red maple, the next best species).
Red Maple (Soft Maple)
Red maple is not as valuable as sugar maple due to it being softer, more prone to rot, and poorer quality overall. While it is seldom used for high-grade lumber, it does serve its purpose in making wooden pallets and railroad ties.
Red maple is also used for maple sugaring. However, it produces a sap with a lower sugar content, so more sap is needed to make the same amount of syrup. In commercial sugaring operations, red maple is usually only tapped opportunistically.
Silver maple produces low-quality wood unsuitable for use as lumber. It is soft and generally brittle. Moreover, silver maple has a tendency to branch out, creating poor form. When harvested commercially, silver maple is usually sold as pulpwood.
When used for firewood, it serves quite well, however. It splits easy and provides approximately the same heat content as red maple.
Norway maple is an invasive species that can create problems where it grows. It is native to Europe, where it is used as an important commercial species similar to sugar maple in the US. However, in the US, it does not have a significant presence within forests. They occur mostly on the edges of woodlands close to towns, and so most Norway maple in the US is of poor quality and unsuitable for lumber production. However, it does make a decent firewood.
Is Maple a Hardwood or a Softwood?
While it may be confusing given sugar and red maple’s colloquial names of “hard” and “soft” maple, all species of maple are hardwoods. The terms hardwood and softwood merely convey generalities about conifers (softwoods) and deciduous trees (hardwoods). These generalities do not always hold true. In fact, balsa wood, the lightest and softest wood available, is a hardwood, and yew, which is incredibly dense, is a softwood. Go figure.
The Importance of Maple
Clearly, maple is a crucial piece of the forest economy. With so many uses, the versatility of maple is unmatched, and it product mix helps diversify forest economies. Next time you see beautiful yellow foliage in the fall, go to a classical symphony, eat pancakes, or even turn the lights on, give a little thanks to this tree.