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The Many Faces of Hard Maple Lumber: Rock, Sugar, Brown, and White

by Mark Stephens | December 9th, 2009
Hard maple grows in the Great Lakes region of North America and New England

Hard maple grows in the Great Lakes region of North America and New England

Hard Maple trees in fall color

Hard Maple trees in fall color

It all comes from the same tree: hard maple, rock maple, sugar maple, brown maple, white maple.  The acer saccharum to be most specific.

That species name, saccharum, is Latin for sugar.

You might be drawing the correct conclusion about now that that the very tree that gets harvested for beautiful hard maple lumber is the same one that produces the finest maple syrup that take ordinary Sunday morning pancakes to a whole new level of scrumptious mouthwatering joy.

I didn’t hear your stomach growl, did I?

While the wood carries many interchangeable names, the woodworker most often cares about the two distinct appearances of the wood.

Hard Maple log shows the dark heartwood in the center with a wide band of white sapwood

Hard Maple log shows the dark heartwood in the center with a wide band of white sapwood

The heartwood, like most hardwoods, is much darker than the outer sapwood.  With hard maple, it’s the clear white sapwood that’s in high demand.  Whereas it’s the heartwood of woods like cherry and walnut that are the envy of American woodworkers.

In general, the industry identifies hard maple in three ways:

  1. selected (white)
  2. unselected or
  3. brown

“Selected” hard maple can be a little deceptive.  In this case, we’re not talking about the grade “select” but whether or not the wood has been sorted for color:  such as “white boards selected.”  We stock this as Hard White Maple.

It’s a process that usually happens at the sawmill rather than further down the distribution chain.  For instance, we’ll get a nice list of current lumber offerings from one our trusty lumber sources.  And on that list we’ll see availability of some “4/4 Hard White Maple” and then perhaps a line with “4/4 Hard Maple (UNSEL)” and another with “4/4 Hard Brown Maple.”

Left board: unselected hard maple; right board selected white maple

Left board: unselected hard maple; right board selected white maple

White Hard Maple boards

White Hard Maple boards

Unselected (UNSEL) maple means no white maple has been pulled out of the load. Some boards are white, some are brown, some have both.

You probably won’t find unselected maple at a retail distributor because the non-selection is descriptive of a full load or “batch” of lumber, not individual pieces.

However, brown hard maple is what’s remaining after a load has been sorted and selected for white.  We stock this and call it Country Hard Maple.  The color variety makes it good for rustic looking projects.  It’s also called brown hard maple for obvious reasons.

Still hard maple’s major claim is its virtually pure white color with unmatchable combination of strength, beauty, and price.

Should You Use Hard Maple?

Hard maple is the only choice if you're building a bowling alley or something you'll be throwing 12-pound balls at

Hard maple is the only choice if you're building a bowling alley or something you'll be throwing 12-pound balls at

Because it’s durable and strong, you’ll see hard maple used for floors, butcher blocks, baseball bats and bowling lanes.  And because it’s good looking you’ll see hard maple used for cabinetry, furniture, molding/trim and all types of custom woodwork. And because it’s reasonably priced, you’ll be able to use it in your shop jigs and tool parts that need to be strong and hardy; like vise jaws, clamp blocks, home made miter slot slides, etc.

Between the variety of uses for the lumber as well as the popularity of maple syrup, the acer saccharum tree is a commercially important one in North America. Want to know how much hard maple lumber was produced in 2006? 514,000,000 board feet, making it the 4th most produced lumber in the United States (behind red oak, white oak, and yellow poplar).

Try Hard Maple Today

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 at 1:01 pm and is filed under Tips and Tricks, Wood Conversations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • John

    Like what you did with the cutting boards.

  • SHEILA

    I’ve been looking all over for new cuttingboard designs. These are great.

    Thanks.

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  • CLA

    Being an ex-bowling alley mechanic, I can testify to the overall strength and durability of hard rock maple.

    But when it came time to do lane patching on a split lane board by routing out a 1″ deep, 6″ long, and 1″ wide section of the board to glue in a “patch board”, working with maple is a real SOB on non carbide edged tools like wood chisels.

    The boards usually cracked in an area about 10 feet from the start of the lane as that was the average “landing area” for bowling balls that get stuck on a bowler’s thumb and then release with a distinct “POP” like a cork from a champange bottle to catapult through the air and crash down onto the lane surface.

    Despite that harsh treatment, thankfully splits were not all the common place (except for the 7-10 pin splits by bowlers)… now that’s some tough wood!!