Soft Maple Is Not Too Soft

Silver maple has a special place in my heart. It was one of the first trees I ever milled (I would say it was my first, but my memory isn’t that good). It was a tree taken out by our neighbor and had a short trunk, only about 6′ long, and about 24″ in diameter. At the time I knew little about processing lumber and nothing specific about maples, and didn’t know what I had. Looking back it was a great short log. It had very little heartwood, which meant that all of the boards were a bright white color. Plus, it had no knots except for the very center.

Silver maple comes in many different figures, including ambrosia (on the left), caused by small beetle holes in the middle of each tiger stripe.

Like I said, the lumber was nice, but I didn’t know how to feel about it. Around here, maple isn’t that prominent. We have a lot of silver maple in yards and along the big rivers, but this is basically walnut, cherry and oak land. The fact that it was maple threw me off, and the fact that it was silver maple really threw me off. I read what I could about it in books (since the internet wasn’t widely available). I also checked out field guides, focused on magazine articles and tried my best to figure out where I could use the lumber.

Everything I read made silver maple sound like a loser. It was a secondary wood. The Audobon field guide probably said it was used for wood spoons (everything that has no odor is used for wood spoons). Sugar maple was what I wanted. It was hard maple – tough and durable, the kind of stuff they make the first few feet of a bowling alley out if, not to mention the pins. I didn’t have sugar maple, I had silver maple, which is a soft maple. But it looked nice (did I mention that?). Some of the more quartersawn boards even had a little curly figure. Nobody had anything good to say about soft maple. So, I didn’t use the wood right away. I dried it and slowly used it here and there as a secondary wood, but that was all.

When I used it, I found that it planed easily and would come out clean if the grain was straight. I also found it to work well with other tools and started to wonder more about why it gets such a bad rap. I finally figured it out – it’s the name.

They call silver maple “soft” maple, while sugar maple is called “hard” maple. I would argue that this is wrong. Silver maple should just be called “maple” and sugar maple should be called “unnecessarily hard maple”. That would even out the playing field. No one would want to use wood that was unnecessarily hard. They would want a wood that is just right, like silver maple. It does everything hard maple does, comes in almost all of the same variations and won’t make you dread running it through your tools.

I even used silver maple (ambrosia figure) for the floors in the kitchen of my last house. It looked great and worked fine as a floor. Sure, it dented some, but hard maple dents too. Think about it, even oak dents, so the question is, how soft is too soft?

Silver maple is soft compared to sugar (hard) maple, but that isn’t saying much. Compared to sugar (hard) maple, cherry and walnut are softwoods too. But, cherry and walnut are great woods and the fact that they are not rock hard makes them even better. They are not too heavy and they are a pleasure to run through the tools. So how does silver maple compare to woods besides hard maple?

To put it in perspective here are a few domestic species and their densities or specific gravity. The higher the number, the denser and heavier the wood. Though silver maple is not the hardest of the group, notice the fine company it keeps in the middle of the pack.

This entire secretary is made from silver maple. The door panels were a blistery, curly figure that happened in a big old log.

.35 – White Pine
.37 – Basswood
.42 – Poplar
.47 – Silver Maple
.50 – Cherry
.55 – Walnut
.63 – Sugar Maple
.63 – Red Oak

So, I eased into using silver maple. First, I just used it for stuff around the shop, like fixtures and jigs. Then, I started using it for drawer sides, then painted parts and then stained parts.

Now, I use it regularly and will gladly let it be the primary wood. It works especially well for my more rustic work because I can find specific logs with lots of character. They are often curly or wormy or figured in some way. And, at the same time you can find logs with clear, bright white lumber.

This sofa table was made from ambrosia maple.

I have been amazed at how diverse silver maple is, and I am always finding new places to use it. I would encourage you to give silver maple a try as well, and don’t forget to call me when it comes time to stain (staining maple is worthy of an entire blog posting on its own).

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

14 responses to “Soft Maple Is Not Too Soft”

  1. billlattpa says :

    Nice article. I love maple but it’s expensive. I made the trim in our kitchen from maple and I remember trying to nail it with fine finish nails. Even with a pilot hole it was tough going. So I broke down and picked up a compressor and finish nailer.
    I always thought maple took a nice finish, and is also tough(tougher) than nails. Again, nice job.

    • wunderwoods says :

      That’s two more reasons to love silver maple. It is less expensive than sugar maple and it will take fasteners better.
      Hard maple does take a nice finish because can be sanded glass smooth, but that is the reason it is so hard to stain evenly. The parts that are glass smooth take no stain and anywhere the grain changes directions the stain soaks in, causing blotchy color.

  2. Chris Perron says :

    I would like to add that soft maple is a terrible choice for baseball bats! Broke on the second swing!

    • wunderwoods says :

      Silver maple is more brittle. After storms you’ll see a lot of silver maple branches on the ground. We had a sugar maple at our last house that grew abnormally with a million branches and they never fell off. Sugar maple wins the brittle battle, but when it blows up on the baseball field, it blows into a billion pieces. Even so, it still makes a better bat.

  3. Bob Gayle says :

    i found an 8ft long 50″ silver maple trunk out at the city tree dump, and had it hauled home, i then quartered the beast which about killed me… then to my nephews portable sawmill. there was no rot at all, and ended up with many 4/4 and 6/4 boards 22-24 inches wide, some quarter sawn, several rift and i worked to not have anything flat sawn. gorgeous with about 80% of the yield with anywhere from moderate to severe tiger striping… incredible log that one was… it has been air drying for about a year now and about ready to bring some inside to finish drying enough for a few projects… i have no interest in anything but big silvers from now on! its like hunting for gold for me. lots of guys like oak and of coarse walnut is king around here, so there is no competition for silver maples. 🙂

  4. Marsha Hack says :

    I loved your blog about silver maple. I trust your jugement about trees & wood since I have experience with getting some nice beams & wide plank pine flooring from you in the past.

    I have a beautiful silver maple with a 25 ft trunk! I love the tree, but it is now putting my house & 2 neighboring houses at risk. It has some nice knots in the trunk & I think it would make some beautiful, quite large boards.

    If it needs to leave the earth, I can’t think of a better person for it to go to than you, so you
    can do something wonderful with it. I would also like a few boards for a headboard to remember my beloved tree.

  5. James Willett says :

    Thanks for the article. It has convinced me to try and keep some of the large silver maple in my backyard, just have to convince whoever cuts it down to leave me some large sections and find a sawmill.

  6. rick says :

    i came across your blog while researching the best way to harvest lumber from the silver maple timber in my front yard. im a woodworker and a tree hugger so im in love with everything this tree has to give. Though ive heard my master-gardener girlfriend, refer to this as a trash tree, i had no idea the disdain held for it in the general populous.
    I was very glad to read your blog post here and your hardness scale rating chart really did it for me…..i was thinking, “am i crazy? is everyone really saying they wouldnt even frame a house from silver maple?”

    so tomorrow i go buy my first chainsaw and harvest my first lumber. next stop…the jionter.
    final distination….my family dinning room.

    thanks for the posting

  7. Kyle says :

    I have some soft maple(not sure which kind. Bought it as soft maple.) I was going to make a dinning room table with it. Have you ever tried hand scraping it like they do flooring? Does it scrape well? As far as staining goes I was thinking about trying the steel wool in vinegar trick then scrape it then a light stain so the black from the steel wool shows through. Have you tried the steel wool on maple? If so how does it work?

  8. wunderwoods says :

    Lately I have been using a hand plane, either powered or non-powered, to make the hand-finished look. After planing, I sand out most of the hard lines, but leave a slightly wavy surface. The 4″ power planer makes fast work of this. I haven’t tried the steel wool vinegar on maple, but I assume that it won’t work as well as oak because it doesn’t have as much tanning in the wood, but it won’t hurt to try.

  9. Leonard says :

    We get a lot of box elder (soft maple) in NY. It is ok for making projects with. I make crates and other utility stuff with it. It has red streaks in it occasionally.

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