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.
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.
.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.
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).