The maple family, Aceraceae, consists of only two genera; Acer (the maples) and Dipteronia, a small genus containing only two species native to China. The remaining 150 or so species are all maples and they are spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere in both the New and Old Worlds. They are predominantly deciduous trees, preferring moist, temperate climates with pronounced seasonal change…although a couple of species range slightly below the Equator in Indonesia. In terms of diversity, China possesses the greatest number of species with about two thirds of all the maples. Only about a dosen maples are native to temperate North America, but the United States and Canada dominate world trade in the export of maple lumber and plywood veneers.
The American Maples:
Of our dozen native species, only 5 or 6 are commonly available as lumber sold through commercial outlets. However, the trade traditionally has segregated them into only two categories: hard maples and soft maples. Hard maple is provided by only two species native to the northeastern and midwestern states: sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and black maple (Acer nigrum.) While all of our other native species are classed as “soft” maples, there is considerable variation in the density and other average properties of the woods as indicated in the following table:
SPECIES: DENSITY: SHRINKAGE:
Specific gravity Radial Tangential T/R Volumetric
Sugar 0.56 4.8% 9.9% 2.06 : 1 14.7%
Black 0.52 4.8 9.3 1.94 14.0
Red 0.49 4.0 8.2 2.05 12.6
Silver 0.44 3.0 7.2 2.40 12.0
Bigleaf 0.44 3.7 7.1 1.92 11.6
Two other species sometimes are seen in the commercial lumber trade; striped maple and boxelder. The wood of striped maple is very similar to that of silver maple and seldom segregated. However boxelder is sufficiently different to be of special interest to turners in that it is the finest textured of the maples and turns beautifully. With a specific gravity of only 0.42, it is also the softest of the soft maples. But perhaps it’s most stunning feature is that it sometimes develops beautiful, coral pink spalting, making it look almost like marble when the figure is exposed on a curved surface. The primary reason this species is not more appreciated in other cabinetmaking pursuits is that it is relatively weak, tends to be a little brittle and has rather poor stability. At 14.8%, its volumetric shrinkage is the highest of the maples, but its rather low T/R ratio of only 1.90 makes it less prone to distortion than are most of the other maples.
The maples have a number of features that make them outstanding woods for turning. They are all fine textured, diffuse porous woods with very even texture. They also produce some outstanding special figures, such as bird’s-eye, fiddle-back and quilted, as well as unusual variations in color caused by spalting, such as in boxelder and ambrosia maple. Another important feature of the maples is that they are chemically friendly in that they are among the least toxic of all species. Although toxins can be introduced via spalting, ordinary maple is perhaps the best and safest wood to use when making food or toy related items.
Information developed by Jon Arno or Mark Kauder and posted by Mark on www.woodcentral.com . Mark has graciously given East Texas Woodturners permission to add the write ups to our site. Thanks Jon and Mark.