Is Maple A Hardwood Or A Softwood?

I know a little bit about maple trees. I live in the mountains of western Massachusetts, the northern Berkshires, and my property is surrounded by a lot of swamp maple, which is a dense wood. One of the trees is at least 75 years old, by my estimate.

Key Points:

  • There are two categories of maple – hard maple and soft maple.
  • Maple is a hardwood, although the categories rank differently on the Janka scale. It presents a straight grain, is easy to machine, sands and stains well, and holds well in joinery.
  • Maple is a versatile wood in the shop, suitable for flooring, furniture, cabinets, musical instruments, railroad ties, boxes, and pallets.

Out of curiosity and while taking a rest from gathering fallen leaves one autumn, I researched maple trees.  I wanted to know how many leaves I might have bagged that weekend.

I learned that maple trees can have as many as between 200,000 – 500,000 leaves, depending on size and age.  I told my kids that their Dad had moved as many as 2 million leaves, sort of like the fellow that said he killed “7 with one blow.”

In addition to swamp maples, there are also sugar maples and silver maples, and my meditation garden has a Japanese red maple lace leaf variety.  It’s Sunday as I am writing this article, and on Sundays, I make pancakes for my breakfast, soaking up the maple syrup I purchased from a local sugar house, as they are called.  In the spring, the air is infused by the maple sap boiling down in huge vats throughout the area.

In the fall, the maples really stand out as their leaves change colors in colder temperatures.  The mountains look like paintings, brilliant with reds, oranges, and yellows.  The area fills up with leaf peepers who come to take pictures of or paint pictures of the mountains.

There’s a hint in that paragraph that should help you answer the question the article poses – hardwood or softwood.  Let’s go a bit further.

Types of Maple Species

Maple Tree

I’ve already mentioned a few of the maple species, trees I see every day when I go outside and look around. There are quite a variety of maple trees, actually, all with their own lifespans:

Swamp maple: one of the shorter-lived species, living between 80 – 100 years; one of the faster-growing dicot trees among North American trees, swamp maples can grow as much as 1.5 feet per year. Swamp maple is a dense wood type.

Silver maple: living a bit longer, about 100 years, and is one of the “soft maples”, along with red maples, next on this list, and bigleaf maples; some sap for syrup is gathered from silver maples in the spring. Silver maple is also a dicot tree.

Red maple: I expect the red maple in front of my house to live up to 300 years, although I will be long gone by then. Red maple is another dicot tree.

Sugar maple: also called rock maple and hard maple, from which my syrup this morning came, can see as many as 400 years; these trees can reach between 40 – 80 feet, with some topping 120 feet. The other maple referred to as hard maple is black maple. Sugar maple is a popular wood type for flooring, known as maple wood floor.

Maple trees are one of the most common hardwood trees in North America, and with those ages, you can understand why. If they aren’t harvested for the wood, they do tend to hang around for a long time. 

Maple is split in name between hard maple and soft maple. The leaves of each will help you determine which maple is which, although we’ve mentioned that silver maples, red maples, and bigleaf maples are in the soft maple column. Iron sulfate can be used to determine the type of wood you are working with; also: a few drops of the iron sulfate will turn pale blue or green on hard maple but will turn a darker blue or even black on soft maple.

Sugar maples will be found in the hard maple column (along with black maple), although its ongoing value is determined by gathering its sap each spring and boiling it down so we can have syrup for our pancakes and waffles. As we mentioned in the list of maples, silver maple trees are also providers of the sap that will become syrup, as well as in the making of maple candies.

Maple wood, particularly hard maple, is also a popular choice for furniture, flooring, and cabinetry due to its durability and attractive grain patterns.

Overall, maple trees and their wood have a significant impact on North American culture and industry. From providing syrup and candies to being used in construction and design, maple is a versatile and valuable resource.

Maple Wood

Maple Wood

Maple wood is known for being very strong and beautiful.  It is highly durable, has a smooth and straight grain pattern, and is light and cream-colored.  The maple sapwood will tend to be lighter in color than the heartwood, too.  Woodworkers, ourselves included, like to work with the sapwood because it can take on many stain colors, enabling us to mimic more expensive hardwoods using darker stains.  

For example, mahogany wood is more expensive than maple, but because maple can take a mahogany stain very well and give it the appearance of mahogany (another hardwood) can save a woodworker a lot of money.  This is quite common, too.

There are a number of distinctions to be made between hard maple and soft maple that are worth mentioning.  Remember that hard maple refers to sugar maple and black maple

  • Hard maple wood will be heavier in weight than soft maple wood.  Hold a block of wood from each type in your hands, and you can tell the difference.
  • Hard maple wood’s common uses include flooring, high-end furniture, and kitchen cabinets, and benefits from being one of the densest wood species; soft maple wood’s common uses include railroad ties, boxes, pallets, and veneers, although soft maple wood is also used in furniture-making and is considered as suitable for this purpose as hard maple wood.  
  • Soft maple wood resembles hard maple wood – after all, they are all maples – but it is not as hard, strong, or as heavy as we said.  
  • Soft maple will be at least 25% less expensive than hard maple wood.

Janka Scale Rating for Maple Wood

The Janka Scale, developed by Gabriel Janka to measure the hardness of all types of wood, involves a test of how much pressure is required to embed a half-inch steel ball halfway into the wood being tested.  Among the various maple species, there is a range of Janka ratings:

Sugar maple, or hard maple, is the hardest of the maple species, with a Janka rating of 1450.  By comparison, white oak has a Janka rating of 1360, and red oak has a Janka rating of 1290.  It compares favorably, then, to these oak woods.  

Soft maple, on the other hand, has a Janka rating of 950, the same Janka rating as cherry wood.  Cherry wood is somewhat similar to maple in that the grain is straight, its heartwood is reddish brown (like maple wood), and sapwood is lighter (also like maple).

Remember, though, that even though it is referred to as soft maple, it is still a hardwood.  By comparison to a softwood tree such as Douglas fir whose Janka rating is 590, soft maple is nearly twice as hard on the scale.  

A Bit Of Maple Video

The video we have chosen will tell you probably more than you need to know about distinguishing among the various maple species.  But, it’s something those of us who live in this area have learned to help us tell the maples from each other and easily identify the trees we want to tap for the sap.

It’s actually pretty easy to tell a sugar maple from a swamp maple.  In this part of New England, it’s quite common to see tubing running through a patch of sugar maple; the trees have been tapped, and the sap is flowing through the tubing to a collection vat.  From there, it is brought to the sugar house for boiling down into pure maple syrup.

Don’t be fooled by the distinction between hard maple and soft maple.  It’s all maple, and maple is a hardwood.  It’s also beautiful, easy to work with, and strong and durable enough for most projects in the shop.

Please leave a comment to join the discussion