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Hard or soft maple? How can you tell.

MichaelDavid's picture

Hi,


I am hoping for some advice.  I received a call from someone that I buy reclaimed chestnut lumber from when he dismantles barns.  He came across a barn full of maple and cherry lumber in a barn hwe was taking down.  Here is my question, how can I tell the difference between hard and soft maple?  I read, I believe in fine Woodworking, that you can put a liquid on them and it will turn each a different color.  I can't remember what the liquid was nor what color each turned. 


Also, is there a type of maple that looks like cherry?  He said when he brought the lumber home some of it got mixed up and there seems to be some maple that looks like cherry. 


Any advice would be appreciated.


Mike

highfigh's picture

(post #84591, reply #1 of 18)

Maple can have similar grain and color. Smelling the shavings can let you know, too, if you know what they each smell like. Lye will darken cherry quite a bit but is not the safest material to work with. Potassium dichromate is another way but again, it's not very safe unless the right precautions are taken.

Where are you located? Hard maple is definitely harder than soft maple or cherry.

Best way- if you have a stack of wood that you know is cherry and one that is known to be maple, compare the unknown pieces and you'll be able to figure it out.

What will you do with it once you have it?

"I cut this piece four times and it's still too short."
"I cut this piece four times and it's still too short."
forestgirl's picture

(post #84591, reply #2 of 18)

When checking out old furniture, I used to just press the edge of my thumbnail into the wood (the underside, of course).  Definitely difference between hard and soft.

forestgirl -- you can take the girl out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the girl ;-) 

forestgirl -- you can take the girl out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the girl ;-) 

Ronaway's picture

(post #84591, reply #3 of 18)

If there is any doubt one pass on the jointer will confirm which is hard or soft. I think you will find that the soft maple has about the same density as the cherry.

Ron

If you're too open minded your brains will fall out.
wood_donkey's picture

(post #84591, reply #4 of 18)

How about soft maple for a workbench top?  I have never used soft maple, just hard maple.


Donkey

Ronaway's picture

(post #84591, reply #11 of 18)

I wouldn't hesitate to make a workbench top from soft maple, although purist would scoff at that idea. The top is going to get dinged up anyway no matter what you make it from and the soft maple would surely be easier to flatten from time to time.

Ron

If you're too open minded your brains will fall out.
highfigh's picture

(post #84591, reply #13 of 18)

I was looking for maple to make a bench top and changed my mind when I thought about how fast soft maple would get dinged up. Hard maple is definitely more durable but soft will work. If it's hard maple, it's usually pretty obvious because it's noticeably harder.

"I cut this piece four times and it's still too short."

"I cut this piece four times and it's still too short."
philjohnwilliams's picture

(post #84591, reply #5 of 18)

Hi,


in one of the latest issues of WOOD magazine (yes, i buy it on occasion, am i still allowed to post here?) they say you can use ferrous sulfate, which is available at lawn and garden stores to tell the difference. wipe the solution onto the wood and wait a minute. soft maple will turn a bluish black while the hard maple will turn a greenish gray.


hope this helps


-pjw


 

JeffHeath's picture

(post #84591, reply #6 of 18)

Michael


Hard maple is sugar maple.  Very dense.  So called 'soft' maple is still a hardwood, and still plenty hard enough for projects.  It's almost always silver or red maple.  (At least in the midwest.)  It's a terrific secondary wood for drawers and carcasses, and if the color is light enough, can be used for furniture or cabinetry without a problem in the world.  It's close to the density of cherry.  The last batch I had was noticeably harder than cherry, but worked very well with both power and hand tools.  Both hard and soft maple take finishes well for me, and I prefer to use a dye stain if staining is necessary.


Many soft maples have darker brown streaks, or heartwood running through them.  Some of the boards I have are 10" wide, and are all brown, very similar in color to cherry.  If you sit freshy milled cherry next to brown maple, from 10 feet away, they're hard to tell apart. (colorwise.)  Cherry will patina, maple will not.


Hope this .02 helps.


Jeff

A distinguished graduate of the School of Hard Knocks
GLAUCON's picture

(post #84591, reply #8 of 18)

Jeff,

That squares with what I know about hard maple- in New England sugar maples (beautiful autumn leaves, delicious syrup) are some times referred to as "rock" maples, because of the hardness of their wood. And, BTW, New Englanders know a thing or two about rocks... it is the main output of any plowed field in those parts.

Glaucon


If you don't think too good, then don't think too much...

Glaucon

If you don't think too good, then don't think too much...

JeffHeath's picture

(post #84591, reply #9 of 18)

The entire county that I live in is one gigantic gravel pit, and our farmers are quite familiar with churning up boulders, as well!


We call em' rock maples here, too.


Jeff

A distinguished graduate of the School of Hard Knocks
DHAM's picture

(post #84591, reply #7 of 18)

There is a way to tell hard maple from soft maple from the structure of the wood cells. It requires a 10X hand lens or a magnifying glass. As you probably know, wood has a type of cell called a ray that can be seen on a cross-section of the wood. Rays show up on end grain as a thin line perpendicular to the annual growth rings. The rays are what give quartersawn white oak its beautiful fleck, called ray fleck. In soft maple, if you look at a cross section of the end grain under a hand lens or magnifying glass, the rays will be of a general uniform thickness. The rays are more or less one-sized. However, in hard maple, there will be two distinctly different sized rays; one will be distinctly wider than the other;A wider ray and a narrow ray. So, take a razor blade and make a clean cut/slice across the end grain. Look at the sliced area with a hand lens or 10X magnifying glass and you will see the rays moving from the heart (pith/center) of the board to the outside of the board. Look at the ray size to determine if the board is hard maple or soft maple. Good luck!!

wdrite's picture

(post #84591, reply #10 of 18)

The best way to tell hard maple from soft maple is to check its hardness.  Use a pocket knife or a block plane near the end of the board.  Soft maple is about the hardness of poplar, while hard maple is harder than cherry.  As for some of the maple looking like cherry, The heartwood of hard maple has a reddish cast similar to cherry.

JeffHeath's picture

(post #84591, reply #12 of 18)

Hi.  Not starting an argument.  I wouldn't want to get banned.  I have 600 bf of soft maple in my woodshed.  I know it's soft (silver maple) cause I cut the tree down and milled it myself.  It's not as hard as rock maple, but quite a bit harder than poplar, which I also use all the time.  I make mouldings for several local builders out of the stuff.


Soft maple can compare in hardness to cherry.  Poplar is one of the softer hardwoods still classified as a hardwood.  Not talking down at anyone here, just wanted it to be clear.


Politically correct and tame,


Jeff

A distinguished graduate of the School of Hard Knocks
wdrite's picture

(post #84591, reply #14 of 18)

I have never done a Rockwell hardness test on any wood but I have used thousands of board feet of hard maple, cherry and poplar.  Of course, the hardness of any species can vary according to the growth conditions.  I agree that soft maple is a little harder than some poplar but not a great deal where I live.  Also, cherry is quite a bit harder than soft maple.  I used to use soft maple in my school shop as a substitute for poplar.  The soft maple is plentiful along river banks here and I could buy it cheap.     Right after I made this post, I happened to recall that I have an old copy of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture Wood Handbook.  They define hardness as the load required to embed a .444 inch ball to 1/2 its diameter.  The ratings are at 12 per cent MC. Cherry-950 lb, silver maple-700, sugar maple 1450 and poplar-540.  It appears from their data that silver maple is closer to poplar than to cherry in hardness.                                                  


Edited 1/3/2007 9:43 pm ET by wdrite

terrylee86's picture

(post #84591, reply #15 of 18)

Everybody is right in this particular case.  Hard maple (the terms were created by the lumber industry)consists of sugar maple and black maple exclusively.  Soft maple is categorized as red maple, silver maple and even box elder is legal to sell as soft maple.  In northern Michigan red maple(upland sandy soil) is harder than cherry.   In the Ohio River Valley and points south in wet conditions it is not. Under certain soil conditions red maple can approach black maple ,grown in wet conditions, in hardness and density.  Those hardness numbers you quoted are absolutely correct, but they are averages. I have a friend that works at Chelsea Plank Flooring and he said the hardness variations from different buying regions is quite profound so they try to buy from consistant regions ( maple out of Canada and Northern MI, hickory from OH and IN, he said the hickory from Canada is like cast iron). I made all my flooring 30 years ago out of white ash from my farm and you would not believe the difference in trees from the top of a clay hill to the ones out of a wet ravine. Unless you mill and dry all your own lumber ( I use to ) we as woodworkers are shooting at a moving target. 

JeffHeath's picture

(post #84591, reply #16 of 18)

Terry and wdrite


Thanks for the additional information.  It all makes sense, too.  I am sawing and milling all my logs, and they're all locally grown.  The county I live in is one of the largest gravel pits in the country, and digging a small hole in the ground to plant a shrub is no small task.  On my property, I have cherry, walnut, several species of maple, ash, poplar, and hickory....... not to mention all the apple and mulberry trees as well.  I've cut and milled all species, and have especially noticed that the soft maple I cut is almost as hard as the hard maple I could buy at the hardwood supplier.  Also, cutting my hickory here was like sawing through steel.  I've got some drying right now for some new chisel handles and mallets I wish to make. 


Jeff


 

A distinguished graduate of the School of Hard Knocks
terrylee86's picture

(post #84591, reply #17 of 18)

Jeff,


It sounds like you have ideal hardwood growing conditions.  You will have some beautiful lumber. Paint the ends with sealer, don't let it air dry too fast( leanto is great) and above all make sure your pile is dead flat on the bottom 4x4 or 6x6's.  Level is OK, flat is critical.  If you don't have access to a local kiln( I did), dehumidification or solar kiln work pretty well.  Good Luck

gb93433's picture

(post #84591, reply #18 of 18)

I was taught at the NHLA Inspection School top look for what I call chicken tracks on Soft Maple. On Hard Maple the rays will show (glisten) on the quartered edge of face. Birch will not. There is Soft Maple that is so hard and heavy that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from Hard Maple. The chicken tracks is the way to tell the difference.

Take a look at http://www.mouldingsone.com/images/hardwood/large/soft%20maple.jpg

A better picture is at http://www.chealwoodworking.com/softmaple_lumber.jpg

You can see the tracks in the picture. It looks much like a chicken walked all over the board with something on its feet. Often Soft Maple will have a green cast to it.

Very often furniture companies will mix both hard and soft maple in their furniture and then give it a light stain.


Edited 1/4/2007 10:15 pm by gb93433