Hard Maple vs. Soft Maple: What is the difference?

Maple trees are one of the most common species found in the hardwood forests of North America.  There are many variations of the species but for practical purposes we separate maples into two types of lumber.  The first is Hard Maple, (Acer saccharum), which many also refer to as Sugar Maple.  The second is and Soft Maple, which is derived from several different types of maple trees such as Red Maple (Acer rebrum) and Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).

oc hardMapleTraditionally Hard Maple and Soft Maple have both been commonly used in the manufacture of furniture, cabinets, instruments and various specialty items.   Hard Maple is more commonly found in flooring because it is more dense and it is a bit harder by nature, (about 25% harder that Soft Maple).  

We find that both species can produce a wide variety of grain effects.  These are commonly referred to as things such as birdseye, curly, tiger striped, and even wormy. Special grain effects like this are usually highly sought after by designers who are looking for a unique look but not by flooring or cabinet manufacturers who much rather use a maple for its consistent color and uniformed grain pattern.

So how do you tell the two apart? It is not as easy as differentiating Red Oak and White oak that is for sure.  Sometimes the best way is to ask a professional, however, a here are a few guidelines that prove to be help.

  • Inspect the end grains. Hard Maple tends to have a lighter, more uniformed color.  Soft Maple is more likely to be darker and include red, brown or gray streaks within it.  Also note the spacing between the growth rings. Hard Maple will tend to have growth rings more closely together due to its longer growing cycles.
  • Check the leaves. If the tree has yet to be harvested, check its leaves.  A Hard Maple leaf will have U-shaped valleys, called sinuses, between the points of the lead, called lobes.  Some relate this to the roundish gaps between each finger of your hand.  A Soft Maple leaf will possess more V-shaped sinuses.
  • Weoc softMapleigh the boards. If you are comparing two boards and trying to determine which is which you can certainly weigh an equal section of bother and determine which one is more dense, (heavier). The heavier of the two is most likely to be Hard Maple. However, this comparison should be cautioned. There are too many variables that can sway the results so be careful.
  • Test with iron sulfate.  Applying a small amount of the chemical ferrous sulfate, sometimes called iron sulfate, to the lumber will result in two different reactions.  On Hard Maple iron sulfate will create a pale blue or green discoloration and on Soft Maple the chemical will turn a dark blue or black color.

Both Hard Maple and Soft Maple are terrific species to work with. They both have their place in today’s forest products industry.  Baillie Lumber is fortunate to be located close to an excellent supply source of both. If you are looking for either of these two species give us a try. We would be happy to help!

Tony Cimorelli
Baillie Lumber
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PS… The wood-database is a great resource on lumber if you are interested in more information.





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