The Difference Between Hard Maple and Soft Maple

Of all the species of hardwoods found in the forests of North America, maple trees are one of the most common. Within all the different variations of the maple species, they are primarily separated into one of two types of lumber- Hard Maple and Soft Maple. Hard Maple is commonly referred to as Sugar Maple. Soft Maple, on the other hand, is derived from several different variations of the maple species and go by names such as Red Maple (Acer rebrum) and Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum).

Furniture, cabinets, and instruments are all commonly made using both Hard Maple and Soft Maple. However, for hardwood flooring, Hard Maple is used more often because it has a higher density and is about 25% harder than Soft Maple.

Both Hard Maple and Soft Maple species can produce a variety of unique grain effects. Grains such as birdseye, curly, tiger striped, and even wormy are all sought after grain patterns for customers looking for a unique look. These special grains are usually coveted by designers. However, flooring and cabinet manufacturers prefer the regular grain of the Maple species for its beautiful coloration and consistent grain pattern.

Species like Red Oak and White Oak are easy to tell apart. But how do you tell the difference between Soft Maple and Hard Maple? These tips might help.

  • Check the end grain. Hard Maple grows at a slower rate than Soft Maple. Because of this, the growth rings on Hard Maple will be tighter than the growth rings on a Soft Maple board.

  • Observe the color. Hard Maple usually has a lighter, more uniformed color. While Soft Maple is typically darker, sometimes carrying hues of brown, red, or even grey.

  • Look at the leaves. If the tree is still standing and yet to be harvested, take a look at its leaves. Hard Maple leaves have sinuses which are U-shaped valleys between the points of the lead, also referred to as lobes.  The lobes are similar to the round gaps that we have between the fingers on our hand. A Soft Maple leaf, however, will have sinuses that are more V-shaped.

  • Weigh the boards. While there are many variables that can sway the results, taking a Soft Maple board and a Hard Maple board to determine which one is heavier (denser) is one way you can tell the difference between the two. Often, Hard Maple boards are heavier than Soft Maple boards. This method is not always 100% accurate, however.

  • Do a test with Iron Sulfate. By dabbing a small amount of iron sulfate to the maple board you will get one of two reactions. If it is on a Hard Maple board, iron sulfate will create a pale blue or green coloration on the board. On a Soft Maple board, the chemical will turn dark blue to black in color.

Hard Maple and Soft Maple species both provide exceptional hardwood lumber products. Many members of the Baillie Group are fortunate to have sawmills located close to excellent supply sources of both the Hard Maple and Soft Maple species. If you use maple for your manufacturing, or would like to give either one of these species a try, give us a call, we would be happy to help making your sourcing experience simple and easy!

Tony Cimorelli
The Baillie Group
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