The maples of the United States include no less than 14 native species and several varieties. The heavy wood of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) — the most important and abundant — and black maple (Acer nigrum) are commonly sold as “hard maple” in the lumber trade. Lumber from maple makes up six percent of all hardwood harvested in the United States every year, third only to red oak and yellow poplar. About one half of each year’s harvest is used for lumber and veneer or for manufacturing products.
The natural range of sugar maple includes the northeastern quarter of North America, stretching from the Atlantic across Canada to Minnesota and south along the Appalachians into Tennessee. Sugar maple grows slowly (about 12″ in height per year), is tight grained and reaches sizes of 90 to 120 feet tall and three feet in diameter. About three percent of standing sugar maple trees are used to produce maple syrup.
The wood of sugar maple is rather plain, straight-grained and light in color. It is a heavy, strong, hard, shock- and abrasion-resistant wood. It can be highly polished and stains well, and it is abundant and sustainable. However, the most desirable trait of sugar maple for furniture and instrument makers is that it commonly produces quantities of highly figured wood, known as curly maple and bird’s-eye maple.
Curly maple is also known as fiddleback maple, tiger stripe maple or flame maple — colloquial descriptions of a phenomenon whereby the wood fibers undulate across the grain, creating a three-dimensional appearance of stripes running perpendicular to the length of the board. The term “fiddleback” maple originated in the Appalachian Mountains where this wood was used to build violins and other instruments. Curly maple was also used to build fine quality gunstocks during the 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is still highly prized by guitar and violin manufacturers.
Bird’s-eye maple is another distinctive figure of small, tight dots swirling within the grain pattern. The causes of figure in maple and other hardwoods are not well understood and may be due to genetic expression as well as environmental stresses.