Friday, February 24, 2006

Sweet Timber

Friday I was cutting down a dead walnut tree (full of barbed wire fence... and bullets I later discovered at the sawmill.. but that's a different story), and the walnut brushed the branches of a maple tree as it fell. Immediately, it started raining dew drops beneath the maple tree. This dew was curious, because it was 3:00 in the afternoon. So I stretched out my hands and caught some of the drops falling from the maple tree. Then I tasted them... just as I suspected... sweet sap!

Two years ago while scouting for timberframing tools in a New Hampshire antique store, I came upon a book called Backyard Sugarin. This neat little book shows everything you need to know to make maple syrup (without spending any money!), starting with identifying a maple tree (by its leaves) to boiling your sap. I resolved some day to try and make maple syrup, but soon forgot my sappy resolution in the pursuit of my timberframe house. Well, having sap rain on my head was surely a sign that now was the time to try my hand at sugarin... house or no house!

When I quit working on the house at 5:00, I jumped on the internet and brushed up on how to collect sap and boil syrup (no time to dig for my trusty sugarin book - only 60 minutes of good daylight left!). I hastily cut some copper tubing into 4" lengths for my "spiles". Wanting for a manual drill or a battery for my cordless drill, I grabbed 200 feet of extension cord and unchucked the 1" drill bit (used for pegging my house) from the big dewalt. I plugged the cord into the electric pole next to our double wide and headed into the woods, hopeful that I could find a sugar maple (aka rock maple, aka hard maple) within 200 feet of our house. The sun had set and the light was fading, so I ran as fast as my 10 year old daughter could untangle the extension cords. Eureaka at 180 feet! The sap started trickling even before I got the drill all of the way out of the tree. Momentarily forgetting that hard maple now sells for more than $1/bf, I sank two more holes into the majestic old maple. (I am now a little more reserved in my tapping - keeping the holes within a foot or two of the ground.)

Within 6 hours of tapping Old Faithful, it put out 6 gallons of sap, and by 1:00 am Saturday morning I had boiled it down to about 14 oz of maple syrup. Saturday morning we had homemade waffles with homemade maple syrup. To me, it tastes better than what used to buy in VT and NH. I tapped 8 more trees Saturday, but none have been as prolific, as consistent, or as "faithful" as this first tree - hence its nickname. With nine trees now trickling buckets of sap for at least several more days, my wife has volunteered to take over the syrup production so I can get on with the house.

How does this relate to building a timberframe home from scratch? Well, in the process of logging and sawing my own timbers for the house, I learned from "logger friends" how to identify a sugar maple by its bark, and that is somewhat important since sugarin season occurs when the trees have no leaves. We have three large sugar maple timbers in our house (as well as some smaller joists and braces). To me, the wood when sawn and planed looks like cherry, without the cherry color. In any case, now I have another reason to appreciate maple trees!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This has to be the best blog I've ever seen. You are full of wonderful information!

Thanks for sharing your experiences.


September 21, 2006 at 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Owen said...

This is a great blog. Thanks for making the effort to post your work.

Any chance of pictures or other methods of identifying sugar maple by it's bark?

I'm in central eastern Ohio with some grand old maples along the road that I am afraid of damaging with my first attempts at tapping.


October 24, 2006 at 7:03 AM  
Blogger oldmilwaukee said...


If the leaves are still on in central ohio, check to see if these maple trees have bright yellow/fire orange leaves. If so, they're probably sugar maple. If you do a google image search for "sugar maple", you'll see that sugar maples have the brightest fall display of just about any tree. In the fall, you could almost identify them from an airplane! Hard to describe the bark, but on mature trees it looks like the bark has been scored vertically with a knife, and it is peeling off at the edges of the pieces of bark (like some white oaks do) and the bark is fairly light in color. (The picture in the upper left of my images there looks like a classic sugar maple - the picture in the upper right is almost too close up for you to get a feel for the bark - so ignore it) On young trees, the bark looks very smooth. Soft maple has "peely" looking bark too, but it almost looks scaley, as the pieces of bark are smaller... and darker to my eye.

If the trees are next to the road, their lumber value is probably low, as they would likely have lots of knots from low limbs, pieces of old fence, nails from yard sale signs, etc. in them... so don't worry about ruining their lumber value with a tap hole (which will heal). If they are big trees, a small tap won't hurt them at all... just remember to take the taps out when you are done... especially if you use copper like I did. (stainless is better for the tree). No need to drill more than an inch or two into the actual wood (i.e. once you get past the fairly thin bark)... if you drill too far, you'll go past the "sap wood" layer into the heartwood, find very little sap, and possibly contribute to the decay of the tree.

The sugar maple book that I have suggest that old timers planted sugar maple (aka hard maple) trees next to the roads so it would be easy to collect their sap. Maybe you are looking at trees that were planted for that very purpose? :)

Good luck if you try - but you'll probably have to wait until about next february. :(

October 24, 2006 at 5:23 PM  

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