Sturdy, handsome, versatile maple comes in hard and soft varieties. Sugar maples form the hard type, which is also valued for extremely white sap wood. Wood from red and silver maples have all the qualities of hard maple, but is about 25 percent less dense, making it easier to work with [source: EarthSource, Hanafee]. To find soft maple in the stacks of lumber at your retailer, press your fingernail into the surface of the wood. If your fingernail leaves an impression, it's soft maple.
If you want to show off the beauty of wood in your project, maple's a great choice. This wood presents with a variety of figures: bird's-eye, curly, fiddleback, quilted, spalted and swirl. The spalted effect is different in origin than the others. Its characteristic dark streaks and thin lines are the beginning ravages of rot. Kiln-drying stops the decay and preserves the unique figures in the wood.
Maple's pale color, lively graining and fine texture combine with strength to make it an excellent choice for furniture, cabinets, paneling, doors, molding and flooring, including stair treads. The soft variety bends easily for curved furniture and stair railings. Because of its resonant quality, fiddleback maple is the preferred wood for violins.
Maple is dense, so pre-bore holes for nails and screws. Highly figured boards are prone to tearing and chipping when you cut or plane them. Use sharp blades and work slowly to minimize damage. Although maple doesn't accept stain well -- it tends to blotch -- you can polish and clear coat it to achieve a beautiful, smooth finish.
Growing from Newfoundland to Miami and as far west as Minnesota, red maple (Acer rubrum) is one of the most abundant trees in eastern North America. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is native to non-coastal areas of the eastern United States. More northerly in its range, the Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is an important tree in Canada. The leaf of the sugar maple adorns the Canadian flag.
On the next page, we'll look at the popular and versatile oak.