Wood Profile: Maple

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Wood Profile: Maple

Looking for variety and natural beauty? Make it maple!

By Janette Square

Maple is a broad term for roughly 200 species of trees of the genus Acer that grow all over the world. However, the North American lumber industry mainly uses two types: hard maple and soft maple. After learning about maple, try incorporating the wood into our heart-shaped boxes project.

Hard maple, also known as sugar maple (Acer saccharum), is perhaps the most widely used variety in the furniture and woodworking industry. It is also one of the hardest domestic hardwoods in North America, with a Janka rating of 1450 (compared to white oak, which is 1360). Because of its density, it is favored for flooring, cabinetry, butcher blocks, baseball bats, and more. By comparison, soft maple varieties like bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), box elder (Acer negundo), silver maple (Acer saccharinum), and red maple (Acer rubrum) have Janka ratings ranging from around 700 to 950.


Prized for cabinetry and furniture making, hard maple is the most common and readily available type of maple.


Understated figures and a light color make soft maple an economical and beautiful wood to handle. 

It can be difficult to tell the difference between hard and soft maple just by looking at them, but there are some indicators: hard maple tends to be lighter and more uniform in color, whereas soft maple is generally darker with more streaks. Attractive figured grain patterns occur in both. Birdseye, for example, is a hard maple figure recognizable by tiny knots in the grain. Curly maple, a figure named for its rippled grain, occurs most often in soft maple varieties (see below). You will pay a premium for these sought-after boards, but the beauty is worth the extra cost!



Hard maple can be difficult to cut on a scroll saw because of its density. It burns easily, so apply clear packing tape to the surface prior to attaching your pattern. The size of your blade will vary depending on the thickness of the wood, as well as the brand of the blade. When cutting thicker pieces, I choose a more aggressive blade, such as a #5 Flying Dutchman polar blade, to ensure clean and consistent cutting.

While hard maple tends to get all the attention, soft maple is a comparable alternative for scroll sawing. Generally less expensive and easier to work with, it is also more sustainable, growing at roughly twice the rate of hard maple.

 Curly maple comes in many varieties, each boasting different intensities of figuring. It is highly desirable for furniture and decorative pieces; the more figured, the higher the cost.

Birdseye maple has varying “eyes” throughout the wood, which add depth and interest.





Finishing hard maple can be a challenge. If you want to add color, use a dye stain rather than a pigment; the amount of pigment required to properly color hard maple can hide the grain, resulting in an uneven, blotchy look. You can get incredible depth and dimension out of figured or curly maple with dye stains. However, if you want to highlight the natural beauty of both hard and soft maple, a clear finish is the way to go. Always experiment on scrap pieces before applying your finish of choice.

Flame figuring is one of the rarest types of maple figuring.

Spalting occurs when a piece of lumber begins the decaying process. If stopped in time, it creates some very unusual designs within the wood.


At a Glance

Although all maple varieties are technically hardwoods, the actual hardness can vary greatly depending on the species. Explore the wide array of choices and find the maple that suits your taste and budget. Sustainable, durable, and beautiful, this domestic wood is a great choice for a variety of scroll saw projects. 


Maple burl is highly desired among turners and other woodworkers. Its intense figuring occurs due to a natural burl, or growth, forming on the tree.


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