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Downturn has buoyed hard maple’s profile

Mill closures and tough winter weather affected the price, but it still remains a popular choice for the home improvement trade

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As domestic wood markets continue to slowly rebound, hard maple remains one of the more popular species. Along with cherry and walnut, hard maple has been a consistent seller. Admittedly, retail and wholesale sales are far off the highs of several years ago. But especially on the retail level, hard maple is one of the public's top choices. At the wholesale level, the housing slump has put a serious dent in sales, but one dealer told Woodshop News he was having strong commercial sales. Still, that seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.

"It is still fairly busy and moving pretty well, about as well as anything these days," says Jerry Anton of O'Shea Lumber Co., a wholesaler in Glen Rock, Pa. "It may be a little bit stronger than cherry and walnut at the moment. The price is OK, but supply is dwindling because they're not getting the logs; people are waiting to see how things are going to go."

Hard maple's specific gravity: .56 to .63. Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water. Hard maple's radial shrinkage: 4.8 percent. Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces. Hard maple's tangential shrinkage: 9.9 percent. Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces. Example: A 12" wide flatsawn hard maple board will shrink .249" (about 1/4") from 12 percent moisture content to 6 percent and a quartersawn board will shrink .121" (about 1/8").

Hard maple (Acer saccharum) is also known as sugar maple, rock maple, sweet maple and black maple. Hard maple is most prevalent in the Eastern United States, Canada and the Great Lake states and is the source for maple syrup. The heartwood of hard maple is a light reddish-brown to tan, while the sapwood is white to creamy-white. It is prevalent and readily available in thicknesses from 4/4 through 16/4.

"Actually, it's doing really good," says Hilton Peel Jr., of the Hartford Store of North Carolina in Gibsonville, N.C. "We're going through a cycle; there was a big push about 20 years ago and I guess we're back there. Now, prices did drop a little, but they're moving up a little. But between [mills] shutting down and bad weather, people can't get the logs."

Spring traditionally brings an increase in lumber sales, in part because of improving weather in the northern states. The degree to which lumber sales pick up in the next several months is definitely a concern to wood dealers, because by the time July rolls around, sales slow down as summer doldrums set in.

"We're selling a lot of hard maple to a chain of several restaurants and one large house," Peel says. "I had a lumber dealer in Tennessee call me recently and said someone wanted his supply of hard maple, so I told him I'd take it. My sales in 2008 and 2009 differed by only 100 bf. Now if we can keep Washington snowed in for another three years, we might get out of this recession by stopping Congress from spending so much money."

Hard maple is used primarily by cabinetmakers, furniture makers and contractors and in architectural millwork applications. It is also used in custom flooring and by hobbyists. With the downturn in the housing market, it has become more popular in the home improvement trade.

"January was slow from the start, but things picked up the first week of February," Anton says. "But now weather is compounding things because we've had back-to-back 2' snowstorms so nothing is getting delivered. A couple of days our trucks didn't even go out. People are running short on everything and prices will probably go up due to availability."

The wood is usually straight-grained and has a very fine, even texture. Bird's-eye maple is found in about one in 500 trees and features a whitish background with brownish dots at irregular intervals. The small swirls of grain direction have the appearance of a bird's eye. Other hard maple figured woods include curly, tiger, fiddleback, quilted and blistered.

Retail prices for 100 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS hard maple, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $4 to $5.10/bf in the Northeast; $3.65 to $4.10/bf in the Southeast; $4.55 to $5.10/bf in the Midwest; and $4.95 to $5.70/bf in the West.

Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS hard maple ranged from $3,300 to $3,750 in the Northeast; $3,350 to $3,700/mbf in the Southeast; $3,500 to $4,070/mbf in the Midwest; and $4,300 to $4,820/mbf in the West.

Bird's eye maple prices averaged at least 20 percent higher than non-figured hard maple, with prices increasing in relation to the amount of figure.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.

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