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Soft maple can be a low-cost alternative

Soft maple doesn't receive the spotlight that many domestic woods do, but for cabinetmakers and some furniture makers it is a popular alternative to the more expensive hard maple. A year ago, Woodshop News wrote the following about the status of domestic wood markets: "Wood dealers have a 'wait-and-see' attitude when it comes to forecasting how wood markets will perform in 2010. The majority of suppliers agree that wood markets have bottomed out and may actually be slightly on the rise. But any mention of a substantial rally taking place was greeted cautiously by even the most optimistic of dealers."

Average retail prices for 4/4 Select & Better soft maple, as reported in Woodshop News. Prices are based on informal telephone and Internet surveys.

That statement is applicable one year later as wood markets have barely changed in the last year. But one species that has maintained some semblance of consistency has been soft maple.

"We still use soft maple quite a bit; we do a lot of paint-grade material and obviously it is more expensive than poplar," says Dave Harris, president of Parkerville Wood Products, a retail and millwork company in Manchester, Conn. "But if we do paint-grade doors and paint-grade millwork, soft maple is a little less fuzzy [than poplar] and it just works well. So we use it a lot in production. It's an OK seller as far as retail, but it doesn't fly out the door. I don't think people are as familiar with it. They come in and talk about maple and they're thinking about hard maple. From an appearance standpoint, there is not a lot of big difference, but there is pricewise, absolutely."

"Things are better than a year ago, but it really isn't getting much better than it was," says Bob Hansen, owner of Badger Hardwoods of Wisconsin, a retailer in Walworth, Wis. "But unemployment is still at 10 percent and, even though we live in a good area, we're starting to see more foreclosures around here again. It's a reality check. The storm ain't over yet."

Soft maple (Acer rubrum), also known as red maple, silver maple and swamp maple, grows mainly in Canada and the Eastern United States and is not as heavy as hard maple. The creamy-white sapwood is valued for its clarity. The heartwood varies from light to medium reddish-brown. Soft maple has traditionally fallen in the shadow of hard maple (Acer saccharum), but because of the higher price of hard maple the two woods have grown closer in popularity in the cabinetry world. Soft maple 4/4 lumber retails on average up to $1.50/bf less than hard maple and dealers report fair to good sales.

"The soft maple market actually is pretty good," says Jerry Anton of O'Shea Lumber Co., a wholesaler in Glen Rock, Pa. "It is definitely cheaper than hard maple and I've been talking with some of the guys and they say it works out well for painting kitchens. It has a little tighter grain. And it is maybe as much as 35 to 40 percent cheaper than hard maple."

Soft maple is a versatile wood and is as useful in furniture and cabinetry as hard maple. Mass-production furniture makers are the biggest buyers of soft maple. Other uses include kitchen utensils, toys, crates, pallets, furniture framing and turnings. It is not a good choice for exterior projects.

The wood has a straight grain and is considered easier to machine than hard maple. Soft maple is classified as a good steam-bending wood, is a stable wood for turning and takes a fine finish.

"As I said, poplar has a tendency to be fuzzy and you can usually get through that process by priming it and scuffing it, but we do lot of doors and one of the driving forces is the guy runs our mill department is way more in favor of soft maple than poplar because of its stability and machinability," Harris says.

Soft maple is generally available in 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 and 8/4 thicknesses. Although the bird's-eye figure occurs in hard maple, soft maple occasionally provides some curly figure. Retail prices for 4/4 Select & Better soft maple, surfaced on two sides, ranges from $3.25 to $3.90/bf.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.

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