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Soft maple sales are unpredictable

Market conditions for domestic wood dealers in the last few months have been a mixed bag, at best.

The lumber business is in the midst of some tough times at all levels, from the distribution yards down to the retailers, and sellers of soft maple are certainly no exception. However, even with the prevailing attitude that there are no indications conditions are going to improve, some dealers reported some optimism about soft maple sales.

“Soft maple sales right now have been kind of flat,” says Jeff Schucker, a retailer with Bailey Wood Products in Kempton, Pa. “We’ve been moving it primarily to guys who do cabinetry. With housing being the way it is, it’s very slow. Most of the guys that I work with tell me that right now they are kind of in between projects. They have some things that they think will come up within the next month or month-and-a-half, but they just haven’t happened yet.”

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Soft maple, 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 dark reddish-brown. Soft maple (Acer rubrum) has traditionally fallen in the shadow of hard maple (Acer saccharum), but because of the higher price of hard maple — admittedly well off its highs of two years ago — the two woods have grown closer in popularity in the cabinetry world. 

“Everything seems to be down across the board,” says Mark Imhoff, a wholesaler with MacBeath Lumber in Edinburg, Ind. “It’s a lot of things. Our business is so tied to the housing market these days that, when it takes a dip, we really feel it. The larger manufacturers have had their problems trying to compete with China, a lot of that business moved offshore. So those markets aren’t there like they once were. Freight costs are horrible. Every shipment, it goes up. We can’t keep absorbing it, of course, and neither can the truckers, so it’s really making it difficult, too.” 

Soft maple is a versatile wood and is as useful in furniture and cabinetry as hard maple. It has a straight grain and is considered easier to machine than hard maple. Soft maple is classified as a good steam-bending wood. It is a stable wood for turning, and it planes and finishes well.

“A lot of guys are using it for drawer sides, as a secondary wood,” says Bob Hansen of Badger Hardwoods of Wisconsin in Walworth, Wis. “I sell a lot of it for that. A lot of the guys who work with hard maple say they like hard maple, but they don’t like working with it. Then they try soft maple and they go, ‘Wow, that’s much better.’ ”

Mass-production furniture makers are the biggest buyers of soft maple. Other uses include kitchen utensils, toys, crates, pallets, furniture framing and turning.

“In the thicker sizes, soft maple seems to move fairly well; 4/4 is not a big mover for us and 5/4 is not much better,” Imhoff adds. “The 6/4 through 12/4 are selling better, but it’s still not a stellar performer like it once was. Hard maple is down, too. All the maples seem to be trending downwards. Pricing is down compared to where it was six months ago certainly; now it seems to have leveled a little bit. But the inquiries for it, the usage on it seems to be off noticeably.” 

The only area where soft maple sales remains constant is in high-end custom work. Although orders are down some, the request for custom work for multimillion dollar homes exists and will continue to because, even in a recession, there are enough wealthy clients to keep driving that market.

Despite the problems in the domestic markets today, dealers are doing their best to remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

“If I sound kind of vague, it’s because we really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Imhoff says. “I’ve been in the lumber business for 30 years, and we’re seeing conditions now that we’ve never seen with all the things happening at one time. The other thing that has entered into it — and I think is really going to play a significant role no matter what happens — is the alternative products like bamboo, plastic, rubber. I hate to say it, but there are some really neat products out there that have replaced wood.”

“If we make it through the summer, and it starts to pick up a little bit this fall, we’ll be doing fair. We’ll have a chance at coming out of this halfway decent,” says Hansen. “If it doesn’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. I really don’t.”

“When you have tough times like this, you are more appreciative of what you have,” Schucker says. “We all knew that things couldn’t continue at the rate that they were going, and we had a long ride, we really did ... In a sense, it brings things down to a little more normalcy. And we have to look at what we have rather than looking at what we don’t have. It is a tough thing to go through right now, but once things do level out we’ll be better for it in the end.” 

Retail prices for 4/4 Select & Better soft maple, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $3.25 to $3.70/bf.

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