Hard vs. soft maple

Can these maples be mixed, and what are the differences? January 21, 2002

Is hard maple any better then soft? A supplier gave me a low price for product parts in soft but I already have the other component parts in hard. Would mixing the two be noticeable?

Forum Responses
From contributor A:
I regularly use both hard and soft maple in building small end tables and sofa tables. Both species achieve a “curly” or “tiger” figure and the two are virtually indistinguishable. It is not unusual for me to have 8/4 stock in one and 5/4 stock in the other. If I run out of one, I switch to the other with absolutely no problem. I prefer soft maple because it is easier to work. Also, it is less costly. In my area it is also easier to obtain wormy soft maple than wormy hard maple and I use that as well.

Soft maple takes stain (actually, I prefer aniline dye to pigment stains) more readily than does hard. Therefore, it would not be advisable to mix soft and hard maple in a tabletop, or to have three soft maple legs and one hard maple leg. That, however, is the only area where I am careful not to mix the species.

By the way, if you want to see a truly spectacular wood find some wormy, spalted, curly maple (soft or hard) and finish it with a 1lb cut of amber shellac followed by a good oil finish.

From contributor M:
I'd be *very* hesitant about mixing these species if the parts are destined for a single, exposed part of the furniture, a tabletop for example.

While it's true that individual samples may appear almost identical, it's also true that there can be a difference in color between the two species. Red maple (one of the species designated as soft), for example, may have a grayish color cast when freshly sawed and dried that may darken even more with age. Hard maple, on the other hand, will tend to remain whiter.

I'd say mixing these two is a dangerous game and I'd avoid it unless there is a really compelling reason to do it.

From contributor A:
Please note that only the sapwood of hard maple is “white”. If one uses hard maple heartwood, its color will also be gray to brown and will darken more quickly than will the sapwood. The sapwood of both hard and soft maple is classified as “white”. As a result, there is a substantial ability to interchange the species.

From contributor M:
The sapwood in soft maple can exhibit the grayish cast. The trouble is that at times it becomes more noticeable after the finish is applied and the piece is shipped.

I prefer soft maple. It costs less and is much easier to work in that it doesn’t dull blades and cutters as quickly and it is not as susceptible to burning by edge forming and cutting tools. It is also somewhat easier to finish.

Do customers care about the difference? No. To them, maple is maple.

I make benches and weave the seats in cotton cord to reasonably high tension. I use 1" dowels for the seat rails. Only hard maple dowels successfully hold up to the bending forces I apply. Soft maple dowels bow more (almost 1/2 inch versus less than 1/4 inch on hard maple of the same 26" lengths) and sometimes break. Soft maple is slightly less dense and not as strong. I do like the color and figure that I can get locally in soft maple and have used it for legs on benches, but where strength is necessary, I stick with hard maple.

First, there are color differences, although slight, between hard and soft maple. To say that the sapwood is white is basically true, but there are more gray hues in soft maple.

Second, there are two species of hard maple--sugar (99%) and black maple.

Third, there are tremendous strength, bendability, weight, gluing, machining and fastening differences. Be careful if these properties are important. To say the properties are not important is against all published information and experience in these above-mentioned categories.

Fourth, soft maple, if given a clear finish, will have many more color differences depending on the angle that it is viewed from. These color differences can actually make two adjacent pieces of hard maple seem like distant cousins rather than from the same tree.

Fifth, the separation of lumber into the two groups--hard and soft--is not too easy, but is easily done with 10x magnification. However, weight can be a very good guideline.

Sixth, people buying a maple table may not know about hard and soft, but if you use the words sugar or hard, it better be hard maple. I suspect that most people buying a "maple" table expect hard maple based on the normal practice within the industry throughout the country, so if you sell them soft maple (with its softer, easier to dent surface and lower strength), you are really running the narrow line close to fraud. If it is soft maple, say that it is.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

I have stocked and sold both hard and soft maple for years. There are jobs where soft maple is a good choice. Some people ask for hard maple, and that is what I give them.

Bottom line is, never mix the two.

I am in the lumber business selling almost exclusively maples. It is my experience that the two types are very clearly different, particularly when natural finish is used; hard maple has more consistent color - creamy white to paper white. Soft maple sap is seen in many different shades from bright white to pinkish, greyish, tan. It is also my experience that some people try to substitute the cheaper soft for hard. I agree with Gene that this is an ethically questionable practice.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor R:
I don't see how the previous contributors could think of substituting soft for hard maple. Hard maple has been used for butcher block and work benches it is so hard and durable. You can dent soft maple with your fingernail easily. Also, hard maple, while tough on tools, machines well while soft maple tears out and splinters.

Additionally, hard maple will take a stain more evenly than soft maple. Lastly, hard maple will hold up much better than soft and is at least twice the price. Substituting soft maple for hard maple doesn’t seem to be the best choice unless you tell your customer and explain the differences between the two.