Maple Hassles

Woodworkers kick Maple's reputation around on this thread but there's plenty of good information here about how to get the best out of it. April 9, 2008

Maple is the devil! Does anyone else share my frustrations? I don't know why I continue to use maple for kitchens. I think this will be my last. It doesn't machine, it doesn't finish (color), I just hate it. I've got to cut all my panels an inch oversize, shape them, cut them down to finish size, and shape them again to avoid losing an inch of the edge to blowout. I'm talking about doors.

Coloring it is a whole different issue. I'm spraying dye, but it's still a pain in the butt. Today I noticed some water stains on the raised panels that remained and showed through after sanding them. It's just one thing after another. Maple just makes a small job turn into an eternity with me.

Sorry for the rant, just had to get it off my chest. Any agreeable comments may help to lower my blood pressure several points. Have a good weekend.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
It will not be a good weekend, as the Packers lost last week.

The staining problem is due to tension wood, which is a growth defect. You need to get your maple supplies from a different geographic area. The blow out is almost always due to a combination of dull tools, aggressive feed (too deep in one pass and too fast), improper chip breaker setup on a planer, too slender of a knife angle, and very low MC. The grain in hard maple swirls quite a bit, so it is not uncommon to find that you are always planing against the grain in some part of the piece. Hence, it requires a bit of a change to plane maple without machining defects. But it can be done.

From contributor K:
Soft maple has more trouble with water spots and staining. Maybe you need to try hard maple? Then again, hard maple will dull your cutters. Dull cutters, and/or too fast of feed cause blowout.

From the original questioner:
Yeah, I'm using hard maple, cutters are sharp. Don't think I'm feeding too fast. I got everything to shape out okay, just at about 3 times longer than should have been. You get the right kind of grain on maple and there's not much you can do to prevent some blowout. I just anticipate it and oversize. It's just a major pain.

From contributor R:
Hard or soft maple is a complete dream to work with! You want something difficult? Try curly or fiddle back western maple! Or better yet, try and color match lyptus.

From contributor L:
We run a lot of red leaf maple. Some of it is curly, but most is very nice. Machines and glues well, nice widths and lengths in each unit. Most of it goes through our molder, so it is held better during machining than most other methods. I haven't seen any sticker stain. We always wash coat for the first step after sanding so the stain looks more even. Just a side note, our suppliers have cut the price of hard maple a little and increased the price of red leaf enough that hard is now equal to or less than the price of red. I don't much care for silver maple due to the grays.

From contributor Z:
Instead of using a planer on maple, try sanding with a belt sander or drum sander. It is also best to hand select hard maple lumber and avoid the figuring like curly maple. Also stay away from maple that has large areas of brown. Check the edges of the lumber to see if the grain angle changes along the length. If the angle changes, you will be milling against the grain somewhere along the board. And when you are milling, make sure it is "with" the grain. (I know that this little bit of knowledge is not earth shaking, but some might not know about it.)

As was stated, sharp tooling is a necessity. Charge more for maple as well as other very hard woods such as hickory or beech. Woodworking is challenging at times, but isn't that just part of the deal? I mean, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

From contributor E:
I've been cursing maple and birch for the last few years. My suppliers are shipping material that wouldn't qualify for firewood in past years. I think they're trying to see if I'll take it. Same goes for the panel material. The quality we used to see in a 20.00 shop grade is now 80 bucks or more. A2 is like making car payments. B2 is hit and miss. Don't accept garbage from your suppliers. Best to hand pick the lumber these days. Even when you do, expect a high waste factor. Dry lumber - what a concept!

From contributor J:
Why on earth would anyone want to stain, dye or otherwise change the colour of maple? Americans seemed to be obsessed with changing the colour of wood, usually to darken it. If a darker wood is required, why not just use a different species? Hoping for enlightenment.

From contributor E:
Why indeed, but we know why. Ye Old Dark Brown Traditional Yuk. I had one client years ago that loved the natural color of all woods. We did 8 projects over a course of a few years. Many in exotics.

From contributor R:
Contributor J hit that one right on the money. Staining wood should be a crime!

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the comments. I agree with everyone's views except for contributor R's first post. I've been at this for 20 years and the only time maple has been a "complete dream" to work with is when I'm turning it and finishing it clear. Shaping it for door panels (as I was originally referring to) is anything but a dream, I don't care how sharp your tools are. And when you have a customer who requests that it be colored dark, that's a real dream as well, right?

From contributor R:
If I had a customer who requested dark stain on maple, I would tell them to pick another wood species. If they had to have maple, I would refuse the job! Why fight it? I can make full raised panel cuts on maple all day long and not have the problems you are having. What tooling are you using, what kind of shaper, how many hp, what's the spindle speed? All these things make a huge difference. I have been at this for twenty years as well. All I was saying is that curly or quilted maple is much harder to work with compared to the straight grain stuff! Sometimes you just have to walk away from jobs that are going to cause more problems than they are worth.

From contributor F:
I use mostly maple in my work, hard maple for finish grade and soft maple for paint grade. Is it more difficult than some woods, sure, but there are definitely worse things you could be using.

Some simple things I've found that help greatly:

1) Sharp cutters/knives. Keep all your blades sharp, as dull knives will cause a lot of grief.

2) Pay attention to grain direction. If you're passing a board over the jointer and get a lot of tearout, reverse the direction in the next pass. Sometimes the grain will reverse direction in a single board and you can't do much to prevent some tearout.

3) Take shallow passes on jointer/planer passes. Trying to take too big a bite out of maple will certainly ruin your day.

4) Take a deeper pass on the shaper. This one I just learned from the guys here. I upgraded to a larger spindle and take a full 1/16" of extra meat off now when sticking and the tearout is virtually gone.

5) Cut your entire profile and finished width in one pass. Another thing I learned from the guys here. I now use an outboard fence and run a single pass through the shaper and get parts to finished width in one shot. Much quicker than my old way (similar to yours) and as said before, little to no tear-out.

6) Upgrade to spiral insert cutterheads. This makes a huge difference on the planer. I get almost no tear-out and haven't changed my insert edges in over a year.

Anyway, like I said, these are simple things anyone can easily do to improve the quality of output with maple. And as far as quality I have to say I'm lucky with that, my supplier delivers some very good stock. I'll get up to 16" wide by 16' long straight and clear hard maple as a norm. The soft usually comes in 5-6" widths x 12' lengths not as straight and clear, but pretty good. If there's a question to quality (i.e. sticker stain, short lengths, or odd widths), he brings it up before delivery so I've never had to send anything back. I'll leave the staining advice to the finish guys, as I'm also not too keen on trying to stain maple.

From contributor B:
A lot of issues with the harder woods depend on your equipment. Hand feeding the shaper as opposed to a power feeder and having enough horsepower. A rip saw with 15hp is very different than a hand fed tablesaw with 5hp. Maple isn't any different than other woods for me to work with except the stain issue. I don't, so it isn't.

From contributor L:
I hope that everyone that is trying to make a living is using a feed on their shapers, and using heavy enough shapers (1 European machines) to make all cuts in one pass, big difference! If you are jointing edges for glue-up, quit! Buy a straight-line rip saw, save all that wasted time, get better quality joints. We have an Extrema rip saw that is very good, cost about $11K with blade, digital fence and laser. I don't think our 16" jointer has been turned on since we got the ripsaw. Spending money on good tools pays.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
Here is why you get erratic staining in maple, and some other woods as well. When the tree is growing, it will come under stress (wind, fighting for sunlight, growing on a hillside, etc.). It reacts to this stress by forming a special type of wood, called tension wood (hardwoods) and compression wood (softwoods). Both are called reaction wood; makes sense, as the tree is reacting to an outside force.

The tension wood cells that are made will typically consist of much more cellulose (cotton is 100% cellulose basically) and much less lignin (the stiffener and glue that holds the cells together). As a result, the tension wood cells are very weak (they like to fuzz rather than get cut off cleanly; avoid very thin cuts or dull tools or sandpaper) and are very absorptive of liquids. This would not be too bad if the entire wood surface were all tension wood, but in fact, tension wood is scattered here and there. So, when staining tension wood and normal wood, we get two different absorptivities and a blotchy appearance. Similarly for machining... we get good and we get fuzz at the same time.

Solutions for tension wood... First, for machining, use sharp tools and take an aggressive enough cut that the fibers will not be tempted to fold over instead of getting cut. When sanding, to avoid fuzz, use a sanding sealer or washcoat to stiffen the surface fibers so that they can be cut by the sandpaper minerals rather than pushed over. For staining and finishing, use a sealer to seal the surface so that the stain or finish cannot penetrate into the fibers.

From contributor B:
Thanks, Gene, good information. I knew there must be some way to explain it.

From contributor U:
I agree with contributor F's synopsis. Going from brazed to insert shaper cutters helped as well. Vibration in the shaper is a big deal when it comes to woods like maple. Even a small vibration can cause tearout. The bigger the spindle, bearings, and support structure, the better. I went to Shelix heads in jointer and planer - big improvement, and only extreme grain has minor (easily widebelt sanded out) tearout, regardless of feed direction.

From contributor M:
The reason for using stains should be obvious - to enhance the beauty of wood, not hide it. The use of dark stains on light wood all started to make a cheaper wood look like a more expensive wood. That said, I prefer to keep wood natural or at least use stains only that compliment a wood's natural characteristics. Wood finishing is as much an art as is wood shaping. And as for maple being hard to work, it depends on how you work it. Furniture makers have been working hard to work woods for centuries with great results. To avoid beautiful grain just because it is harder to work is avoiding one of the very reasons we use wood. Curly maple and tiger maple is beautiful wood and you shouldn't avoid it but seek it out.