Differences Between Soft Maple vs Hard Maple


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Maple is one of the most versatile and popular types of wood in use in the United States for woodworking projects. We use it for flooring, cabinets, furniture, pool cues and bowling pins. Maple wood is easily available all over the country. It is affordable yet durable.

Soft maple vs hard maple is a common topic for discussion amongst woodworkers. Both types of wood make musical instruments, cabinets, and furniture. Although we call one type of wood “soft,” it still comes under “softwood.” It is useful to know about the differences and common factors between these two types of maple.

Background

Maple wood texture background

When you deal with maple wood, you need to consider the type of maple you have to get the best out of your wood. Hard maple is almost 25% harder than soft maple, but even soft maple is moderately hard with a Janka hardness rating of 700-950 lbf. Therefore, you can even use hard or soft maple for many heavy applications.

Maple wood is a creamy, light-colored wood with the occasional red tinge. You will find this wood ideal for making furniture, cabinets, and flooring. This wood lasts long and you can enhance its life by adding a protective finish to it

Maple is a cost-effective solution and if you stain it with darker shades, you can make it look like some of the more expensive types of wood. But the downside you need to be aware of is maple wood’s tendency to become blotchy on staining it. To prevent this, you can apply a sealer before staining it. o, make it appear like a more expensive variety.

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple

When we say “soft maple” we don’t refer to a particular wood species. The name alludes to a group of wood species to set them apart from hard maple. But when it comes to hard maple, we refer to wood from the Acer saccharum tree. We also call hard maple rock maple or sugar maple, the latter name because it yields maple syrup.

You may see some other species of maple in the United States like Florida maple (Acer floridanum) and black maple (Acer nigrum) which are not as common as soft maple or hard maple.

As we mentioned above, many different maple species come under the umbrella of soft maple. The main species belonging to this group are:

  • Box elder (Acer negundo)
  • Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
  • Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum)

All these species of soft maple find use as lumber for various woodworking applications. But none of them have nearly the strength of hard maple which has a Janka hardness rating of 1,450 lbf.

Uses for Soft Maple and Hard Maple

Large luxury maple wood kitchen with island and stools

Despite its name, soft maple is not as soft as many other hardwoods like alder, African mahogany, and poplar. So, you can consider it for heavy-duty projects. But each type of maple is best-suited to certain applications such as:

Hard Maple

Useful for making cabinet doors, butcher blocks, pool cues, bowling pins, and flooring. It also serves well for smoking foods.

Soft Maple

We use soft maple to make decorative boxes and fine furniture. Because soft maple bends better than hard maple and carries sound well, it serves well for making musical instruments.

You will find both types of maple great to work with because of the durability, dimensional stability, and good looks. You can stain maple well, but be aware that it tends to blotch if you don’t apply a sealer before you stain it.

The best way of approaching this type of wood is to use hard maple for heavy-duty projects and soft maple for lighter applications and carving.

Woodworking Tips for Using Soft and Hard Maple

In the course of your woodworking projects, you will probably handle a considerable quantity of this fine wood. Here are some useful tips and information to help you get the best out of soft maple and hard maple:

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple: Weight

Understandably, soft maple is lighter than hard maple. While soft maple weighs 32-40 lb/cubic foot depending on the wood species, hard maple tips the scales at 44 lb/cubic foot.

Although you might identify hard maple by its density, you cannot use the same approach with soft maple because of the wide density variations depending on the particular species.

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple: Machining Considerations

You will find soft maple easier to machine than hard maple, and it doesn’t develop burn marks. However, with soft maple, it might accumulate fuzz with a blunt cutting blade. This makes it less preferred for wood-turning purposes.

On the other hand, when you machine hard maple, it is but it will develop burn marks if you do not control the speed of your cutting tools. The rule of thumb when machining maple wood whether soft or hard is to maintain sharp cutting tools.

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple: Appearance

Woody stem vector

Soft maple has a looser grain pattern because it grows faster than hard maple. Therefore, the growth rings of hard maple are more pronounced and tighter than soft maple.

An interesting fact about hard maple is that we use sapwood rather than heartwood for lumber, due to its pale, creamy color that sometimes comes in a darker reddish-brown.

You can also find figured maple such as spalted, birdseye, curly, or quilted, which tends to be more expensive and exotic. It’s difficult to distinguish soft maple from hard maple, but once you compare other characteristics, you can distinguish one from the other.

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple: Finishing Considerations

As we mentioned above, applying a finish can be a bit tricky particularly for soft maple if not done properly. The surface of this type of maple is porous, which can result in unequal absorption of the stain.

You have multiple options for prepping soft maple for staining. One solution is to sand it down. You also get pre-stain conditioners or you can apply a light coating of shellac before applying the stain.

Even with the best products, things can go wrong and you may end up with a blotchy surface. The best approach to staining maple is to use a test piece to get satisfactory results. Once you get the desired results, then you can apply the stain to your project.

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple: Distinguishing Features

Now that we have seen a bit about the characteristics of these two types of maple, we can proceed to see how to tell one from the other. Here are a few ways that will tell you whether you are looking at soft maple or hard maple:

Weight of the Wood

You can get information on the internet about the weight of different species of maple. Here is a ready reckoner you can use:

Maple Type Average Density Density Range (+/- 10%)
Striped maple 32 lbs/cubic ft 28.8 to 35.2 lbs/cubic ft
Silver maple 33 lbs/cubic ft 29.7 to 36.3 lbs/cubic ft
Red maple 38 lbs/cubic ft 34.2 to 41.8 lbs/cubic ft
Box elder 32 lbs/cubic ft 28.8 to 35.2 lbs/cubic ft
Bigleaf maple 34 lbs/cubic ft 30.6 to 37.4 lbs/cubic ft
Black maple 40 lbs/cubic ft 36 to 44 lbs/cubic ft
Hard maple 44 lbs/cubic ft 39.6 to 48.4 lbs/cubic ft

End Grain Identification

There are subtle differences in the end grain of these two types of maple. Hard maple is lighter with a more or less uniform color. Soft maple is darker and has some red and brown also. The spacing of the growth rings of hard maple is much closer than that of soft maple.

Leaf Shape

For unharvested trees, the leaves are the best way to distinguish between soft maple and hard maple. Soft maple leaves have an abundance of V-shaped valleys called “sinuses.” The sinuses of hard maple are U-shaped.

Chemical Test

An interesting way of differentiating soft maple from hard maple is through a chemical test. If you apply ferrous sulfate to a small portion of the wood, the chemical will turn light blue or light green for soft maple and dark blue or black for hard maple.

Soft Maple vs Hard Maple: Sustainability

A modern kitchen with maple cabinets and hardwood floors.

Every responsible woodworker needs to be aware of the impact of using wood and the effect of deforestation. Wood needs to be sustainable, meaning that we should grow as much, if not more than we are taking from the forests.

The good news is that all forms of maple are sustainable. It does not appear on any of the lists of endangered wood species. So, when you use maple wood, you are using wood that is not only sustainable but also versatile, strong, and economical.

Conclusion

Whether you are a professional woodworker with years of experience or an amateur who has just started, maple is always a good choice. It offers countless possibilities, and with the information we have provided here, you can create some great projects using soft maple or hard maple wood.

Whether you build furniture, plan to install hardwood flooring, or want to try a hand at wood carving, you can try maple. You can get some fine results with either type of this wood. Click HERE to learn more about types of maple wood.