Every woodworker has used maple at one time. If you haven’t, it won’t be long. It’s extremely common and among the easiest woods to work with. More importantly, maple offers all the physical properties you want from wood planks and boards.
But there’s often a little confusion around soft maple and hard maple. Both are great for regular woodworking applications. However, differentiating them is a little difficult if you want to be sure you’re using the right wood type.
So, what’s the difference between the two, and how do you distinguish them? Read on to find out.
Hard Maple Vs Soft Maple: What’s the Difference?
The main difference between hard and soft maple is that hard maple boards are lighter and more uniform in color, while soft maple boards are darker, with red or gray streaks. Also, as the names suggest, hard maples are harder than soft maples. Hard maple is also denser and, therefore, heavier.
What’s Hard Maple?
Hard maple is a collective term for three main hardwood species, sugar maple (Acer saccharum), black maple (Acer nigrum), and Florida maple (Acer floridanum).
Sugar maple is the most common hard maple species. Indeed, whenever someone mentions “hard maple,” they’re most likely referring to sugar maple. However, the other two are hard maples too.
Hard Maple wood characteristics
Hard maples are primarily identified by their color. For instance, sugar maple sapwood (the part most commonly used for lumber in maples) ranges from nearly white to off-white cream, occasionally with a reddish or golden hue.
Meanwhile, sugar maple heartwoods are dark reddish brown. The species has straight grains with a fine, even texture.
Wavy and figured grains aren’t uncommon. For instance, birdseye, curly, and quilted grain patterns are easy to come by. Unfortunately, hard maple boards are rated non-durable to perishable.
They are also susceptible to insect attacks. However, that rarely puts off woodworkers as hard maple is hard, strong, and highly workable. For instance, it turns, glues, and finishes excellently.
Hard maple has no characteristic odor but may cause skin irritation, a runny nose, and asthma-like respiratory issues
Hard Maple Types
Although sugar maple is the most common type of hard maple, two more species are often considered hard maples. These are black maple and Florida maple.
Sugar maples (Acer saccharums) are light-colored with straight grains, a Janka rating of 1450 lbf, and an average dried weight of 44 lbs/ft3 (705 kg/m3).
The trees are mainly found in the Northeastern region of North America, growing to 80-115 feet (25-35 meters) tall with trunk diameters between 2-3 feet (0.6-1.0 meters).
Black maples (Acer nigrums) are far less common. Worse still, it’s very difficult to distinguish it from sugar maple as the two share most characteristics.
The main difference is that black maples have three-lobed leaves, while sugar maples have five-lobed leaves. It’s rated 1180 lbf on the Janka scale.
The Florida maple (Acer floridanum) is an even rarer hard maple species and harder to distinguish from sugar maples. Indeed, it’s also known as the southern sugar maple.
The main difference is Florida maples’ smaller leaves, with shorter and acute lobes and a whitish bark. It’s rated 1240 lbf on the Janka scale.
What’s Soft Maple?
Soft maple is a collective term for about half a dozen maple species. They are called “soft” maples because they are physically softer than their harder cousins. For example, the average soft maple is about 25% softer than sugar maple.
Soft Maple types and characteristics
Unlike hard maples, soft maple species vary significantly in colors, hardness, and many other properties. The following is a brief comparison.
Acer rubrum, also known as red maple, water maple, soft maple, or swamp maple, is one of the most abundant tree species in east and central North America. It’s named after its red flowers, fruits, twigs, and beautiful fall foliage. The trees grow to 120 feet tall with trunks up to 6.0 feet in diameter.
Red maple is rated 742 lbf on the Janka scale and weighs 610 kg/m3 when kiln-dried. Color-wise, its sapwood is slightly brighter than sugar maple, while the heartwood is olive-gray.
Acer saccharinum, also known as silver maple, is a native to Iowa. It’s a fast-growing tree that weighs 530 kg/m3 when kiln-dried. So, you can already see that it’s more lightweight than the red maple.
Another key difference between the two is that though silver maple has white and wide sapwood with pink or light brown heartwood, the distinction between the sapwood and heartwood is less pronounced.
Silver maple is rated 700 lbf on the Janka scale and returns poor results for rot and decay resistance.
Acer macrophilia, also known as the Oregon maple or bigleaf maple, is a large-leaved soft maple species mainly found along the coastal regions of Pacific North America. The trees grow to 30m tall with trunks up to 1.0m and typically weigh 545 kg/m3 when kiln-dried.
They boast white sapwood with a slight reddish-brown tinge. Meanwhile, the heartwood is yellow or orange, thus lighter than other maple species.
Bigleaf maple is the strongest soft maple, scoring 850 lbf in the Janka hardness test. It also has a higher tensile and compressive strength than other soft maples.
Acer negundo, also known as boxelder, Manitoba maple, or ash-leaved maple, is a 35-80-foot soft maple species with a trunk diameter of 0.3 to 0.6 meters. The sapwood is pale white, often with a yellow or green hue.
Meanwhile, the heartwood is grayish or yellowish brown, with pink or red streaks. The species is most common in central and eastern North America and weighs 485 kg/m3. It’s rated 720 lbf on the Janka hardness scale.
Read also: Cherry vs maple wood
What’s the Difference Between Hard Maple and Soft Maple?
Hopefully, you picked a few distinctions between soft and hard maple from the above discussion. Nevertheless, here’s a summary of the main differences for quick comparison.
Weight and hardness
Hard maples are naturally denser and thus heavier than their softer cousins. For instance, sugar maple weighs 44 lbs/ft3, and black maple weighs 40 bs/ft3. On the other hand, the heaviest soft maple, red maple, weighs 38 lbs/ft3. The other soft maples weigh 32-34 lbs/ft3.
Next, hard maples are physically harder and stronger than soft maples. For instance, sugar maple is rated a massive 1450 lbf on the Janka scale, while black maple comes in at 1118 lbf and Florida maple at 1240 lbf.
Meanwhile, the strongest soft maple, the big leaf maple, is rated 840 lbf on the same scale, while other soft maples score 700-740 lbf in the Janka hardness test.
End grain differences
The end grains reveal the color, grain pattern, and growth rings. So, you should be able to discover significant differences using a magnifier. First, hard maples have a lighter, more uniform color. Meanwhile, soft maples are darker with red, brown, or gray streaks.
The differences in growth rings are even more discernible. The growth rings on hard maple are tighter because hard maples grow much slower.
Differences in the leaves
Obviously, this option only works if you have access to a live maple tree. Nonetheless, it’s one of the surest ways to determine whether you have a soft maple or hard maple. Even better, you’ll be able to determine the exact species of soft or hard maple.
Typically, sugar maple leaves have 5-7 lobes, with vivid autumn colors ranging from yellow to purple-red. Meanwhile, black maple leaves have only three lobes.
On the other hand, the appearance of a soft maple leaf varies. For instance, big-leaf maple leaves are extra large, up to 12 inches, red maple leaves are red, and silver maple leaves are silver-green with deeper notches between the lobes.
Chemical tests with iron sulfate
If you’re still struggling to differentiate between soft and hard maple species, it’s time for a chemical test. This can be particularly helpful in distinguishing hard maple from red maple, which is very similar to sugar maple. A solution of ferrous sulfate (FeSO) easily separates red maples from hard maples.
Mix ½ teaspoon of ferrous sulfate in half a cup of water and liberally apply it over small portions of each board. A color change is visible after about ten minutes. Most soft maples, including red maple, return a deep, inky dark blue or black color. Meanwhile, most hard maples, including sugar maple, give a pale blue or green color.
Soft and hard maple wood applications
Hard maple is mainly preferred for applications where strength and hardness are critical. Therefore, it’s great for hardwood flooring, furniture, butcher blocks, and sporting equipment. It’s also popular in veneering, wood pulp, wood turning, and workbenches.
Meanwhile, soft maple is an even better choice for furniture and woodturning. The lower hardness rating is sufficient for most projects.
But more importantly, the reduced density means it’s a lot easier to work with than hard maple. It’s also great for kitchen cabinets, musical instruments, and millwork.
Here is also an article on the difference between cedar and redwood.
Hard Maple Vs Soft Maple Wood Janka Rating
Hard maples are stronger than soft maples, with higher Janka ratings. For instance, a typical hard maple board has a Janka rating of 1450 lbf, whereas a standard soft maple board is rated 950 lbf on the Janka scale.
Also, note that every hard maple is stronger than the various soft maples.
Hard Maple Vs Soft Maple for Furniture
Both hard maple and soft maple produce exceptional and highly valued furniture. However, hard maple slightly edges the contest for two reasons – the more uniform color and its greater hardness.
Hard maple furniture boasts lighter and more consistent colors and grain patterns. They are also stronger (1450 lbf vs 950 lbf).
Hard Maple Vs Soft Maple Firewood
Both hard and soft maple produce poor to average firewood. For instance, oak is a better firewood material than both.
However, between hard and soft maples, hard maple firewood burns longer and produces stronger fires. Expectedly, sugar maples are the best choice.
Staining Hard maple Vs Soft Maple
Can you stain maple wood? Unfortunately, maple is one of the most difficult wood types to stain because it’s dense. Moreover, maple has a closed grain that stains very unevenly. But the problem is worse in soft maple, which easily blotches.
Therefore, we often recommend a different wood if you desire stained cabinets. Alternatively, use toner rather than staining.
Is Maple Hardwood or Softwood?
Maple is hardwood, not softwood. Soft maples are so easy to work with that you may confuse them for softwoods. However, they are flowering plants that produce seeds within fruits, making them scientifically hardwoods.
Also, maples, including soft maples, are physically stronger than most softwoods.
Read also: Is pine a hard or soft wood?
Should I use hard or soft maple?
You can use soft and hard maples interchangeably for most applications. However, most woodworkers prefer hard maple as it’s stronger and slightly more durable. Moreover, hard maple offers a more consistent color with fewer dark marks. That said, soft maple promises greater workability.
What is another name for soft maple?
There’s no other name for soft maple. Instead, “soft maple” is a collective term for about a dozen maple species softer than hard maples. Silver maple, red maple, bigleaf maple, and boxelder are the four main soft maple wood species.
Is silver maple hard or soft?
Acer saccharinum, better known as silver maple, is a soft maple. It has a Janka rating of 700 lbf, making it the softest of soft maples. By comparison, the softest hard maple, black maple, is rated 1118 lbf on the Janka scale. Also, silver maple is very lightweight at 530 kg/m3, whereas hard maple weighs 705 kg/m3.
Is red maple hard or soft?
Acer rubrum, better known as red maple, is a soft maple with a Janka rating of 742 lbf. This makes it the second strongest soft maple after big leaf maple (850 lbf). However, both are way off hard maples, with sugar maple, for example, scoring 145 lbf on the Janka scale. That said, red maple is the densest soft maple at 610 kg/m3.
How do maple and sycamore hardness compare?
Maple wood generally surpasses sycamore wood hardness. The Janka hardness ratings typically reflect this difference, with maple exhibiting greater resistance to wear and impact. While sycamore is still considered a hardwood, maple’s hardness makes it a preferred choice for applications demanding durability and strength.
Interesting read: Maple Plywood vs Birch Plywood.
Next read: Is cypress a softwood or a hardwood?
Soft and hard maples are groupings of various maple species. Soft maples, including silver, red, bigleaf, and boxelder maple, are physically softer, typically rated 700-850 lbf on the Janka scale.
Meanwhile, hard maples, notably sugar maple, black maple, and the Floridan maple, are stronger, rated 1100-1500 on the Janka scale.