Hard maple keeps strong share of market

Only two years ago, cherry and hard maple were at the top of the domestic wood markets — both in popularity and price. As everyone is acutely aware, the national economy and the domestic wood markets have changed dramatically since then. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the popularity of these two species. Retail and wholesale sales for hard maple and cherry are definitely down, but their percentage of domestic wood sales remains strong. Dealers contacted by Woodshop News report walnut is the only domestic specie that has grown in popularity during the two-year span.

“We’ve been struggling right along,” says Steve Wall, owner of Wall Lumber Co. in Mayodan, N.C. “Hard maple is good, the price has continued to come down a bit and supplies continue to be good. We’re getting some really good white material in, and it’s working out well.”

“We’re probably selling as much hard maple percentage-wise against all of the hardwoods as much as we have had in the past,” says Carl Mahlstedt of Goosebay Lumber Co., a retail and wholesale supplier in Chichester, N.H. “I don’t notice that the hard maple market is off. In fact, I can see that the hard maple bin in the last couple of months needs to be replenished more frequently than some of the other lumbers.”

Hard maple (Acer saccharum) is also known as sugar maple, rock maple, sweet maple and black maple. Hard maple is most prevalent in the Eastern United States, Canada and the Great Lake states, and is the source for maple syrup. The heartwood of hard maple is a light reddish-brown to tan, while the sapwood is white to creamy white. It is prevalent and readily available in thicknesses from 4/4 through 16/4.

Spring traditionally brings an increase in lumber sales, in part because of the improving weather in the northern states. The degree to which lumber sales pick up in the next several months is definitely a concern to wood dealers, because by the time July rolls around, sales slow down as the summer doldrums set in.

“I talked with some people several weeks ago, and they’ve been bidding jobs, and they’re just waiting for the jobs to come through, so you hope that things are turning the corner,” says Jerry Anton, a wholesaler with O’Shea Lumber Co. in Glen Rock, Pa. “Our slower months are typically November through January, then things rebound and things start to happen. February certainly wasn’t anything to write home about, but it improved and we thought, ‘Wow, that’s good.’ But then March came along and it just kind of sat there.”

“I think people look forward to the first sign of mud, the daffodils and whatever else grows in the spring [that] are not far behind,” Mahlstedt says. “I think people come out, so for us, spring matters, it’s a better time. In the last couple of weeks to a month, things have gotten better, things are a bit busier, but it’s not as good as it needs to be. But it certainly is not as bad as it was.”

Hard maple is used primarily by cabinetmakers, furniture makers, contractors, and in architectural millwork applications. It is also used in custom flooring and by hobbyists. With the downturn in the housing market, it has become more popular in the home improvement trade.

“The home shop guy and the light user, I feel like they’re keeping me afloat right now,” Wall notes. “We’re not seeing as much on the commercial end, some of the cabinet shops have backed off, as well as a builder where we were doing custom flooring and things like that. But I think the home shop guy might be traveling less, or eating out less and doing things in his shop more. His recreation may have changed back to basics.”

“It’s hard work,” adds Anton. “You have to scrape and scratch for every little thing as with any business. And the competition is brutal. Everybody is trying to get that little bit that’s out there, so that makes it even tougher.”

Hard maple is usually straight-grained and has a very fine, even texture. Bird’s-eye maple is found in about one in 500 trees and features a whitish background with brownish dots at irregular intervals. The small swirls of grain direction have the appearance of a bird’s eye. Other hard-maple-figured woods include curly, tiger, fiddleback, quilted and blistered.

“We’re doing perhaps more figured maple, both hard and soft maple. I’d say they’re not exceptional, but they’re on average,” says Mahlstedt. “There seems to be some similar activity on all of the maples — hard, soft and figured. Business is from the cabinet shops, furniture makers and a good percentage of individuals who are doing something for themselves.”

Retail prices for 100 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS hard maple, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $4.10 to $5.15/bf in the Northeast; $3.90 to $4.90/bf in the Southeast; $4.65 to $5.20/bf in the Midwest; and $4.85 to $5.60/bf in the West.

Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS hard maple ranged from $3,400 to $3,800 in the Northeast; $3,450 to $3,750/mbf in the Southeast; $3,600 to $4,160/mbf in the Midwest; and $4,450 to $4,760/mbf in the West.

Bird’s-eye maple prices averaged at least 20 percent higher than non-figured hard maple, with prices increasing in relation to the intensity of figure.