Soft maple gives hope to wood dealers

22_soft_mapleDomestic wood dealers have a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to forecasting how wood markets will perform in 2010. The majority of suppliers agree that wood markets have bottomed out and may actually be slightly on the rise. But any mention of a substantial rally taking place was greeted cautiously by even the most optimistic of dealers. One bright spot - or maybe just a glimmer - is the soft maple market. The lumber retails on average up to $1.50/bf less than hard maple and dealers report fair-to-good sales.

"We do pretty well with soft maple," says Dave Harris of Parkerville Wood Products, a retailer and manufacturer in Manchester, Conn. "The appearance of it is close enough to hard maple, but the price is substantially less. They call it soft maple, but it isn't really soft [specific gravity .49]; it's not like poplar."

"It's always been a strong seller for us. It's right up there with hard maple because of the cost," says Bob Hansen of Badger Hardwoods of Wisconsin, a retailer and wholesaler in Walworth, Wis. "We have a very good supplier and we sell a lot of it. I've said before if I ever lose him, then I'd probably have to raise my prices and then it gets to be a little more competitive. We turn a lot of people on to it just because of the cost and the machining of it in comparison to hard maple."

Soft maple (Acer rubrum), also known as red maple, silver maple and swamp maple, grows mainly in Canada and the eastern United States, and is not as heavy as hard maple. The creamy-white sapwood is valued for its clarity. The heartwood varies from light to medium reddish-brown. Soft maple has traditionally fallen in the shadow of hard maple (Acer saccharum), but because of the higher price of hard maple, the two woods have grown closer in popularity in the cabinetry world.

"Things may be a little bit better," says Jeff Schucker of Bailey Wood Products, a retailer and wholesaler in Kempton, Pa. "One of the bigger outlets we deal with said the white No. 1 Common is moving well for them and they have a glut of upper grade in soft maple. Right now, our soft maple sales are flat; we're not seeing much activity there. The [wholesale] hard maple price had dropped back the last several months so there wasn't too much of a difference between hard and soft maple. Now hard maple has edged up a little bit, there is a little more of a gap than there had been. On the retail level, the difference in price stayed, but on the wholesale level the gap shrank quite a bit."

Soft maple is a versatile wood and is as useful in furniture and cabinetry as hard maple. Mass-production furniture makers are the biggest buyers of soft maple. The wood has a straight grain and is considered easier to machine than hard maple. Soft maple is classified as a good steam-bending wood, is a stable wood for turning and takes a fine finish. It is not a good choice for exterior projects.

"Our customers are the smaller guys, the small shops, and they buy anywhere from 25 to 100 board feet at a time," Hansen says. "They use it for drawer slides a lot, that's probably the biggest thing. The other thing is they're using it for regular wood now. They can stain it up for just about anything they want and it will come out like it should as far as color. They don't have to fight anything. It's white and they can do whatever they want with it."

"We actually use it a lot for paint-grade material," Harris says. "We're just finishing up this old farmhouse in upstate New York, making over 30 interior doors. The builder actually told me to build them out of poplar. When I went out and started evaluating our processes, my mill guy said, 'I don't want to build those things out of poplar, they're going to go every which way. We have to do it out of soft maple.' So we ended up making them out of soft maple without an increase in price."

Soft maple is usually available in 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 and 8/4 thicknesses. Although the bird's-eye figure occurs in hard maple, soft maple occasionally provides some curly figure. Retail prices for 4/4 Select & Better soft maple, surfaced on two sides, ranges from $3.20 to $3.80/bf.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.