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Big leaf maple hails from the west.

Maple trees are as american as apple pie. But when people think of maples, quite often they think only of the trees in Eastern forests. What many don't realize is that the United States is home to some 20 different species of the maple or Acer family (150 or so species worldwide), which are divided into the hard and soft maples. Among the species of maple is: black, broad leaved, fig leaf, hard, Oregon, rock, river, rough, scarlet, silver, soft and sugar.

A Soft Hardwood

One of the more popular Eastern maples, sugar maple was the focus of last May's Wood of the Month column. Big leaf maple, also known as Oregon maple, is noteworthy because it is the most commercially important of the maples found in the Western United States.

Big leaf maple is classified as a soft maple. For anyone who has ever seen the tree, the name "big leaf" needs very little explanation. Each one of the tree's leaves is usually a foot long, with three to five lobes and often wider than long.

Donald Culross Peattie, in his book "A Natural History of Western Trees" writes that Western maples were as popular as the the Eastern ones for their natural beauty.

"Naturally so free a tree attracted the attention of all the early botanical explorers in the Northwest," wrote Culross Peattie. Big leaf became the premier hardwood of the Western forests and continues to be so today.

"The West is in general poor in hardwoods yielding high-quality lumber, but big leaf maple is an exception, producing several million board feet a year for use in furniture, interior finish, flooring, and boat building," according to Peattie. "The best timber is not cut from trees in deep, coniferous woods, for these are apt to be spindling in competition with the mighty conifers, but from specimens grown in more open maple groves."

Western maples occasionally yield curly and bird's-eye figures. "In the pioneering days in the Northwest, curly maple gun stocks were highly prized, both by the Hudson Bay Company men and the Indians," Peattie writes. Second growth saplings were a favorite for single-trees in the days of wagon building. Early users of the Western maples, the Native Americans of Oregon and California, made canoe paddles from the big leaf maples. Sap was used to make sugar.

Creamy White Color

Typically, big leaf maple is creamy white in color with a straight grain. The wood in general is softer than hard maples; rock maples, for example, average 45 pounds per cubic foot in weight. Big leaf maple is also lower in strength than the hard maples.

However, it shares many of the same uses as hard maple, including: flooring, furniture, interior joinery, piano actions, dairy and laundry equipment, turnery and architectural uses such as paneling. The figured logs are cut into decorative veneers. Big leaf maple can also be used to make plywood.

Specialized uses include shoe lasts, musical instruments and a variety of sporting goods such as canoe paddles.

Big leaf maple is less lustrous than hard maples. However, the wood can be worked easily with both hand and power tools.

Western Ranges

Big leaf maples are also known as Oregon maples. But in truth, the tree's range is in the Pacific Coast and includes British Columbia south through the coast of California, to San Diego County and west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and San Bernadino Mountains.

Another of the domestic maples is the western sugar maple, Acer saccharum, variety grandidentatum, which is also know as big tooth maple. These trees grow in the mountains of northwestern Montana and Utah as well as southeastern Idaho, Wyoming, southern Colorado, western Texas and in the high altitude area of Arizona.

Culross Peattie writes that this maple has hard wood and sweet sap like its close relative, the sugar maple of the Eastern United States. "If it were as abundant as the true sugar maple and grew as accessibly, it would doubtless be an important hardwood lumber tree. But its habitat is in canyons and along the banks of mountain streams where it us unlikely that the saws will ever seek it while the eastern tree holds out," said Culross Peattie.


Acer macrophyllum of the Family Aceraceae


Big leaf maple, Oregon maple, broadleaf maple, white maple, Pacific maple.


the maple trees average 60 to 70 feet with heights up to 98 feet and diameters of 2 to 3 feet. Weight averages 34 to 35 pounds per cubic foot. Average specific gravity is 0.54.


Big leaf maples dry slowly with little degrade and medium movement in service. Soft maples wood has medium density, with good crushing and bending strength, low stiffness and shock resistance and good steam bending classification. Wood works well with hand and power tools. Moderate bunting effect on tools. Moderate bunting effect on tools. Nailing should be done with care.
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Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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