Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is a native hardwood tree found west of the Cascade mountain range. Maple typically has relatively low commercial value in the forest products industry, except when the presence of figured wood results in a wider range of higher value products such as tonewoods, furniture, and specialty items. While it is common to find figuring only near the base of trees and above or below large branches, its value is limited. The most sought-after trees have figuring throughout the tree trunk beyond where branching begins. Experts vary in their estimates, but broadly agree that only one in every 200 to 500 maples has this desirable extent of figuring.
Pacific Rim Tonewoods (PRT) is a mill located in Skagit County, Washington which produces wood primarily for acoustical instruments. They use figured maple – mainly the type of figuring known as “fiddleback” – for the backs and sides of guitars. To possibly help ensure a future supply of figured maple, PRT has initiated the 100 Figured Maples Project (Project) as a critical component of PRT’s goal to develop desirable genetic lines of high-quality figured maple trees suitable for eventual harvest, manufacture, and use in musical instruments. Traditional forest management practices discourage the reestablishment of maple within intensively managed plantations. To make matters worse, there has been a widespread decline of maple due to forest health issues. All this is resulting in a reduced presence of bigleaf maples across the landscape that is likely to affect long-term availability.
There are many uncertainties involved with the causes and identification of commercially worthwhile bigleaf maple figuring. Though there is much discussion and many theories, it is not known whether figuring is inherited, caused by environmental factors, or an obscure combination of both.
Because the bark of a tree will provide little indication of figuring, searchers usually start by chipping several small areas of bark from the tree trunk to look for horizontal, gently rolling somewhat irregular ridges on the wood right inside the bark. However, this method gives little indication of the actual depth of the figuring or how high it extends in the tree.
For felled maples, stump pull and areas of breakage may provide very good indications of figuring presence. However, “opening up” the logs at the sawmill provides an in-depth inspection of the intensity, frequency, and amplitude of figuring, as well as other characteristics such as grain, color, and defect. Maples covered with burls do not contain desirable figure wood for acoustic instruments.
Locating, then collecting cuttings from maple trees that exhibit the most highly desirable figuring traits will allow opportunities to evaluate the propagates as they grow and otherwise develop to see if the figuring traits have been passed along. This may take years to properly evaluate. Cultivars are being grown at the 63-acre Utopia farm near Sedro Woolley, WA with progeny test sites being established there and at nearby Birdsview.
Help is sought from those already involved in purchasing and manufacturing figured maple for tonewood use. Forest landowners, big and small, that are already contemplating the harvest of woodlands that contain a substantial component of maple can also be of assistance. Since maples usually must be felled before a reasonable estimate of their value can be ascertained, and it typically ends up being only a very small percentage of maples that have high value, PRT discourages landowners from only falling their maples to see if they have tonewood value.
There are a number of ways that super-figured maples could be discovered. Specialty maple buyers, loggers, foresters, or knowledgeable landowners may detect promising maple logs and notify PRT. If a maple log at least 24 inches in diameter (or exceptionally figured) appears to have high quality and extensive figuring, and the landowner is willing to grant access to the stump, PRT would attempt to find the stump of that log, and uniquely mark both to maintain an identity connection. This will obviously be easier on small harvest areas rather than large. Whenever possible, a small sampling of the figured wood is also desired. Note that too large of a heartwood, extensive stain or the slightest spalting will disqualify a log from consideration.
PRT will then track the log to its destination mill and get feedback on if it met figuring expectations. If so, PRT would return to the stump, probably the following summer after sprouts have developed, for collection.
As time permits, PRT may also be available to examine standing maples in planned harvest units to get some idea of any potential for figuring in that stand.
If you would like to cooperate in the location of the 100 Figured Maples, please contact John Keller at 360-708-2569, email firstname.lastname@example.org. John is based in Sequim, WA but is available to examine sites throughout Big leaf maple’s distribution range. For research questions, Kevin Burke may be contacted at 360-319-8953, email email@example.com.