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Tapping Maple Trees: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Your Own Maple Syrup

Maple Tapping Hanging Bucket 

Maple tapping time is just around the corner! Have you ever considered taking up this fun hobby but wonder how it all really works? I’m so excited to share with you everything we’ve learned about sugarmaking. I know you’ll find it to be a great outdoor family activity and I think you’ll see it is much simpler than you thought. Best of all, your reward will be one of nature’s sweetest treats: pure maple syrup.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to take you through the process of tapping trees, collecting sap, and turning this sweet bounty into enough syrup to feed your family all year long. For now, I’d like to answer a few questions I’ve run into and give you a little primer on the tapping process.

What Kind of Trees Can I Tap?

The best maple syrup comes from sugar maple or hard maple trees because their sap has the highest sugar content. You can also tap soft maples, birch, or box elder but the end product will taste a bit different and the boiling process takes a little bit longer. The tree must be healthy with a full canopy of leaves in the summer – thanks to the magic of photosynthesis, the more leaves a tree has, the sweeter its sap. One taphole will produce up to 12 gallons of sap in a season (which boils down to approximately one quart) and larger trees can accommodate more than one tap. Most sugarmakers follow this taps-per-tree rule:

• 12-inch to 18-inch diameter = 1 tap
• 18-inch to 32-inch diameter = up to 3 taps
• 32-inch or more diameter = up to 6 taps

Does Tapping Hurt the Tree?

If the tree is healthy when tapped and proper tapping procedures are followed, the taphole will start healing within a few weeks of the spile’s removal and the tree will be perfectly fine. Many maple tree farms have been tapping the same trees for over 100 years. Each taphole, however, must be placed in a different spot on the tree from the previous year. One thing to note: the bottom 4- to 6-foot "tapping zone” will result in trees that are less valuable if cut down for lumber.

When is Tapping Season?

The sap run typically begins in March and lasts through mid-April or until the trees bud out. The start date will vary depending on where you live but the run is always triggered by the same conditions: below-freezing temperatures at night followed by daytime temperatures in the 40 degrees Fahrenheit range. So, if you live in a zone with this seasonal freeze/thaw cycle, you can become a sugarmaker!

What Tools do I Need?

You need just a few basic supplies to start tapping trees – and with proper care, these tools will last for many seasons. For drilling the hole, you’ll need a cordless drill or a hand brace fitted with a wood-boring bit. The taps or spiles typically come in two sizes (5/16-inch and 7/16-inch) so make sure your bit matches the size of your spile. You’ll also need a small hammer to tap the spile into the hole.

Obviously you’ll need spiles for every taphole and a way to collect the sap. Choices for collection abound and you can find preassembled taps and tubes (which can also be connected with couplers to run all through the woods into one large bucket); buckets that hang right on the spile; or sacks that are designed to fit into a channel-type holder that also hangs on the spile. Any and all of these systems work just fine and really are a matter of personal preference. We used all three this past season just to try them out and my favorite was the tubing – it is more of a “closed” system which keeps debris and bugs out of the sap. (I know that sounds gross but don’t worry, anything that gets into the sap will be filtered and boiled out!)

You’ll also need an extra (or two or three) food-grade buckets for collecting your sap each day. We found that it was much easier to go to each tree with our larger buckets on the back of the ATV. Not only did it save time but we were able to get the containers back in place quickly so we didn’t have sap dripping on the ground.

How to Drill a Taphole

This is so super simple! We actually drilled many of our holes with our neighbor kids (ages 8 and under) and they loved helping out – by the fourth tree, they were running the drill. Here’s the quick step-by-step:

Step 1: Mark your drill bit with tape or a marker at 1-1/2 inches from the end. This will show you how far to drill into the tree.

Step 2: It’s not essential, but for best sap flow select a spot above a large root or below a large branch on the south-facing side of the tree. Drill the hole 2- to 4-feet off the ground and make sure you measure from the ground and not the snow level – as the snow melts, your tubing may not reach your bucket! Also, if the tree has been tapped before, locate your new taphole no closer than 12 inches above or below an old mark or 6 inches from side to side.

Step 3: Hold the drill steady and drill at a slightly upwards angle into the tree, stopping when you hit the mark on your drill bit. This ensures that you will only drill into the sapwood and not the heartwood, which could render the tree more susceptible to disease. Be careful not to wobble the drill – this can result in an “ovaled” hole which will not adequately hold the spile and may allow sap to leak out around the edges. As you remove the drill, try to pull with it the debris left in the hole. Sap will most likely begin running as soon as you drill the hole. Go ahead and taste it – it’s just barely sweet. 

Step 4: Insert the spile into the hole and gently tap until the hammer begins to bounce back. Be careful not to tap too forcefully as it could cause the spile to bend or break and possibly damage the tree.

Step 5: Attach your collection container and smile. You’ve just tapped a tree!

What to Do Next

Once you’ve tapped all your trees, it becomes a waiting game. If the temperatures cooperate, you will need to empty your containers every day. Sap can be collected and kept chilled for a few days until you’re ready to boil. In my next blog, I’ll talk about best collection practices and get you ready to start cooking. Until then, Happy Tapping!

Photo by Julie Fryer

For more information on sugarmaking, Julie can be reached at julie@mapletapper.com. Her books, Guide to Maple Tapping and Kid’s Guide to Maple Tapping, are available on Amazon in both ebook and printed versions.


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