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The Art of Tapping Maple Trees

Maple syrup season is in full swing here at the farm.  I tapped three days ago and have filled the 50 gallon boiler tank.  Today is the first day I’ve fired the boiler.  By tomorrow evening we should have over a gallon of fresh syrup if all goes well.  Here at Phoenix Farm we make maple syrup much as the ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Improvements were implemented over the years with the development of galvanized buckets to replace the old wood ones, better spiels and a more enclosed method of boiling the sap to keep the smoke out.  Syrup was once made in open containers over open fires.  Generally, we collect and process sap much as was done in the 1700s here in New England.  I prefer the old fashioned way.  Besides the nostalgia factor, using metal rather than plastic for long term sap contact alleviates concerns of plastic contaminant leaching.

There is an art to drilling and caring for tap holes using the old methods.  It is helpful to tap on a day when the sap is running so you know the hole is patent.  Dry holes are no good to anyone.  Sap season occurs when air temperatures are in the 40sF during the day and 20sF at night.

I use an antique manual bit and brace drill.  Choosing the correct drill bit size is essential.  Too large or small a hole can lead to tree damage.  The correct size to fit standard spiels is 7/16″.  The spiel must be straight and perfectly round to fit snugly in the drill hole.  The materials required for tapping are the drill, a hammer, a study twig about 6″ long, spiels and buckets with lids.  Some lucky people also have a spiel driver which is a solid piece of metal that fits inside the spiel and allows you to hammer it into the tree without a chance of damaging the spiel.  Someday I will afford a spiel driver!

If the trees are being tapped in mid to late March, try to drill on the more shady northern, northeast or northwest sides of the trunk.  This helps protect the sap gathering in the bucket from getting too hot in the warm afternoon sun.  Sap must be kept chilled or it can spoil.

The hole is drilled with a slight downward slant to encourage the sap to run out.  Too steep a drill angle will allow the spiel to pull out when it holds the weight of a full bucket.  The holes are drilled between two to five feet from the ground.  Trees can be tapped when they reach ten to twelve feet in diameter at chest height.  I put one bucket on smaller trees, two buckets on trees larger than fifteen to twenty inches in diameter.  We have so many trees in the maple orchard that we don’t need to triple tap any of them.  It is safe to place up to four taps on a very large tree.


Drill the hole smoothly and evenly with no wobbling of the bit.  You want the hole to be straight so the spiel will fit flush, containing the sap and sending it out through the spout into the bucket.  Sloppy, loose holes leak and leaky holes are a waste of sap and time.  Drill in about 2.5″ to reach the xylem, where the sap travels inside the trunk.  Use the sturdy 6″ twig to clean any drill dust out of the hole.  Then, use the hammer to gently tap the spiel on the wide area above the spout to drive it into the hole until it is just snug.

A spiel driven in too deep can split the trunk, greatly damaging the tree.  A spiel that is too loose is in danger of falling out when the bucket gets full.  When the sap starts to run out the spout, I clean the first of it away since it will be full of bits of drilling dust.  Finally, hang the bucket on the spiel and pop on a cover.  It takes me four to five minutes to complete each tap.



On a nice, warm afternoon in March when the sun is shining and the temperature is around 45F, the sap will practically pour from the drilled hole. Each tap hole produces between one to two gallons on a day when the sap is running well.  Temperatures below the 40sF, cloudy, cool days and chilly, windy days reduce sap production.  
After the trees are tapped, (we have twenty-five taps this year,) it takes two to four days to collect enough sap to fill the boiler pan, depending on the weather. The average ratio is forty gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup. I suspect the soil in our maple orchard encourages very robust trees because they gives us a little more syrup per gallon of sap. More like 35:1.

Once temperatures are sustained above freezing at night, the maple trees begin to bud:  their leaf and flower buds are swelling in preparation for opening.  Budding signals the end of syrup season.  The sap becomes dark and bitter.  To me, care of the tap holes at the end of the season is as important as at the beginning.  Certainly, there are plenty of people who will swear that all you need to do is pull out the spiel and let the tree alone.  The sap that bleeds out in profusion from the holes is not a problem for the plant, some claim.  I ignore this advice.

It makes sense to me that a bleeding tree is losing energy.  It also is obvious that an opening that leads 2.5″ into the trunk of a tree is an invitation for insects and microbes to invade.  At the end of the season, I use the hammer to gently tap each spiel out of the tree.  I cut ash saplings selected to fit snugly in the opening.  Using ash rather than maple saplings reduces the chance of introducing disease into the tree.

I peel and whittle the sapling, as necessary, until it perfectly fits the hole.  Then I cut off a piece about 1″ long and tap it into the hole.  The chunk of sapling acts as a plug.  It greatly slows the loss of sap.  As the tree heals, new wood forms inside the hole and pushes outward against the plug, popping it out of the trunk.  Filling the hole completely with foreign wood so that the plug remains in the tree will damage the plant since it creates a dead space in the trunk.  In the photo above, the plug placed last year is on its way out of the hole.  Below is a well healed old tap hole.

Improper drilling can create catastrophic results for the tree.  When a tap is driven in too hard and the trunk splits, the wood below the hole dies.  A wide section of the truck is lost, resulting in a hole in the tree near the roots and much dead wood.  When I first started tapping maples, I made the mistake of splitting the trunk a few times and damaged several trees including this fairly young one below.  There is a big hole on the left lower side.  This tree still produces plenty of sap and is healthy, but some do not recover from the damage.  They are weakened to the point where they have to be cut down.

One of the joys of maple season for me is listening to the sap drip into the metal buckets.  Quite a cadence can be heard of a warm afternoon.  So that others might enjoy this rare tree music, I’ve made a couple short videos of the dripping sap.  Notice in the close-up shots how the hydraulic force appears to create a heartbeat-like rhythm.

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Dug Jars

These old Dundee marmalade pots were found in a trash pit on property in Wiscassett, Maine that was recently purchased by my brother.  This summer while he was excavating in preparation for erecting power poles he dug out these jars plus a couple dozen old Coca Cola bottles and some assorted other odds and ends.

My brother piled the finds in 5 gallon buckets and brought them to me.  They were all covered and filled with thick clay.  After a considerable amount of cleaning, and soaking in bleach, these pots look fairly presentable.  They have some staining from rust, a few small chips and a couple are crazed.  These and the rest of the goodies from the pit date to around 1949-1955.

For some reason, old pottery marmalade pots are sought after.  Perhaps people like them for decorating.  They measure about 4.25″ tall and would be useful to hold things like pens or coins.  These five recently sold at auction in my eBay shop for $70.  A pretty good return on a few hours of elbow grease.  Thanks brother for the generous gift!

I still have to clean the Coke bottles before they can be listed.  They are all from Maine or New England.  Those bottles are not likely to be as valuable as the marmalade pots, but they will sell well.  I also have listed some interesting old toiletry bottles and jars from the pit.  They were quite dirty.  Some still contained remnants of the original product including the hair pomade and hormonal cream.  The contents were black and sticky, a real joy to clean out.  These all are from the same era, the early 1950s.

The pieces are, clock-wise from the top left, a Lentheric aftershave or cologne bottle, a Tame by Toni creme hair rinse bottle, milk glass jar for Paglo Pompom hair pomade, with real lanolin (I’d love to smear that stuff in my hair!) and, Helena Rubenstein Estrogenic Hormone cream, purported to reduce wrinkles.  The Tame bottle says “the new invisible hair dressing that rinses on.”  Tame was a new product in 1953.

My brother also dug out some old locally bottled soda bottles that have already sold.  I have listed some household bottles for Clorox bleach, Vermont Maid syrup and perhaps an old Milk of Magnesia bottle that is dark blue glass, a couple old milk bottles from Maine and an amber bottle that once held Felton’s rum.  He also found the lid for a French pate pot and the enameled cast iron top for a Volcanic color Le Creuset roasting pan.  The roasting lid is too corroded to rescue, unfortunately.

Altogether, the trash pit was a good find with some well preserved treasures from mid-century America.  It is interesting to see what sorts of products a particular family in Wiscasset used during the early 1950s.  Perhaps not as exciting as excavating a medieval, Roman or pre-historic trash midden, but entertaining enough for me!

Antique Noritake

I just had to share these beautiful plates.  They are hand painted Noritake made in Japan.  The porcelain is thin and fine with gorgeous encrusted gold floral crests and scrolls.  The hand painting is amazingly well done.  The plates measure 7.25″ in diameter.  They have minimal utensil wear and some loss of gold to the center and rim bands.  I don’t know how a human could create such meticulously perfect detailing.  The scrolls are all so uniform.

The backstamp is in red and dates to right around 1918, making these plates antiques next year.  I was surprised to find the beauties in a thrift shop.  They were a set of three, but one had a good-sized chip.  I made that into a very fancy underplate for one of my african violets.  The other two plates are for sale in my eBay shop.

Antique Atterbury Milk Glass Plates

Last week I had the good fortune to discover this set of four delicate white milk glass plates at a thrift store.  It is amazing that such breakables have survived with no chips or cracks.  The pieces were made by Atterbury Glass of Pittsburg, PA.  They are marked on the backs with a capital A.  Atterbury was in business from approximately 1859-1902.  So these plates are antiques.  They appear nearly new with just the slightest scratch here or there from a utensil.

The beautiful open-work borders with their S-shape are so prone to breakage that I was very careful to examine the margins for hairline cracks.  My eyes are getting old, but I don’t think I missed any damage.  This sort of work is termed Early American Pressed Glass, EAPG.  It can be distinguished from later glass by the imperfections inherent to the material.  The glass will have flow lines, straw marks, tiny trapped bubbles and roughness around the edges where the pieces were knocked out of the mold.  As time passed and glass manufacture became more technically advanced, these mars were eliminated.  Thus, in this case the age of a piece can be told by its blemishes.

Atterbury produced tons of milk glass, the company was renown for it.  Some of their most popular pieces included hens and other animals on nests covered dishes, cups, and lacy open work pieces.  This S-shaped lace design has a decided gilded age feel to me, perhaps produced sometime in the 1880s.  This is just a guess.  Information about the company’s production, and especially the marks used, is very limited.  After the company went out of business, some of its molds were apparently sold.  Westmoreland Glass later made an identical pattern under its own mark.

Included in the set are three dinner plates measuring 8 3/8″ square and one salad plate at 7 3/8″.  I paid less than one dollar per piece and hope to realize a sale price of ten dollars each in my online shop.  The last similar one sold for $9 and it was a single plate.

Vintage Hull Art Pottery Bowknot

This recent thrift shop find is a rare sugar bowl by Hull Pottery in the Bowknot or Bow Knot pattern.  It was made between 1949-1950.  This short production run is likely why such pieces are hard to find.  Hull began producing art pottery in the 1920s and by the time this was made they were in their art heyday.  I love the organic lines and lovely muted colors of this pattern.  And who can resist the adorable bow on top?

This is a large sugar bowl, measuring about 5″ high with the lid.  The base can hold a lot of sugar, at least a couple cups!  The sugar bowl is part of a set that includes a teapot and creamer.  Due to the rarity, these pieces can get pricey.  The glaze is called matte but feels smooth and satiny to me.

My find has a 1/8″ chip in the foot and light, fine crazing over most of the body inside and out.  Crazing usually occurs when the glaze and body cool at a different rate after firing.  The glaze shrinks too quickly and something has to give.  I actually do not mind crazing most of the time.  When stains get into the craze, I’ve found that soaking in a strong bleach bath will greatly reduce the stain.

This is what makes scouring thrift shops, flea markets and yard sales such a fun adventure.  I acquired the piece for less than $6, cleaned it up a bit, and have it listed for sale for $30.  A somewhat nicer example with less crazing and no chips sold for nearly $70 recently, so fingers crossed!

Restaurant Ware

Restaurant ware is a broad range of dishware that is produced specifically for use in…you guessed it…restaurants.  It is appropriate for many industrial or institutional purposes such as cafeteria or hospital use.  Much of this ware was made for railroad dining cars.  Patterns were created and reserved specifically for certain establishments.  Military officer’s tables are graced with dishware bearing specific service logos.  Many restaurants have their own logo ware.  Organizations and clubs also invest in tableware bearing their emblems.  Collectors build sets of restaurant ware and some pieces, especially older or rare ones, command high prices.

My own restaurant ware interest is in Syracuse China Dogwood pattern.  Some of my pieces are pictured above.  This design, with the scalloped edge is on the Winthrop body shape.  There is also a plain, straight rim with the same decoration that I’m not opposed to collecting.  I love the dogwood blooms.  It is one of my favorite flowers.  Reminds me of the beautiful little spring-flowering dogwoods brightening the dark woods of my North Carolina childhood.  This pattern was used by the Norfolk and Western railway in their Roanoke Hotel restaurant.  The 10-KK date code corresponds to Oct. 1956.

Buffalo China Windsor cup and plate

Buffalo China Estoril plate, cup and saucer

There are and were many American manufacturers of restaurant ware.  Some big names include Syracuse, Buffalo, Shenango, Homer Laughlin, Mayer, Jackson, Wallace and Tepco.  Their products were thick, heavy weight vitrified china.  This material could withstand the hard commercial use without chipping, cracking or crazing.

Comcor by Corning, ceramic glass, rope design, pattern name unknown to me

Corning produced lines of restaurant ware using their ceramic glass formulas and these products were also much thicker and heavier than household dishes.  Restaurant ware is produced in many other countries and there are avid collectors of non-US varieties of dishware.

Sometimes the pieces from particular establishments are prized or certain shapes such as platters.  I have a fondness for bouillon cups.  They are so cute! Vintage ware from closed potteries is popular.

Homer Laughlin cups with an airbrushed mauve-gray rim band

Shenango salad plate, I have not been able to identify the pattern name

Jackson China bouillon cup, black scrolled pattern, name unknown to me

In my online shops on eBay and Etsy I currently have a small selection of restaurant ware.  Most of the pieces for sale are by Buffalo China or Syracuse.  There are a smattering of offerings from other manufacturers as well.  Restaurant ware is a strong, perennial seller.  Collectors look for examples that are in the best condition possible.  Since the dishes have likely seen service, most will carry use marks, usually utensil scratches and rubbed areas from stacking.  Pieces with light to minimal signs of use are often listed at premium prices.  Rare shapes or patterns can cause bidding wars.

Whenever I come across a restaurant dish in good condition, I snap it up it knowing it will sell.

Old Limoges Plate

I found this old Haviland dinner plate at an antiques mall for $3.  The plate dates to the early 20th century.  It was made in France and imported to the USA by Mellen & Hewes of Hartford CT.  I listed the plate in my eBay store on auction.  The sale ended tonight with some feverish last minute bidding that reached $42.

Such a beautiful piece, I’m not surprised that several people wanted to add it to their collection.  The plate is very lightly used, in excellent shape for such old porcelain dinnerware.  The transfer floral pattern has been embellished with hand applied porcelain paste to give depth.  The rim is encrusted in gold.

There are a very few light utensil scratches and some wear to the gold along the tops of the beads.  Otherwise the plate looks much as it did almost one hundred years ago when it left France.  The back stamp indicates the piece was made by GDA (Gerard, Dufraisseix, Abbot,) the company that bought a portion of the Haviland porcelain works.  The piece was made in Limoges, an area of France famous for porcelain production.  The import company who brought the tableware into the US was active in the early 1900s.  Mellen and Hewes was a successful and influential company in their day in Hartford.

I very much enjoy the sport of hunting for hidden treasures.  Little bits of history such as this plate are often overlooked and sold for a pittance.  When the piece is identified and brought to the correct market, its true value is recognized.   The excitement for me is discovering how much my find is really worth.