Tag Archive | tapping maple trees

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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Maple Sap Season

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Today I tapped the maple trees.  Bright sun, mild breezes and a temperature around 44 F made the sap run strong and steady.  I hiked down to the woods through knee deep snow, hitting a few drifts that came up to my thighs.  It was so warm I didn’t need a coat!

DSC03257The drilling of the tap holes I do with an antique hand-operated bit and brace.  The hole is fitted with a metal spile, a spout to guide the sap from the tree into the bucket.  Once the trees are tapped, the maple orchard is filled with the sound of sap dripping into metal buckets.  I love collecting sap in this old-fashioned manner.  Makes me think of my ancestors, the hardy New Englanders who toiled in much the same manner.DSC03252

There are 23 taps, enough to make a gallon of maple syrup a day if the sap runs well.  One gallon of syrup requires about 40 gallons of sap.  Some days it doesn’t flow very well due to weather conditions.  High winds or a daytime temperature below 40 F can slow the sap.

This year’s season is late.  January, February and March were all colder than normal and very snow filled.  We had a couple days here and there in the past two weeks when sap would flow.  All the maple syrup producers in the state are complaining.  The season sometimes starts in early February.

DSC03263The next week to ten days will be our season.  After that, the temperatures will go too high.  Once it doesn’t freeze at night, the trees begin to bud.  The sap turns dark and bitter, signaling the end of the season.  In the next few days I hope to make three to four gallons of maple syrup.  We’ll see how it goes.

Tapping the Maples

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Maples in our sugar bush

The temperatures are finally above freezing.  Sap is running in the maples.  Time to tap the trees and make syrup.  On the farm we have a maple orchard, also called a sugar bush.  The area is thinned to mostly sugar maple trees.  We tap, or drill small holes, to extract sap from trees at least 1.5 feet in diameter.  Our operation is low tech and much the same as was done a hundred or more years ago. We bore the holes by hand with an antique brace and bit drill, collect the sap in buckets hung on the trees, carry sap in five gallon buckets by hand to the boiler and boil down the sap outside over a wood fire.

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Drilling a hole

bucketThe ideal temperatures for collecting sap are when days are in the 40s F and nights in the 20s. Once the night temperatures go above freezing, the trees begin to bud their flowers and leaves.  When the trees bud, sap season is over.  The sap gets dark and strong tasting.  Due to the vagaries of the weather, the syruping season is late and we will be lucky to get one good week of sap collecting this year. Some years the sap will run well from February until April.

Today the weather is glorious, sunny, mid-forties with a slight breeze.  The snow is almost three feet deep, so it’s slow going in the maple orchard.  We set all twenty-five of our taps and the sap is running fast.  A good tap hole drips more than once per second.

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Hand drilling with an antique drill

First we drill holes of a particular diameter to fit the metal spouts, called spiels, that go in the trees to direct the sap into the buckets.  The holes are drilled in a couple of inches to where the sap flows inside the trunk of the tree.  The secret to a good, non-leaky hole is using the right sized drill bit and keeping the drill steady as it goes in, with no wobble.  After drilling, the hole is cleaned to remove any cast off drilled wood.

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Cleaning wood bits from the drilled hole

The spiel is tapped in just enough to hold it, too much and the living wood can split around the hole. Splits can severely damage the tree, even ruining a whole side of the trunk.

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Tapping in the spiel with a hammer

Galvanized buckets with lids are hung from the spiels. These collect the sap.  Large buckets hold 2.5 gallons. On a good sap run day, a tree will fill a large bucket. Older, wider trees can have two or more taps.  To get a gallon of maple syrup, approximately forty gallons of sap are required.  The sugar content varies between trees, we think our trees are pretty sweet! Our boiler holds fifty gallons and we can make about 1.5 gallons of syrup from a full boiler.  Our trees are very healthy, with an ideal location that is well drained, protected from wind and sunny.

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Hanging the bucket to collect the sap

Once all the holes are drilled and the buckets secured, we are on the way to collecting enough sap for our first boil. Depending on the weather, this can take two or three days. In my next maple syrup post, I’ll explain the boiling process.sugar bush1