Making maple syrup is an excellent spring activity to get outside, enjoy your trees, and make something truly valuable! This picture guide goes through the steps I take to make maple syrup.
A lot of literature I’ve read on maple sugaring makes it sound really difficult, to be honest. But after trying it once, I think you will find that it is actually very easy and extremely fun!
In this article, I will walk you through the procedure and equipment I use, so that hopefully you can find it simple as well. I hope you find this useful!
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The following is a detailed overview of how to tap Maple Trees and collect the sap for Maple Syrup. For more FREE information on making Maple Syrup, visit the Maple Syrup Hub!
What I Use:
- Cordless Drill
- 5/16″ bit
- Spiles (taps) and tubing
- Rubber mallet
- food-grade 5-gallon buckets, or empty milk jugs
- Propane Boiler
- 50 qt Boiling Pot
History of Maple Syrup
The indigenous people of northeastern North America were the first to make Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar. They were producing Maple Syrup long before any Europeans arrived in region.
Though we may never know exactly how Maple Syrup production first came to be, one legend involves a Native American woman collecting the watery sap from a Maple tree for cooking a stew, rather than making the long trek to the nearest water source. Upon boiling the liquid, it became sweet (Wikipedia), and from that time on became a staple of the diet.
How to Tap Maple Trees for Sap
The first step in tapping trees for maple syrup is to identify that you have access to the correct type of trees to tap.
Click here to download a 1-page PDF "Maple Syrup Making Cheat Sheet" that contains a summarized version of all the steps to making delicious Maple Syrup!
Sugar Content of Different Types of Maple Trees
The good news is that any tree in the maple family can be tapped for syrup, the sap they produce just tends to have different concentrations of sugar ranging usually from about 1-5%.
The higher the sugar concentration in the sap, the less time will be required to boil the sap down into syrup.
The following table lists the average sugar concentration from the sap of various types of maples trees based on a study that examined the maple trees located on the St. John’s University campus in Minnesota (reference).
It also gives the ratio of gallons of sap that you need to boil down to get one gallon of syrup.
|Type of Maple Tree||Sugar Conc. of Sap (%)||Ratio Sap/Syrup|
Another study out of Vermont included 4500 maple trees measured over the course of 12 years and found some interesting results:
- The sugar concentration of sap produced by any given tree generally varies from year to year by about 1%.
- Over the course of one season, the sugar content of the sap from a single tree varies by about 1%, usually starting the season higher and ending lower, though there is some evidence that suggests there is a peak in sugar content at about 1/3 of the way through the season.
- There can be great variety even in maple trees of the same type and located in the same bush, which can vary from each other in sugar content by as much as 2-3%.
- Regardless of the year, “sweet trees’ tend to always have higher sugar concentrations than trees that generally produce lower sugar content. In other words, if you find a good tree, it will always be good! And if you find a dud, it will always be a dud!
How to Identify Maple Trees
The most common type of tree to tap is of course the sugar maple, but over the years my family has also tapped silver maples, red maples, and even box-elder (sometimes called black maple) trees.
But sugar maples will give you, hands-down, the best tasting syrup, so shoot for those if it all possible.
If you don’t already know which are your sugar maple trees when spring comes, it can be tough because the leaves are gone!
Try to find some leaves from last fall to help you identify them, otherwise, you can identify sugar maple trees by their rough distinctive bark.
Your trees should be a minimum of 10″ in diameter (at eye level) before tapping them. Larger trees can handle more than one tap.
In general, you can add a tap for every 5″ in diameter above 10″. For example, a tree more than 15″ in diameter can handle 2 taps, and 20″ can handle 3 taps, etc….
When to Tap Maple Trees for Sap
You tap maple trees in the spring when the temperatures are getting warmer. You want the temperature to alternate above freezing in the day, and below freezing at night.
In fact, the sap runs best when you have temperatures below freezing at night, and in the 40’s during the day.
Because of these temperature requirements, the maple tapping season usually occurs in March for most locations, but can run anytime from February to April depending on the year.
Once the temperature stays above freezing at night or buds appear on the trees, the tapping season is over.
How Long is the Maple Sap Season for Tapping Maple Trees?
The season for tapping maple trees typically lasts about 4 weeks, with longer or shorter seasons ranging anywhere from about 3 to 5 weeks depending on the weather conditions.
How to Set the Taps in a Maple Tree
In order to set your taps, I recommend using the 5/16″ taps. In the past, 7/16″ taps were common.
The nice thing about using small diameter spiles is that the tree can fully heal up in 1 year, rather than several years as it can take with larger diameter holes drilled into them, and the amount of sap you get is the same.
Below is a comparison of a fresh hole (top), and one that is one year old (bottom), where you can see the 1 yr old hole has been nicely healed over by the tree.
To set the taps, use a cordless drill with a 5/16″ bit on it.
Drilling the Holes in the Maple Trees
Drill a hole in the tree at a slight incline upward so that the sap will run down through the spile.
The distance from the ground is dictated by the length of tubing you are using. The length of the tubing I use is about 18 inches, so I drill holes at about 20″ – 24″ off the ground.
Drill the hole about 1.5" to 2.5" deep and no deeper.
Though, in general, the deeper you tap, the more sap you will get, but you also need to consider the health of the tree, so don’t go deeper than about 2.5″.
Use the drill bit to clean out the hole of any sawdust. Then align your spile.
Use a rubber mallet to tap the spile into the hole.
Here is the spile in the hole.
Put the other end of the tubing into your collection container. I’ve used cleaned out empty milk jugs.
I like to try to seal the top if possible, so I drill a hole in the milk jug cap to run the tubing through. While not strictly necessary, it does help to keep out rain, bark, and bugs.
If you expect a lot of sap, or want a sturdier solution, use food-grade 5-gallon buckets.
Choose a light color bucket; you don’t want a dark or black collection container that may heat up in the sun and cause the sap to spoil.
Run the tubing down to the bucket or milk jugs.
Set the jugs or buckets on ground that is as flat as possible.
Check the taps every day and empty the jugs of sap or swap them out with empties. Collect the sap and keep it in a cool shady place or in the refrigerator if it is not cold enough outside.
Sap can keep for about 1 week before it will start to spoil. You can tell when it starts to spoil because it will become milky.
Boiling Maple Sap into Syrup
Wait until you have at least 5-10 gallons before you start boiling on a fire or propane boiler. I usually boil the sap in batches of 5 gallons which equates to about 20oz of Maple syrup.
Click here for a detailed post on the Easiest Way to Boil Maple Sap into Syrup!
After you have boiled off the majority of the water, it is common to finish boiling the syrup on an indoor stove where you have a little more precise control over the temperature.
Toward the end, the syrup can bubble over pretty fast! You want to be able to fine-tune the temperature to keep that from happening and achieve that perfect Delicious Maple Syrup!
The syrup is done when the sugar content reaches 66% (66 Brix). How do you know when that is?!?!
Use a refractometer!
Check out this post on How to Use a Refractometer to Achieve Perfect Maple Syrup!
This simple device uses 3-4 drops of syrup to quickly tell you when your syrup is perfectly done!
For more details on how to finish Maple Syrup, including exactly when to stop boiling and the critical filtering steps, visit How to Perfect the Finishing Boil for Maple Syrup.
Tools and Supplies Used:
- Cordless Drill
- 5/16″ bit
- Maple taps and tubing
- Rubber mallet
- food-grade 5-gallon buckets, or empty milk jugs
- Propane Boiler
- 50 qt Boiling Pot
Still have questions? Check out my Frequently Asked Questions on Making Maple Syrup page.
See these steps on YouTube!
Additional Articles in this Series on Maple Syrup Making!
For all my Maple Syrup information in one place, visit the Maple Syrup Hub!
For individual links to the other articles in this series, check out these links:
- Easiest Way to Boil Sap for Maple Syrup
- 5 Reasons to Use a Propane Stove for Making Maple Syrup
- How to Use a Refractometer for Maple Syrup
- How to Perfect the Finishing Boil for Maple Syrup
- What is the Maillard Reaction in Maple Syrup?
- Frequently Asked Questions Related to Maple Syrup Making
- What is the “Jones Rule of 86?” And How Can I Use it to Make Maple Syrup?
- Free Maple Syrup Jar Labels (Printable PDF)
- “How to Make Maple Syrup Podcast!”
Check out the “How to Make Maple Syrup Podcast!”
Top 5 Lesser-Known Mistakes When Making Maple Syrup (Rebroadcast) – How to Make Maple Syrup!
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The “How to Make Maple Syrup Podcast!” is enjoyed by hundreds of listeners each week during the maple-sugaring season. We’d love for you to join us! We discuss our favorite tips and tricks for making maple syrup as well as interesting information related to the golden elixir!
I’d like to try sugaring but I can’t find clear information on how long sap can be kept before boiling. I’ve read that sap should be boiled down every day for the best syrup, but my schedule makes it impossible to boil more often than every weekend. I was only planning on tapping three trees to start, I can collect the sap daily, and I have a “nice shady spot” outdoors. I just don’t know if keeping sap up to 6 days will foil the sap or syrup badly enough to make the project futile. Thanks.
Great question! The sap itself can actually be kept for quite sometime before boiling, as long as it is kept cool (below about 36 deg and in the shade – for smaller quantities, a refrigerator is fine). I know some folks who wait until they’ve collected all their sap for the season before boiling! This could be 3-4 weeks!
You’ll know if the sap has gotten too warm and begins to spoil because it will begin to turn slightly “milky.” If that happens, I’d throw it out because the syrup won’t taste as good (I’ve actually tried it, didn’t get sick, the syrup just tasted a bit “off” – therefore I don’t recommend it).
That being said, I would say that keeping the sap cool for a week would be just fine. I do that frequently, for me I typically boil every 2-7 days. There is no discernable difference in the taste of the final product, as long as it is kept cool.
Hope this helps, and all the best!
I am having trouble finding any advice anywhere, we tapped our first trees today and used the same tubing and milk jug set up that you have pictured here. Does it make a difference if the tubing is all the way to the bottom of the jug or not? I’m worried about the sap not having enough pressure to flow if the tubing is all the way in the bottom of the jug but my husband thinks there’s enough pressure that it doesn’t matter. Just want to do this right. Thanks!
Hi, I’m glad your tapping trees, I can’t wait to get started, but I need to wait a few more weeks in my area!
It really does not make a difference on the depth of the tubing in the jug. The flow of gravity will be enough to overcome the surface tension inside the tube. As long as the hole in the tree is above the top of the jug, you are all set!
Thank you for the quick reply! Sorry I have to tell my husband he was right haha.
can u reboil maple syrup that has sugar lumps(with fresh sap) like starting over when you failed your first attempt at making syrup.
Good question! Although you can do this, and you will get something that resembles syrup, the final product will taste a little bit funny! In general, I wouldn’t recommend it, better to start over with fresh sap, if you have it. If you want to salvage the ‘over done’ syrup, maybe maple candy is the way to go!