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. Everything you need to know is covered in 3 articles, corresponding with the 3 main steps in maple sugaring!

A lot of literature I’ve read on maple sugaring makes it sound really difficult, to be honest. But after I finally dove in and started making maple syrup, I discovered, much to my surprise, that it is actually quite straightforward! 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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Overview

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on how to make your own maple syrup. These are the links to the other articles in this series:

What I Use:

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.

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 TreeSugar Conc. of Sap (%)Ratio Sap/Syrup
Sugar Maple4.519:1
Red Maple4.121:1
Amur Maple3.922:1
Silver Maple3.426:1
Box Elder2.535:1

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.

sugar-maple-bark

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 3 weeks, with longer or shorter seasons ranging anywhere from about 2 to 4 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.

001-cordless-drill-15-16in-bit

Drill a hole in the tree at a slight incline upward so that the sap will run down through the spile.

002-drill-hole-in-maple-tree

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″.

003-hole-in-maple-tree

Use the drill bit to clean out the hole of any sawdust. Then align your spile.

005-maple-sap-spile-tap

Use a rubber mallet to tap the spile into the hole.

006-tap-in-spile-rubber-mallet-maple-tree

Here is the spile in the hole.

007-maple-sap-spile

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.

008-milk-jug-cap-hole

Run the tubing down to the bucket or milk jugs.

009-maple-sap-spile-tubing

Set the jugs or buckets on ground that is as flat as possible.

010-maple-sap-spiles-jugs-snow

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.

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 to continue on to Part 2 to learn how to boil maple sap into syrup!

Tools and Supplies Used:

All 3 Parts in this series:

Check out the “How to Make Maple Syrup Podcast!”

How to Boil Sap for Maple Syrup How to Make Maple Syrup!

Like it in written form? This is also a blog post: How to Boil Sap for Maple Syrup In this episode, we'll discuss: 1. Different methods of boiling Maple Sap 2. The boiling method I use and why 3. How long does it take to boil Maple Syrup? 4. When do I stop boiling Maple Syrup? 5. Can you stop boiling and then start up again? Download the FREE – How to Make Maple Syrup Cheat Sheet found here: https://practicalmechanic.com/maplesyrup For more information on the details of what was discussed and links to the equipment I use for boiling Maple Syrup, view the blog posts on these topics: 1. How to Tap Maple Trees for Maple Syrup 2. How to Boil Sap for Maple Syrup (Easiest methods and how long it will take!) 3. How to Perfect the Finishing Boil ("When is my syrup done?") My Goal is that by the end of listening to this series, you will have all of the information you need to get started tapping your maple trees, collecting the sap, boiling it, and finally performing the finishing boil in order to bottle that perfect golden elixir! I hope you have as much fun listening as we are having making these episodes! Why am I doing this? I love making maple syrup! It has been a tradition in my family ever since I was very young, and it brings so much joy to our family! I hope to bring that joy to you as well! I hope that after you have listened to this podcast series, you will be equipped with how to start a fun, inexpensive hobby that you can do with your family and friends to draw closer to each other! Thanks for listening! Richard Tomlinsen
  1. How to Boil Sap for Maple Syrup
  2. How to Tap Maple Trees for Maple Syrup
  3. Identifying Maple Trees, Sugar Content, and Taste
  4. Introducing the "How to Make Maple Syrup" Podcast!