When most people think of trees in the Willamette Valley, they think of Oregon White Oak. However Western Bigleaf Maple is one of the dominant native tree species here in the valley, and it has its own interesting story to tell.
As its name implies, the leaves of this particular Maple are huge - the largest of any of the Maples. Subsequently, one of its main features in the forest, is shade. During these summer months, the maples provide refuge from the heat for all sorts of plants, animals and the occasional human walking through the forest. It is often 10-15 degrees cooler under a big maple tree.
Maple is also a friendly tree and gets along with its neighbors well. It can grow well under the towering Douglas Fir, and it grows equally well side by side with the Oregon White Oak. It is also the most vigorous tree in the forest. It can even outgrow the notoriously fast growing Douglas Fir in its younger years.
This fast growth can be sped up even more by coppicing. Coppice is an age old forest management tradition that works on certain trees that will sprout back their stumps. The stump sprouts will grow incredibly fast, because they can immediately utilize the existing root structure of the old stump. The result is that 10 years after being cut, a stump can have twenty or more new trunks all over 5” in diameter. Coppicing can yield up to 7 times the growth that you can get from traditional replanting methods. Most all of the forest of Western Europe were coppiced in order to create large volumes of wood charcoal before the discovery of coal.
All of this vigorous early growth means that Maples don’t live to be all that old. Once they pass 75 years or so, the center of the tree will start to decay. It is rare for a Maple to stay standing for more than 120 years. The center will continue to rot until there is just a hollow shell left, and eventually the tree can no longer support the massive form.
This slow decay from the inside out has its benefits though. This is what creates much of the amazing color that you see in our maple lumber. The center of the tree will start to turn a dark red, and will eventually show blackline spalt, as it continues to decay.
Since maple is fast growing for a hardwood and its optimal harvest age is between 75-100 years, we produce a lot of it at Zena. This fast growth makes for a relatively soft wood though. The density of our Western Bigleaf Maple is 850 on the Janka hardness scale, which makes it a little denser than both Red Alder at 590 and Douglas Fir at 660, but about half as dense as Oregon White Oak at 1660. It does machine, sand and finish very well though.
We turn our maple trees into all sorts of products. The two main ones being flooring and cabinet/furniture lumber. We also make live edge and square edge slabs for countertops, bars, and tables of all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t stop here though. We make maple baseboard and trim, stair treads, riser and nosing, provide maple heat registers, and even provided wood for a line of maple pencil holders recently. Because of the bright sunny color of maple, and its ability to light up whatever space it resides in, it is a popular choice for any space that needs a little bit more light.
And then there is the occasional Wow Board. A board that makes us exclaim when we first lay eyes on it as it comes off the sawmill or out of the planer. Western Maple is perhaps most famous for its wide range of stunning figure that it can present at times. Quilt and Curl are the two main types of figure that we will see in our Western Maple. These boards are used for musical instruments, stunning furniture pieces, or cabinet doors. No one knows exactly why trees develop figure. The best hypothesis that I have heard, comes from Rod Jacobs, the northwest’s leading expert on figured maple. His theory is that it is a genetic mutation with an environmental trigger.
Regardless of how it comes about, all of the beauty present in our maple lumber is a testament to the infinite creativity of mother nature. This is the reason that we get out of bed in the morning each day, because each and every log that makes its way through our production process tells a new and unique story of growth and beauty when we open it up, and we never tire of discovering new patterns in these boards that we can pass on to you to showcase in your home.