Hobby "Sugaring" Introduction

"Sugaring" is a commonly used term for tapping and processing sap from maple and other trees with sweet edible saps, like walnut and birch. The Oregon Tree Tappers project is primarily focused on bigleaf maple at this time, but think of it as a case study because most of the techniques generally apply to the other tree species. Birch is more common in Alaska and Northern Canada and you will find some helpful guides and case studies if you search for resources in those geographic areas. English walnut is a common orchard crop in Oregon and we are just starting as of 2022 to look at best practices for tapping it. Most walnut syrup sugaring information refers to black walnut from the Eastern United States and Canada.

bigleaf maple trees as a hobby is easy, fun, and sustainable with a few supplies and some training. If you are good at figuring things out with a little reading, watching online demonstration videos (e.g., search YouTube for bigleaf maple tapping), and a basic starter kit you can plunge right in. If you feel more comfortable learning through in-person instruction we highly recommend getting on the mailing list for the Oregon Maple Project who offer training opportunities for hobbyists. We also recommend keeping an eye out for bigleaf tapping workshops at extension and small farm and forest landowner events.

Below are some pictures and videos to orient you. More will be added so check back occasionally.

A bigleaf maple mixed in with other deciduous & conifer, a common scenario.

Bigleaf in fall, time to get ready for the winter tapping season.

Tapping a bigleaf with a 5/16" metal spile and hanging a 5 gallon bag to collect sap.

Sometimes sap starts dripping as soon as you drill the hole.

A single 5/16 tube running from a spile in the tree to a food grade 5 gallon bucket with a 5/16 hold drilled in the side.

A bucket hanging on a metal spile in a young bigleaf maple shoot.

Maple sap comes out the tree and looks and feels like water, though it is actually slightly more dense because it has sugar and other suspended solids.

Bigleaf maple sap evaporating on a kitchen stove in an open pan under a gentle boil. The sap turns amber as the liquid evaporates and the sugar caramelizes.

5/16 is a common spile/tap size. This white plastic one sold by many maple supply companies is one we like. The smooth end goes in the tap hole and tubing connects to the barb. If you keep them clean they can last a long time. If you are hanging buckets or bags you will want a stainless steel spile. A hammer works okay for removing a spile but if you have a grinder you can widen the "nail puller" so it fits around a spile better.

For hobby tapping a food grade bucket with a lid works well. With this approach you'll need maple tubing and a barbed spile. The lid is important for keeping bugs out and helping keep the sap fresh and hygienic. Sap can sour/spoil in hours sitting in warm weather and should never be out over 24 hours even if the ambient temperature is in the 30s. If your bucket says ANSI 61 that is a good sign it is food grade and potable water safe.

This image is of a 5/16th inch "tee" used for connecting maple tubing. For example, you could have a tap in two different stems (trunks) that connect into a single line going into your bucket (in commercial setups it would go into a "lateral or mainline"). Notice this one has a little cup. That is handy for putting your spile into when not in the tree, to help keep the spile and interior of the tubing clean.

When you make maple syrup you need to filter it after it reaches 68.8 brix (% sugar). Filtering helps remove excess "sugar sands" that won't stay suspended in the syrup and would collect on the bottom of your bottle. These gravity cone filters are made of specialized material and can be washed. They have hooks so you can hang them on a pot by putting wooden spoons or something similar through the hoops. They are the cheapest of the filtering options for maple syrup. Materials like cheesecloth are not recommended.

This is what a tap hole looks like in a young bigleaf maple tree stem (trunk) about 6" in diameter. The bark is still pretty smooth. Notice the hole is drilled perfectly round, this is important for creating a tight seal when the spile is in. A tight seal helps reduce bacteria. Bigleaf puts on new wood quickly and this hole will be hard to find in a couple years.

This image of tap hole depth and angle is for the sugar maple industry. For bigleaf, 1.5" is good for small trees 6-8" in diameter, 2" for 8" to 14" trees, and for 14" or larger you can go 2 1/2" deep. The taphole is a wound and creates a small area of non-conductive dead wood, so space tap holes out to give the tree time to heal over with new wood that can carry sap.

Image by Heiligmann of a drilled tap hole comes from Ohio State University Factsheet F-36.

Tubing pliers are helpful for connecting spiles (taps) to tubing. They cost $75 and more so unless you are doing a lot of taps or can share with somebody, you might just warm the tubing in hot water and then work the spile on by hand. See the Equipment Suppliers page in the Commercial Section for a list of companies that supply such tools as maple pliers.

To make maple syrup you have to boil your sap, that reduces the water and caramelizes the sugars. A 15 gallon stainless steel pot and propane burner like this GasOne costs around $250. You can also boil on your wood stove, home kitchen, and other ways, but keep in mind that if indoors you will have a lot of moisture to vent.