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How to Tap a Maple Tree.

Posted by Julie Fryer on

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Now here’s another reason I love the sugarmaking hobby . . . it’s one of the few things in life that give such a sweet reward for a simple step. Sure, the boiling process is a little more time-consuming. But, tapping trees? It really doesn’t get much easier!

Here’s what you’re going to need (by the way, the spiles, sacks, and tubing all come ready-to-go in the kits):

  • Spiles (the official name for the tap you stick in the tree)
  • Some kind of collecting device (buckets, clean milk jugs, sacks)
  • A cordless drill (or a hand-crank drill, sometimes called a hand brace) with a 5/16” drill bit. Mark your bit at 1 ½” deep so you know how far to drill into the tree.

Pick out your trees – maple, of course, but preferably hard maple not silver or red maple. They’ll work but the syrup’s not as tasty. If you’re really on the ball, you’ll go out in your woods (or sugarbush – I know technical term) during the summer and mark your trees with a bright ribbon. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did – those trees all start to look the same in March! Pick a tree that’s healthy: big, full canopy; no big dead branches or splits in the trunk; and not treated with pesticides or herbicides. The tree needs to be at least 12” in diameter (not circumference!) measured at 4 ½” above the ground. Larger trees can handle more than one tap (18” to 32” trees up to 3 taps, 32” or more up to 6 taps.) Just make sure you can handle the amount of sap you’re going to get from all those taps – usually around 10- to 12-gallons per taphole.

On the lucky tree, choose a spot about 4ish-feet up from the ground level (not the snow level!!) Try to locate your tap above a large root or below a large branch – not essential but sometimes that will give you more sap. Make sure if you’re using a bucket or jug that sits on the ground that your tubing will stretch that far even after the snow melts.

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Now get ready to drill! Stabilize yourself and drill at a slightly upwards angle into the tree. STOP when you hit the mark you’ve made on the drill bit – that way you know you’re only into the sapwood. Don’t wobble the drill because it can make the hole oval-shaped and then your spile won’t fit properly.

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You should see creamy-colored pulp come out with the drill – this means that you’ve got a good tree! Pull as much of this debris as you can out with the drill and clean with a pipe cleaner if you need.

Nervous about drilling your first hole or putting in the tap? Just get a small log and practice until you’re comfortable with it!

Now comes the fun part! Take your spile and insert it into the hole – it’s easy to tell which way it goes in.

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Now take your hammer and gently – and we mean gently! – tap it in until it feels snug but not tightly jammed in. Too loose and sap will leak out around the edges; too tight and it could split the tree. Make sure to not tap on the spout end but on the upper knob or hook on the spile. You’ll probably already see sap dripping out of the hole – go ahead, taste it, you know you want to! Surprisingly not sweet – but that’s because it’s just about 98% water right now. And that’s it! You’ve tapped a tree.

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Now set up whichever collection system you’re using and go home and have some hot cocoa. Come back tomorrow with a few buckets to empty your tree buckets.

For detailed instructions on tapping, collecting, and boiling maple sap and syrup, please check out my book! It's included with most kits but also available as an electronic download.