Tapping Trees

This photo shows why it’s important to avoid previous tapholes when tapping. The dark wood above and below these tapholes will no longer effectively transport sap. The tree that produced this board was tapped so heavily that it had almost no white wood left, so it would have been almost impossible to find a productive area on this face of the tree.
Photo by Michael Farrell

The act of tapping a maple tree is a fairly simple task, yet it’s one that’s often done incorrectly. Improperly tapping a tree can lead to lower sap production and, worse, poor tree health. It’s always helpful for sugarmakers to remind themselves of the general rules.

A taphole is an open wound. The tree must expend energy to seal it off with new wood, so don’t tap trees that are showing signs of stress (dead branches, insect damage, exposure to road salt are red flags). Choose healthy trees with large crowns: they have more leaves, which means more sugar.

Use “health spouts,” which require a smaller taphole (5/16- or 19/64-inch) than the traditional 7/16-inch hole. Health-spout holes will yield slightly less sap than the traditional hole, but they’ll close much faster after the season is over. Over the long run, your trees will be better off if you use them.

Choosing the right time of year to tap is critical. If you tap too early, the taphole will begin to dry up while the sap is still flowing. Tap too late, and you’ll miss some good runs. As a general rule, figure on getting four to six weeks out of a taphole. Tap when you expect a run of days with temperatures 5–10 degrees above freezing. Tap your trees when the temperature is above freezing, because drills cut more cleanly in thawed wood.
Redrilling holes that have closed because
they were drilled too early is not recommended.

Be conservative with the number of tapholes per tree. Don’t tap trees less than 12 inches in diameter. Trees that are 12–18 inches in diameter get one tap; trees more than 18 inches in diameter get two taps. To locate the place or places on the tree for your tapholes, stay at least 2 inches, and preferably 4 inches, to the side of old tapholes, and 6 inches minimum above or below old tapholes. Stay at least 6 inches from old branch scars. The goal is to tap only sound, healthy, light-colored wood. There is no need to worry about which side of the tree you are tapping. When the sap is running well, it will run on the north side as well as on the south.

With a clean, sharp bit (dull bits create ragged holes, which encourage the growth of bacteria that will inhibit the flow of sap), drill a hole no more than 2 inches deep, angled slightly upward into the tree. Drill your hole straight and true – you want a perfectly round hole. Oval holes allow faster contamination of your taphole and may allow sap to leak around the tap. Some older trees may have thick, shaggy bark, which will not help your tap seat well in the hole. Avoid parts of the tree with thick bark or break off the shaggy chunk above where you want to tap.

Once you have drilled your hole, clean any loose shavings out with a clean maple twig. Do not blow in the hole to clear it – this will only introduce bacteria. Do not add any sketchy “taphole sanitizers” such as bleach or vodka – they are counterproductive.

Place your tap or spile into the hole and gently tap it in so it’s snug. If you are using metal taps, use a wooden mallet. For my plastic health spouts, I use the flat of my hand until the tap makes the telltale “snick” sound that indicates it is seated. You can also use a rubber mallet on plastic taps. Over-driving a metal tap is very easy to do with a metal hammer and causes the edges of the tap hole to split and tear, causing unnecessary damage to the tree.

Once the season has come to a close, promptly remove your taps. This will allow your trees to begin growing new wood over their tapholes. Once again, take care not to further injure your tree during tap removal. Don’t bang the spiles back and forth with a hammer to loosen them or place anything in the tap hole to “help” with the closing of the wound. Clean your taps carefully and store them until next season. Take good care of your maples – the rewards are sweet!

Carl Demrow is a trail consultant and carpenter when he’s not busy tending his woodlot in Washington, Vermont.

  1. Nancy DiLeo → in Catskills, Sullivan Co NY
    Feb 23, 2018

    I just tapped my trees today, I am a beginner. I was given a starter kit as a gift, it came with 3 taps and 3 buckets and accessories. I tapped my trees this morning, temp has been around 34 during the day. I have not seen one drop of sap yet, am I doing something wrong?

  2. Mary Junkins → in Huntington, MA
    Mar 10, 2018

    My husband drilled one too many holes in our big, old, maple tree for sugaring. Can he plug one of the holes now so the tree won’t be stressed?

  3. Dave Mance → in Corinth, VT
    Mar 12, 2018

    No, Mary. At this point it is what it is. You may as well collect the sap.

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