What is Tiger Maple?

Is Tiger Maple for you?
Tiger maple is an exotic hardwood with a distinctive wavy or curly pattern that can resemble tiger stripes. Also known as curly maple or flame maple, tiger maple's durability and its array of patterns make the wood a popular with woodworkers who want to design a unique, decorative piece of furniture.

Maple trees fall into two broad categories. Soft Maple and Hard Maple. These terms are quite misleading because soft Maple is not really soft. It is soft only in comparison to Hard or Rock Maple. Soft Maple is harder than Cherry and most other woods. The other common name for Soft Maple is Red Maple. 

When Hard Maple has highly figured boards it is usually Birds Eye Maple which is really lots of very small knots.

When Soft Maple has highly figured wood it is usually Tiger Maple. Named because of its likeness to a Tiger’s stripes. It is sometimes called fiddle back Maple because for centuries it has been used to make violins. It is also sometimes called curly Maple. However, this is not correct as curly Maple is a different type of figuring. Tiger figuring is stripes that go across the grain. Curley figuring is “S” shaped lines that run parallel to the grain. Sometimes boards will have both Curly and Tiger figuring. 

Some people say that Tiger is a result of the grain not being parallel to the log so that it is end gain showing on the face of the board. This seems to make sense, but it may or may not be true. Mostly no one knows what makes wood figured. It is one of life's mysteries.

Tiger Maple is sold by small specialty lumber dealers. They sometimes purchase it from the mainstream lumber industry who consider it a defect and cull it out. In some cases loggers can tell by looking at the outside of a log that it will have Tiger figure and will sell these logs to the specialty dealers directly. 

  • Features

    Tiger maple's distinctive pattern is a deviation in the wood's growth known as figuring. The pattern travels across the grain and can look like stripes, waves or small flames.

  • Function

    Because of its hardness, durability and beauty, tiger maple is a frequent choice for custom-made furniture, gun stocks, knife handles and musical instruments.

  • Geography

    Tiger maple wood comes from the red maple tree, a temperate hardwood tree that grows in the eastern United States and Canada.

  • History

    The use of tiger maple for furniture peaked in 18th century colonial America. Violin makers have used tiger maple for centuries, earning the wood yet another name: fiddle maple. 

  • Considerations
    Not all maple trees produce tiger maple wood. The size, intensity and consistency of the pattern determine the grade or quality. The curly grain can make tiger maple less stable than straight-grained maple.

The supply of Tiger Maple is small and availability can be sporadic. The quality of figured wood is a subjective matter that requires a relationship of trust between the lumber dealer and the furniture maker. These factors are all reasons that the mainstream furniture industry does not use Tiger Maple. Also, using highly figured wood to make furniture requires sorting and repositioning the boards and making judgments and decisions during the building process. The larger factories prefer to treat every board the same so that production is fast and lower skilled workers can be utilized.


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