Tapping Your Maple Trees: Problems and Solutions

Tapping your maple trees for sap collection is a fun homestead pastime when you have the right maple-tapping equipment and troubleshoot common problems.

Maple sugaring season is here! It doesn’t take a lot of equipment, but it does take time. However, it’s fun and a great excuse for getting out in the woods before spring finally arrives.

I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve had enough sap for syrup and a little to share. I encourage anyone who wants to try tapping maples and has a few trees, to try it. And for those who do make the effort, I’ll share some of my experiences about this great, late-winter homestead pastime.

Equipment for Tapping Trees, Collecting Sap, and Making and Canning Syrup

Maple Trees Drill and bit Spiles
Hammer Bag, bucket or other receptacle String (depends on receptacle)
Filtering apparatus Pan for cooking down the sap Jars and lids to can syrup in
hygrometer or refractrometer Slotted spoon for skimming foam
Stove or other place to cook down sap OUTSIDE (not in the kitchen)

Identify Maple Trees

Some people can identify trees by their bark. However, I’m not one of them. If the leaves are gone, I can’t tell a maple from a palm tree. So I mark my maples in the autumn before the leaves fall. Experts differentiate sugar maples from silver maples. I can make syrup from either one, though, so I don’t try.

You only tap trees that are a minimum of 10 inches in diameter. I mark some of the little ones too, though, just to keep an eye on them.

Drill, Bits and Spiles

I should explain the latter first. A “spile” is a tapered cylinder with a hook on it. The narrow end is tapped into the tree. The wider end with the hook is where bags or buckets are hung for gathering sap. An example of a spile in a tree is shown below.

The size of the drill bit depends on the size of the spile.  Better to go a little small than too big. Recommendations regarding how deep to drill into the tree vary. I was afraid of going too deep, so I stayed at 1.5 inches, but reading some studies from the University of Vermont has convinced me to drill in for 2 inches. This should give a higher yield per tree without damaging it. I  tape the drill bit at 2 inches so I can see when I’m deep enough.

You want to drill the hole at a slight angle so the sap can run down through the spile  into the bucket. Then gently tap the spile into the hole. You don’t want to split the wood so go easy.

I barely tapped in my spiles the first time. When I put the bags on, they weighed down the spiles and pulled them out of the tree. Now I know the rule is firm but gentle.

Bags, Buckets, or…

A farmer near me uses buckets to tap 50 trees. I like the idea of buckets. Bags can blow off the trees in a good wind. Plus, they rub against the bark, get holes in them, and have to be replaced.

But I don’t know where you store 55-gallon buckets. They don’t collapse and they don’t stack well. And unless there’s some secret to making them smaller, I don’t know where I would put them. So it’s bags for now, which I hang over the spiles’ hooks.  But bags and buckets aren’t the only way to go. Just about anything you can hang below a tap to catch sap will do.

Which Months and Weather Conditions are Best for Tapping Your Maple Trees?

Here in northern Wisconsin, maple tapping time is March and April. The ideal weather for collecting sap is when it’s below freezing at night and above that during the day. And the best time is when those conditions are met and the sun is out.

Everything you read tells you to tap your tree on its south side. What they really mean is to tap it where it gets the most sunlight. You get more sap if you tap on a side where the sun hits it directly, warming the tree. This might be south, southwest, or southeast. Anywhere that the sun isn’t hidden by other trees is where you want to go. You’ll still get sap if the tree is shaded, just not as much or as fast.

You also get more sap when the day is sunny. You’ll get some when it’s dreary. But again,  not as much. The weather prediction for this week is below freezing temperatures at night and days in the 40s and 50s degrees Fahrenheit — perfect for sap to rise.

Troubleshoot Common Problems with Tapping Your Maple Trees

Sap Running Out Around the Tap

I was sure I’d done something terrible when I saw sap running out everywhere but through the spile. I know now that it may be perfectly OK, and you just need to tap the spile a little deeper, gently! This is what I did and it worked.

But it can be a problem. For example, if you use a bit that’s too big for the spile, you’ll get this happening. The easiest thing to do is to get a bigger spile if you can. I’ve seen videos where people packed things like plumber’s tape around the spile and stopped the flow. I can’t say if it worked or not though. It didn’t look great to me.

You can also get this happening if you drive the spile at the wrong angle. This will take the hole from round to oval and let some dripping occur. In this case, the hole may seal off the leak by itself.

I was lucky. I distorted the shape of one of the drilled holes, and it did seal itself off after about a day. So I was able to just leave everything where it was and continue tapping. I’ve read some people pull the tap and  just go somewhere else. I have not tried to do this, though.

Prevent Maple Sap Bags from Blowing Off the Trees

I was having this problem a lot at first. I tried tying the bags to the spiles for a while. Not only did this not work, but it also made it very difficult to empty the sap out.

Next, I tried putting a string tightly all the way around the tree, then through the handle. This worked better. However, there were still times that the hole in the bag holder got dislodged from the spile and the sap ended up running down the tree.

Finally, I ended up buying a heavier spile that had a hook on it (like the one in the picture above). The hook is actually supposed to be for holding pails.

However, I’ve found that I can hang the bag holder  over the spile, then swing the hook over the top of the bag holder.  It’s a tight fit and holds things in place. After I started doing this, I haven’t had a single bag blow off.

Dry Tap (No Sap)

So far, I haven’t had this happen. But the experts say it can. I guess someone else will have to describe it.

Collecting Sap

Let the tree do the work of filling the bags. Keep the sap cold (or frozen) until you’re ready to boil it down. It can sour otherwise.

If the weather cooperates, we can make syrup together in a week or two.  I’ll share the process then.

Dr. Sylvia Dennison is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at three major universities, where she has taught many student doctors and resident physicians about the diagnosis and treatment of co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. In addition, The author of a number of papers, book chapters, and two books on mental health, Dr. Dennison resides on a small Wisconsin hobby farm home to chickens, guinea fowl, goats and a dog. Connect with her at Notes from a Psychiatrist’s Office.

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  • Updated on May 31, 2022
  • Originally Published on Mar 15, 2022
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