2021 Maple Syrup Season in Pennsylvania

two people tapping a maple tree using a drill

Hey there. Nice to meet you. I’m getting ready for the 2021 Maple Syrup Season and already have maple tree tapping fever. The weather has been strange and unpredictable this winter, which is making me a bit impatient.

I started learning about this hobby in January 2019, when I tapped the silver maple trees in my backyard. That year, I collected 38 gallons of sap, about enough to make an entire gallon of delicious maple syrup.

You can read more about my 2019 Maple Syrup season in Pennsylvania here. 

Later on that year, we had a severe storm. What they called straight-line winds ripped through my neighborhood and ripped 80% of the still green leaves off the trees and broke ~30% of the branches/canopy.

I gave the trees the year off to recover. But we are in the midst of the pandemic, so I’m cooped up AND we have been experiencing some mild temperatures here this winter so far. So I am itching to get out my drill bit and start tapping.

two people tapping a maple tree using a drill
Figuring out when the best time to tap the trees is maddening

The best time to tap a Maple Tree for sap

The ideal weather to tap a tree and start making Maple syrup is when it dips well below freezing overnight and then up into the 40s during the day.

When the temperature drops below freezing, the sap that is stored in the roots of the Maple trees also freezes up, causing crystals to form. If you’ve ever frozen a beverage in your freezer, you’ll know that frozen water takes up more space and expands.

Then, when the temperature warms up, the sap warms up too, thaws out, and then runs up the tree, which is why we call it a sap run.

All the traditional advice is that you want to wait for that weather pattern to tap your tree–and to expect sap to be collected for about 6-8 weeks after that. The part that has frustrated me, however, is that absent a crystal ball, there is no real way to predict what the weather holds and there are plenty of traps. For example, check out the local weather coming up.

Can you tap maple trees too early?

Yes, you can tap maple trees too early. Your entire season will be about 6-10 weeks long. The best time to tap them is when you expect the temperature to be in the 20s (Fahrenheit) at night and high-30s to mid-40s during the day. If you tap maple trees too early, you will end up with much less sap volume than if you tap at the right time. If you tap too late, your sap will be of lower quality and also potentially lower volume.

Picking the optimal time is challenging and also involves some luck.

In 2019, I started on January 19, when the temperature looked right on paper for 3 of 7 days. But two of those days were surrounded by bitter cold, and the sap didn’t really flow until the third week when the sap yield took off.

This is the weather report in my area over the next week. I’m starting this investigation two full weeks earlier than in 2019, but it is driving me crazy, because, from the looks of it, it is perfect Maple syrup making time, right now.

One last thing before we get started–I’m writing this article somewhat journal-style, meaning that I’ll come back to it every few days (or a week when sap running is slow or life is too hectic) to report back.

Hopefully, that means updates for you–but that also probably means the present, past and future tense of my writing will be a bit jumbled until I get to edit the piece at the end of the year. I appreciate your patience there and hope it isn’t maddening.

January 2, 2021- January 9, 2021

January 2 - 9 2021
I missed it, this would have been an amazing week for sap

Hard to believe, but it looked like the beginning of the 2021 Maple Syrup Season in Pennsylvania started in the first week of January.

It felt way too early, and I had not tapped my trees yet, but the weather was nearly perfect every day.

If I had tapped my trees, there is no doubt that some of the highest quality sap would have been flowing. But this early in the season, deep freezes can still set in and shut everything down.

Since we only have a precious few weeks to collect sap, we want to identify that time when we will get the best string of days for collecting over a 4-6-week period.

Due to my own predictions that it would get significantly colder again before it got warmer, I sat that week out, hoping for a long season that extended into the early Spring.

January 11, 2021- January 18, 2021

January 11, 2021 weather
This was the second week in a row for perfect maple syrup weather

The second week of the year was another perfect week for the 2021 Maple Syrup Season in Pennsylvania.

Take a look at the weather above and see for yourself.

I have to admit that watching a weather report like that and not tapping is a maddening event.

The weather has been in a perfect range–but what kept me out was a lingering doubt that the weather couldn’t/wouldn’t hold up.

Based on the forecast, these days look exactly like my prime sugaring days in 2019. That year, my best days were during swings from the coldest temperature of ~20-25 Fahrenheit to the warmest temperature of at least 39, upwards of 50 degrees.

Ugh! It is excruciating to sit on the sidelines and report-out without tasting that sugar. I need more trees!

The buds started to form on the branches. There was most certainly sap flowing in that tree.

Towards the end of the week, the weather report in the news started to shift to something called a polar vortex. I’m not really sure what that is and not sure I really care other than I hear a tiny voice in my head reassuring me that I was right to wait and not start the season too early.

Time will tell.

The plan at this time was to hold off at least another week, before I officially opened up the 2021 Maple Syrup Season in Pennsylvania at the Ulrich Sugar Shack…and by that I mean 2 maple trees in my suburban yard).

In the meantime, I started to get my gear ready. Do you have your gear ready? Check out this post for the best Maple tree tap kit.

January 18- January 25, 2021

Here is what the weather looked like for the third week in January, 2021:

Weekly weather forecast starting January 18th
Several days this week would have produced nice sap yields

It definitely got a little colder, but 4-5 days that week would have been solid, and the the other days were cold enough that they would have helped build up the pressure to add to the following days.

At this point in the season, I was starting to think I had messed up and waited too long. Who would have figured January was the best month for sap. Only time will tell.

Still waiting…

Sounds counterintuitive, but I’m hoping for a cold blast to shut things down for 1-2 more weeks and a fresh/clear time to start right after.

January 24- January 31, 2021 Weather

Here is the 7-day weather forecast for Sunday to Sunday, the last week in January.

Jan 24 to 31st weather
A cold snap like this will shut down the maple sap run. Monday and Wednesday would have likely produced sap, but the other days were too cold. If we get a few weeks of this it could shut things down

You can see from the hourly forecast (that wavy yellow line at the top) that Sunday night into Monday was still maple sap weather,  but then the temperature dropped.

That’s the cold snap I was anticipating. You can see that between the high and low temperatures there was some freezing and thawing, but perhaps not the spread needed to really get the sap flowing.

This weather pattern snapped me out of my malaise. I was just waiting for the weather to cooperate, so I could get out there and tap-away.

January 31 to February 7

That cold front did come through last week–it was not a great week for tapping maple trees. At this point, we are through January (almost). It is possible that Thursday, February 4th will start the Maple Syrup season for me here.

Check out the 7-day weather forecast:

is the weather ready to tap a maple tree?
Based on this weather forecast, Thursday-Saturday could be okay days for collecting sap. The other days are likely too cold

The temperature is too cold Sun- Wednesday, but Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all have great temperature ranges.

Given the fact that we are in the midst of a cold snap, progressing into February with what looks like some warmer temperatures at the end of the week, I’m going to try and watch the weather closely and may get out there on Thursday.

Fingers crossed.

Here is how the week turned out–we got a lot of snow–like two feet of snow. There were at least 2 decent days for maple tree tapping, but based on the weather forecast, I resisted the urge.

Rather than start warming up, we actually are experiencing a cold snap next week. Check it out.

February 9 – 16

As expected, it is cold. very cold. The forecast looked too cold this week to tap my tree.

But, as the week progressed, the weather outlook improved:

As of 2/14 (Happy Valentines Day), here is the 7-day forecast:

Based on that weather, it looks like Sunday might be an okay day–Tuesday, Friday, and the following Sunday should all be great. Looking ahead at a 10-day forecast, the following Monday and Tuesday look great too!

So I tapped my tree on February 14, 2021. Tuesday was a perfect day for collecting sap.

sap leaking from behind a maple tree tap

But I did notice that my tap hole was leaking sap. There are two major reasons this happens–either the hole I drilled was wobbly and irregular, and too large for the tap, or the tap was not inserted all the way.

Luckily for me, all I had to do was push the tap in further with a hammer and I was all set.

Despite losing some volume to the ground from my leak…it was a great collection.

Textbook day and the yield proved it.

More than a gallon of sap in one day!

By the way, after boiling down the gallon of sap to a concentrated pint, the kitchen room was filled with humidity. This is the wall of my kitchen above the cabinets…literally dripping with evaporated water :).

That’s why everyone recommends you do the bulk of evaporation outside. But where’s the fun in that?

But then the weather turned colder. Neither Friday nor Sunday ended up being great days for sap.

February 21- 28

Here is the weather forecast for this coming week:

I really wish Sunday 21st was 2-3 degrees warmer…but from the looks of it, should get a stretch of good days ahead, as long as the nights get cold enough.

February 23 and 24th were very good sap-collection days. 2756 g on the 23rd and 4124 on the 24th!

March 1-5

Sorry, I messed up and didn’t take a screenshot of the weather this week. Here’s a different view of the temperature range that I was able to find.

Let me tell you that it was Sooo close to perfect weather…but in reality, it wasn’t.

March 3rd was a pretty good day. 3,347 g of sap (approximately 3.3 L). March 4th was nearly perfect, but it only got down to 32 degrees F before hitting the 40s…and yielded pretty much zero sap.

The rest of the week was either too hot or too cold. Goldilocks would have been bummed.

There was rain during the week as well. One day there was about 600g of sap, but it was tinged yellow/brown. Take a look:

yellow sap
That is not concentrated syrup, that is yellow sap

You end up with yellow sap when rainwater drips down the tree trunk and into your sap bucket.

Technically, it’s still good to use.

March 6 – 13

Here is what the weather had in store for the week of March 6-13.

Friday into Saturday never got cold enough. Since I had about 2.5 gallons saved up, I decided to make maple candy today. You can read more about that here.

Yummy!

Sunday and Monday seemed pretty close to textbook days, and both yielded sap, but not as much as I had thought or hoped.

Sunday yielded 1301 grams and Monday was 811 grams, which ends up being around 1/2 gallon, combined. Which feels really low, despite nearly perfect weather.

I actually think my taps may be drying up. I looked back and this is the same week the run shut down in 2019.

Buds did break on the tree. Fingers crossed for some more cool weather soon. Hah, did I really just type that?

March 14-21

The weather was mixed this week, much of it too cold for making Maple syrup. Earlier in the week, I checked the bucket and was skunked. Towards the end of the week, I collected 1616 g on Saturday (from Thur-Fri) as the first and only harvest.

The only problem is that it rained a lot and the sap in the bucket had a gross, brown appearance and taste.

Then on Sunday, I harvested a clear, clear, and very sweet 612g on Sunday.

March 22-29

While it looked like Monday would have been a good day for sap, it wasn’t. There was a lot of rain and a lot of rainwater in my bucket. Calling that whole week a zero yield week.

March 30-April 6

When I looked at the week ahead, I was a bit conflicted–after a long winter, the allure of transitioning quickly to a warm Spring seemed too great to resist–but at the same time, I was hoping for a bit more cold evenings to drive up the sap.

Before the week started, I predicted that Thursday and Friday may have been my last two days of the year.

Turned out, I yielded zero sap each of those two days. The only thing I collected was a bunch of rainwater on Wednesday.

Looking at the weather ahead of me–it looks like it will be too warm. Hope it’s a bit cooler where you are and that your lines are running!.

April 5 – 12

Maple candy recipe: How to make maple candy from maple sap or syrup

Collecting sap from the maple trees in my yard is one of my favorite things to do–it gives me something to look forward to and occupy my time during those last weeks of winter. When the sap runs up the maple tree, it wakes the buds up out of the winter doldrums and it can wake you up as well.

There is only one thing in this world that tastes better than homemade maple syrup–and that is homemade maple candy.

Here is how to make maple candy from maple sap or maple syrup.

Materials

Step 1: Collect maple sap from your trees in late winter

To make a small batch of maple candy, you’re going to want 1-2 gallons of maple sap. Maple sap runs from the roots up through the trunk to the branches on late Winter or early Spring days when the temperature drops several degrees below freezing at night and rises several degrees above freezing during the day.

Step 2: Boil your sap to concentrate the sugars

The maple tree sap naturally has a small amount of sugar in it. You can turn that sap into delicious maple candy by concentrating the sap by boiling it down. As the sap boils, water, in the form of steam, evaporates and leaves the remaining boiling liquid sweeter during the process.

maple sap boiling vigorously
It is easier to control things if you switch to a smaller finishing pot like this

You actually need to boil off about 39/40ths of the water to make maple syrup.    Things get a little more complicated as the liquid concentrates, so once you have the liquid level low enough to fit into a smaller pot, you should transfer to that smaller pot so you can manage better control.

For example, when I start boiling gallons of sap, I start with this stainless steel stockpot.

But then I finish things up in this smaller pot.

The sap transforms into syrup right around the stage where nearly all the water has evaporated and the temperature of liquor is about 219F-220F, although I find that it’s still a bit runny for my liking at this stage. You can continue to cook it a few more degrees if you prefer, although you increase the risk that the sugars in your syrup may crystallize in the container before you finish it, I find it’s worth the risk to get a more viscous syrup.

If you want to set some syrup aside for later, you can pour some off now and save it in a mason jar.

Maple syrup set aside for later
Since you have to turn the maple sap into maple syrup first before you can make candy, why not set aside a little for breakfast.

To make maple candy from this maple sap (now turned into syrup) you continue to boil until the temperature reaches 235F.

A couple of warnings for you here: watch out, the sticky syrup will “pop” while bubbling and may scald your hands, arms and make a mess of the stove. You will also want to watch the pot very closely because the syrup is very likely to boil over. As the syrup gets this hot, there’s something amazing that happens where it forms some crazy foamy bubbles, like this:

watch out for super-bubbles like this
Things can get a bit messy and out of control as you get into and past the syrup stage. Be ready to take the pot off the heat to avoid boiling over

Once you hit 235F and keep things from boiling over, you are ready for the next step.

Step 3: Let the syrup/candy cool

Set the homemade maple sap that you had boiled to 235F aside to cool for about 8-11 minutes.

Step 4: Stir

After cooling for about 10 minutes, stir until your shoulder is sore
Stir the glossy liquid until it’s no longer glossy and your shoulder hurts

After cooling for 8-11 minutes, you want to stir the sticky substance rapidly, heavily, using a heavy-duty spoon or ladle for about 4-5 minutes, until the glossy liquid transforms into a duller-colored, creamy and thick candy.

Step 5: Pour the candy into silicone candy molds like these:

Silicone candy molds
SIlicone candy molds

Or simply dribble the candy out on parchment paper to cool.

homemade maple candy cooling on parchment paper
A great way to cool extra maple candy is to just pour it out onto parchment paper
pouring homemade maple candy into leaf-shaped molds
Yum!

By the way, the parchment paper technique is perfect for cooling that little bit of extra candy you might have after you fill your molds.

Step 6: Continue cooling

Wait for the candies to cool to room temperature then pop them out of the molds.

Maple candy in leaf molds starting to cool
Notice they’re still a little glossy here–they could have been stirred even longer

After they cool, the color becomes even creamier:

creamy maple candies made from maple sap
just a few moments later, those candies change color and are ready to be taken out of the molds
The first maple leaf shaped candy made from sap I collected from a tree in my yard
Amazing to think that this gorgeous and deliciously sweet candy came from a tree in my yard. How much fun is this!!!

Step 7: Clean up any unsightly edges, if you want. Feel free to sample along the way.

Homemade maple candy up close
Homemade maple candy up close

Step 8: Enjoy them right away or wrap them up in a cute box to give as a gift.

maple candy just taken out of molds
You can clean up the edges of the maple candies with a knife to create a nicer presentation

Want to make maple candy like this?

You can order your own leaf-shaped candy molds (surprisingly affordable) here:

leaf shaped molds for making maple candies
These are the exact molds I used in this recipe

Order on Amazon

Maple syrup bucket: essential equipment

line of maple syrup buckets on trees

Making your own maple syrup is fun and easy to do, especially while you’re spending some time at home during a cold winter. The project (which might just become a hobby for you) all starts with the right supplies. So let’s tap into the world of making maple syrup and explore your maple syrup bucket options.

Tapping trees and collecting sap for syrup-making

At the risk of over-simplifying the process here, there are really three steps to making maple syrup:

  1. Tapping the tree – which involves drilling a hole and inserting a tap that directs the flow out of the tree
  2. Collecting the sap – which is why you need a maple syrup bucket
  3. Concentrating the sap (evaporating) to make syrup

There are plenty of nuances within each step that can help ensure greater success, but those are the basics. As you can see, ensuring you have the right bucket or way of collecting the sap is an important step that shouldn’t be overlooked.

line of maple syrup buckets on trees

A review of maple syrup bucket options

We have established that you need a bucket, or some sort of container to collect your sap. That may seem like a relatively simple task, and it is, but believe it or not, there are a lot of maple syrup bucket options you can choose, depending on your desired look, approach, and budget.

Hanging buckets (suspended from a hook attached to the spile, right at the tap/spile)

Your first set of options are the most common and popular. The end result is that classic/iconic look you probably are thinking of, with respect to tapping maple trees to make maple syrup.

Maple syrup bucket

But what you will find is that you have your choice of metal (aluminum) or food-grade plastic.

Aluminum buckets

The aluminum buckets look like this:

and don’t forget the lid:

Check out prices online for metal maple syrup buckets and lids.

Plastic maple syrup buckets

Plastic buckets tend to come in blue and green, like this

or this:

Check out prices online for maple syrup buckets made from durable food-grade plastic

Pros

  • They look great, you look like a pro. Just look at it. So cool.
  • Buckets are off the ground and out of the reach of inquisitive animals
  • Plastic is lighter and less expensive than aluminum

Cons

  • Plastic is less durable than the aluminum metal buckets
  • This type of set up is a bit more expensive as an initial investment if you already have a bucket

Buckets on the ground

Another option is to simply direct the sap into a bucket or pail on the ground, as in the picture below. That lid looks terrible, you would never want to look at that lid if you had a small yard, but, it’s totally functional and doable.

This is a pretty low-tech setup, which has some advantages, if you’re just getting started, don’t have a lot of money, and/or want to try something out before you go all-in to get the best gear.

You’ll need drop lines, like these:

 

Check out prices online for taps, drop lines, and plastic pails.

Pros

  • Lowest cost of entry option
  • Gets the job done

Cons

  • Doesn’t look that great
  • The bucket is on the ground and needs to be weighed down with heavy rock to keep it in place on windy days

Alternative containers to buckets

Now, I don’t want to stir up a controversy with you on a page purportedly about maple syrup buckets, but there are also alternatives to the traditional bucket. You could go with a maple sap bag instead.

These are also food-grade but made from lightweight, thin-film plastic. They are compact, disposable (no cleaning required), and easy to store, carry, and install.

There are two different mounting options, that each operates essentially the same way:

Option 1: PVC mounted

A small section of PVC pipe, with a carefully drilled notch, rest over the tap and help to hold the bag in place.

Learn more about this maple syrup bucket alternative

Option 2: Metal clasp mounted

In this model, a more professional looking metal clasp mounts onto the tap and helps hold the collection bags in place.

The bags are also marked to help you estimate the volume and know when to collect.

Learn more here

Pros

  • Very little clean up, low risk of contamination from your gear
  • Lightweight
  • Small footprint, easy to store your gear when not in use

Cons

  • Different aesthetic from buckets
  • Constant cost to replace bags
aluminum bucket for collecting sap to make maple syrup
This is the most popular style of maple syrup bucket

Conclusions

Are you surprised by the number of options of maple syrup buckets available for purchase? I know I was when I first started out. Hopefully, this guide helped you sort through the options and pick the right maple syrup buckets for your own personal situation.

What to read next

There are three other articles that I strongly recommend you read. Check out:

  1. My summary of the 2019 season, to learn about the ups and downs, to help plan out your maple syrup season
  2. Collecting sap in buckets is only a small part of the whole project–check out this article to learn how to make maple syrup from sap
  3. The article you just read focused on Maple syrup buckets, but there is other gear you need. Your best bet might be to get an all-in-one kit. Check out these best maple tree tap kits

Learning How to Tap a Maple Tree: Day 1 of a New Hobby

Today, I embarked on a new adventure: learning how to make maple syrup at home by tapping my maple trees. This is the story of how I got started with this fun new hobby, all with the purpose of making my own maple syrup.

Day 1 of a new hobby

Not sure yet if this is good logic or bad logic, but I tapped the two maple trees today, January 19, 2019, with one tap each, facing South. Here is the weather forecast for today: 

weather the day I got started

My thought process was that, while today might not be a good day, tomorrow might be.  I’m not sure if reversing the pattern to be warm in the evening will cause flow the same way warm temperatures during the sunlight does.

Um…guess I should have Google’d that first.

But what I do know is that there’s a cold snap that is about to hit, and Wednesday, Thursday look like good ‘sugaring’ days…I think…

There were three factors that made me decide to learn how to tap a maple tree today.

First, my schedule was relatively un-booked, and with the MLK holiday on Monday,  it was a long weekend…score!

If the trees produce any sap, I will be around to cook it right away (mmm…instant gratification)

Finally, since I have silver maple trees, not sugar maples, I know my season ends early because the tree creates buds earlier than silver maples and therefore the late-season sap will be more bitter.

We will see if this works or if it is a bust.

If you have experience tapping trees, I’d love it if you could comment below and let me (and anyone reading this) know whether this logic is any good.

Equipment

I bought this maple tapping kit from Amazon:

 maple tree tapping kit

This kit came with the following:

  • 5 maple tap spiles  (5/16 inch OD) with 3-food drop lines (attached
  • 1 x 5/16 inch drill bit
  • Instruction manual

For collection, I’m going to use some clean aquarium salt buckets. I cleaned them out with a dilute bleach/water solution and rinsed them heavily.

learned how to tap a maple tree right here

If you don’t have food grade buckets at home, you can use gallon water jugs or buy buckets like mine at Home Depot or Lowes.

I did have to use a bigger bit I had at home to drill into the top of the bucket. I didn’t have the exact size for the outer diameter of the drop line, so I just wiggled the bit around to extend the hole until it was large enough. 

Glad to note that here to see if that causes any problems with seepage or bugs later on since it won’t be a snug fit. My thought is that I don’t want a perfectly snug fit, because I want the air pressure to release as the bucket fills.

Drilling the holes for the maple taps was easy. 

I measured 1.5 inches and marked it on the drill bit with a Sharpie marker.

I have read online that you should drill at a slightly upward angle and also at a straight angle. 

Since my SPILE is a 90-degree angle sort of thing, I just drilled straight. I Will see if that causes any complications

close up image of maple tree tap

The SPILE went in really easily. By hand, the SPILE in tree #1 (closest to the house) went in about 25% of the way easily before needing to be tapped in with a rubber mallet. 

I had to hit it pretty hard to get it to go in—not like it caused a lot of exertion, but it was certainly a deliberate hit.

Tree # 2, the SPILE went in about 3/4 of the way before needing to be tapped. This one just needed to be tapped gently to get it to go in. 

Where to tap a maple tree

I tapped both trees on the south-facing part of the tree. The exact location was determined by some loose estimation of where there was a nice flat spot in the bark, at a location facing mostly Southward, where the 3-foot line would reach my bucket at a relatively flat spot. 

I had read somewhere that the Southside would receive the best sun and therefore the sap would run the best…not sure if it’s true…but I figured it’s a decent place to start. Not that it really matters, after a few years, I’m going to have to encircle the tree anyway…

maple tree tapped across backyard

I also read that it’s best to put it under a big branch or over a big root.

This makes a lot of sense to me.

The sap should be running from the root to the branches…a big root likely stores more sap and a big branch probably consume more sap than a small branch.

However, I only remembered that little tidbit after I drilled the hole in Tree # 1…so that location was picked without regard to branches.

What happens after you tap the maple tree

I sort of hoped that something would happen as soon as I tapped the tree. I wanted to see the tree dripping…it wasn’t…which I am pretty sure is confirmation that I tapped too early in the season. We will see.

About 30 minutes after tapping, at 33 degrees Fahrenheit, there was only the slightest bit of moisture at the very top of the line. Nothing to write home (or online…) about.

Okay, well I did write online about it, but I’m telling you, it was no big deal.

It also confirms that I’m impatient.

For more information

For more information about how to tap a maple tree, check out this YouTube video:

Want to read more? Check out the next post in the series, here.

 

How do you tap a maple tree for syrup?

how to tap a maple tree

In this article, I will show you, step-by-step, how to tap a maple tree for syrup.

If you have never tried this before, it might seem a bit intimidating—but don’t worry, the process is pretty easy. It all starts with having the right gear and then following these 4 easy steps.

Equipment you will need to succeed once you learn how to tap a maple tree and make syrup

Here is the equipment that will help you tap the tree:

How to tap a maple tree
Learning how to tap a maple tree is fun and easy
  • Maple tree tap, either with a  drop line attached (shown above) or with a hook and bucket (shown below). Find the best tap kit here.
  • Cordless drill
  • Maple tap drill bit (to drill a hole for your tap)
    • Not a lot of mystery here–you want to match the right size drill bit to the type of tap you have, there are a few different size taps on the market
  • Tape measure
  • Sharpie marker
  • Rubber mallet 

maple tree tap with hook and bucket hung below

How to tap a maple tree step 1: Finding the right tree to tap for syrup

Find a maple tree on your property. Hopefully, you took notice before winter. Maples are the trees with iconic leaves like the ones shown here:

red leaves from maple tree
There won’t be any leaves on the tree when it is time to tap, so it is best to explore and confirm during Autumn

That won’t help you much, when it’s tree-tapping time, because there shouldn’t be any leaves on that tree.

Once you’re sure you have a maple tree, you want to be certain that the diameter of the trunk is at least 10 inches (across). If your tree or trees are smaller than that, you should wait until they are larger.

If you aren’t sure how to measure the diameter, you could measure the ‘waist’ of the tree by wrapping a measuring tape around the trunk and divide by 3.14 (or just confirm the tree is more than 31.4 inches around.

About sap

The tree depends on the sap for nutrition. When the tree is larger, it has more leaves and therefore is able to create and store more sugar. While you should be able to tap a maple tree safely year after year, the yield will be much smaller from a smaller tree and the risk of injury to the tree is much larger, which is why it is not recommended.

Step 2: Drilling the tap hole

The step in how to tap a maple tree is literally to drill a hole into the trunk that is between 1.5-2 inches deep. So that you don’t have to make an ‘eyeball judgment’, take the tape measure and measure 1.5 inches from the tip of the maple tap drill bit and mark that point with a line, using your Sharpie marker.

My maple tree tap is a 5/16 inch diameter tap—so I have a maple syrup tap drill bit that will make a 5/16 inch diameter hole in the tree.

To drill the hole, try to look for a spot on the trunk of the tree where there the bark will allow you to set the bit cleanly so that you can make a smooth, straight hole.

Level the drill, place the bit up against the bark, and start drilling at full speed, if possible. You will have to lean into the drill to get it to ‘bite’. Once it catches, the drill should do the rest of the work.

Drilling a maple tree before inserting the tap
A quick tip here is to mark the drill bit before you start drilling so you know when to stop

Gently and smoothly, push the bit into the tree until you can’t see your mark anymore. 

Should you hold your drill at an angle when you tap a maple tree for syrup?

A lot of the info I found online recommended that you hold your drill at a slight upward angle to facilitate the dripping of the sap.

I drilled my trees at a 90-degree angle (not tilted upward) and it appears to have worked. I think the angle matters more if you are using the old-school spiles. 

Old-school spiles are just spouts where the sap drips out into an open bucket. As such, I can see how the slight angle would assist the gravity flow of the sap.

I was using a smaller diameter maple tree tap that sits at a 90-degree angle, so I tried my best to drill a flat hole.

Step 3: Inserting the tap/spile/spigot

Now that you’ve made your hole in the tree, it’s time to tap it. Take your maple tree tap and push it into the hole with your hands as far as it will go.

Maple tree tap and drop line inserted in a new tap hole
The maple tree tap should fit snugly in the newly drilled hole. Tap it in with your mallet. The blue line is a drop tube that runs the sap into your collection bucket

Hopefully, you made a nice clean hole. If so, the spile/tap should fit snugly in and likely won’t go in all the way without a little help. 

It won’t take long for you to get a sense of why it’s call tapping…

Take a rubber mallet and smack the broadest part of your maple tree tap in until it sits snugly inside the hole.

Step 4: Setting up the collection bucket

Hang your bucket over the spile, if you’re using an old-school tap.

maple tree tap and bucket
You can tell from the design of this spile the bucket fits on a hook just below the tap

Or insert your drop line into your collection bucket.

plastic bucket with hole drilled in lid with a blue drop line coming from the maple tree tap
I used the same drill bit to drill a hole that my drop line would fit in. It wasn’t a perfect fit, so I had to wiggle the bit around to widen the hole a little bit

And that is how to tap a maple tree. 

Seriously. That’s it. All you have to do now is wait for the temperature to be right and for the sap to run. The tree will do the rest.

You can watch this video to see for yourself:

Of course, the next step is to turn that maple tree sap into syrup.

Learn how to make maple syrup from tree sap here.

Quick tips on how to tap a maple tree

  1. Always tap a tree that is at least 31 inches around the trunk (or 10 inches in diameter)
  2. Mark your drill bit between 1.5-2 inches, so you know when to stop
  3. Pick a day when you expect the weather to be bouncing back and forth between 20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit
  4. Empty buckets will blow around. Make sure they are tightly attached to the hook or weigh them down if sitting on the ground.

FAQ

Here are answers to a few questions asked about how to tap a maple tree for syrup.

How deep to drill a maple tap hole?

If you are just learning how to tap a maple tree, you want to be sure to carefully measure and create the right size drill hole. You want to drill a maple tap hole about 1.5-2 inches (38 – 50 mm) deep into the trunk of the tree. My advice is to measure and mark your drill bit in advance, to eliminate any guesswork.

1.5 to 2 inches is how deep you want to tap the tree
you only want to drill a hole that goes into the trunk 1.5-2 inches

Can you tap maple trees too early?

Yes, you can tap maple trees too early. If you tap too early, you may end up with less sap over the season because those days that are too cold will yield little to no sap. At the same time, the tap hole will only be productive for ~6-8 weeks (~ish. That’s just a generality), so the risk is that you use the precious sap-producing window up on cold, non-producing days. You can read more about building a plan to tap your maple tree, here.

ice on tree branches because it is very cold
If you tap too early in the season, it may be too cold to produce sap on many of the days

When to tap maple trees?

Figuring out the right time to tap is one of the hardest aspects of learning how to tap a maple tree because it involves prediction and luck. The best time to tap maple trees is when you would expect the temperature to be (largely) in the 20s at night and 40s during the day (Fahrenheit). Learn more about when to tap maple trees here.

What to read next

Learning how to tap a maple tree is just the beginning of this fun new hobby for you to explore. But learning how to tap a maple tree for syrup is just the first part of the journey. You need to know the right time when to tap, you need to collect the sap and then concentrate it into the delicious syrup.

Check out these next articles to learn what you need to learn:

Conclusions about how to tap a maple tree

Did you enjoy this guide on how to tap a maple tree in order to make your own syrup? I hope so. If you have any questions, you can leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!