How to tap a maple tree for syrup?

how to tap a maple tree
Mark the bit before you drill, to take the guesswork out of learning 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 called 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?

The ideal maple tap hole depth for a 5/16 inch tap is between 1.5 – 2 inches (38-51mm), including the bark. The most recommended depth is 1.5 inches, but there are trade-offs. A depth of 2-inches likely maximizes the volume of sap within a season, while the depth of 1.5 inches may be more advantageous over the lifetime of the tree. 

There are at least two important phenomena in play with respect to determining the ideal maple tap hole depth. A deeper hole will creates a larger area of tissue to draw sap from behind the tap, increasing the potential volume. However, once the season is over, it also creates a larger area of sap-conducting wood in future years.

The maple tree will also put new, fresh rings of wood out around those initial holes. In about 18 years with average growth, a Sugar Maple will have put on an additional 1.5 inches of rings of new growth–healthy, sap-conducting wood. It is not hard to imagine the additional risk at that point of drilling right through the good wood and hitting bad wood, essentially ruining the harvest from that tap.

I recommend you decide how deep you plan to drill before you head outside and use a Sharpee to mark your drill bit with a line to show where you intend to stop, to avoid over-drilling.

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

For more information about how deep to drill a maple tap hole, check out:

Bosely, Wade, Perkins, Timothy D., van den Berg, Abby K. “Effects of Tapping Depth on Sap Volume, Sap Sugar Content, and Syrup Yield Under High Vacuum.” Mapel Syrup Digest. March 2021.

Wilmot, Timothy. “How Deep Do You Tap?” Farming, the Journal of Northeast Agriculture. October 2011.

Should you drill the tap hole straight or slanted?

A maple tap hole will yield the same volume of sap and syrup regardless of whether the tap hole is drilled strait (perpendicular) or slanted (angled up). This was demonstrated in a study from the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center (Perkins and Bosley 2020).

How deep to set the maple tree spout in the tap hole

A maple tree spout is properly tapped when it sets in about 0.75 inches into a 1.5-inch hole, including the width of the bark. Driving the tap deeper reduces the sap yield. Setting the tap shallower may cause leaks or the tap to pull out during the season.

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

I hope this article helped provide some evidence to give you confidence about the right way to tap a maple tree. But please don’t get overwhelmed. I started tapping the trees in my yards with a lot less information than this–and it WORKED! Don’t sweat the small stuff, don’t let fear of perfection keep you from starting this awesome hobby. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!

References

Bosely, Wade, Perkins, Timothy D., van den Berg, Abby K. “Effects of Tapping Depth on Sap Volume, Sap Sugar Content, and Syrup Yield Under High Vacuum.” Mapel Syrup Digest. March 2021.

Perkins, T.D., and Bosely, W.T. “Tapholes: Straight or Slanted?” Proctor Page: News from the University of Vermont Proctor Maple Research Center. April 23, 2020.

Wilmot, Timothy. “How Deep Do You Tap?” Farming, the Journal of Northeast Agriculture. October 2011.

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