You’ve decided to make maple syrup this year and you’ve determined that it’s time to tap your trees. Great! Here’s how.
Evaluating the size, health and shape of a maple are important first steps when tapping.
First, you need a drill with a 5/16″ or 7/16″ bit. You can use a cordless power drill or a hand drill – also called a brace. The power drill has the advantage of being a lot faster, whereas the brace is more . . . romantic. . . . if you’re into that sort of thing. The brace also has no carbon footprint. (For those of us not into romance.)
A regular bit will do, or you can invest in a “tapping bit,” of either size. Tapping bits are easier to use and make a nice, clean hole. Choose the bit size that matches the spiles you are going to use (see below). You can find a 7/16″ tapping bit here.
Second, you need 5/16″ or 7/16″ spiles – also called “taps.” Spiles are the spouts you hammer into the tree to direct the sap from the tree to the bucket or other sap-collection container of your choice.
New spiles are widely available in both sizes and come in metal and plastic. If you are in possession of used or even antique spiles, or looking for some (again with the romance!), chances are they are going to be of the larger size. New spiles are likely to be 5/16″. You can find new metal spiles here.
Sugarmakers have different opinions about what size tap is best and whether to use plastic or metal spiles. We use and sell 7/16″ bits and new metal spiles because metal is more durable than plastic. Do research if you enjoy it, but the important thing is to just get started, so don’t feel like you have to sweat the small stuff, here. This is supposed to be fun. Find some taps that are in your price range, and go for it!
You will need one spile per every tap you are going to make. A tree that is from 12 to 18 inches in diameter can support one tap. Trees larger than 18 inches in diameter can take two taps. Putting more than two taps in a tree is not recommended.
Third, you will need a hammer for tapping the spile into the tree after the hole is drilled.
And finally, you need lidded buckets or other food-safe containers such as clean plastic milk jugs attached to the spile with rope or wire, or food-safe plastic bags (widely available).
It is important to note that the old galvanized buckets may contain lead, and it is possible for lead to leach into your sap if sap is left in the bucket for long enough and temperatures are high enough. (Our family has used the old galvanized buckets in the past but we are phasing them out.) New metal buckets are typically made of safer aluminum, there are plenty of plastic-bucket options, and there is even a bucket made of gray plastic on the market for those of you having a hard time weighing the factors of aesthetics, cost and function. (Brilliant!)
Now that you have your stuff, you are going to proceed to your first tree and choose a height that is both convenient for the driller and collector. Choose a spot that is easy to drill at that moment, but also think about the current depth of the snow: is the collector going to have to reach over his or her head to collect the bucket when the snow melts?
Having settled on a height, inspect your tree. For best results, you should choose a place on the tree that is either below a big branch or above a big root, and definitely not near a knot or wound in the tree. Cardinal direction doesn’t matter too much – every year you should tap a distance away from the prior year’s tap anyway (6″ horizontally and 12″ vertically) but a southern tap will flow before a northern one, so do think about how you’d like to time your season this year. When you’ve chosen your spot, drill a hole of about 1 1/2″ inch at a slight, upward angle and look for nice, light, creamy wood chips and sawdust coming out. If what you see is dark or dead, find another place on the tree to tap and try again.
When you have your hole, gently tap your spile in using your hammer, hang your bucket, and put on your lid. Move on to the rest of your sugarbush. Now it’s time to wait for the sap to run!