Fast-growing boxelder was widely planted throughout the East and Midwest for street shade and windbreaks until the early 20th century. However, because it lacked the beauty, resistance to storm damage, and long life of its more glamorous cousin, the sugar maple, the practice eventually was discouraged.
In the open reaches of the Great Plains through which flows the Missouri River, though, the boxelder was welcome. Able to endure climate extremes and drought, it grew to greater stature, providing needed shade and shelter from the ever-present winds. Its seeds, like tiny helicopters, swirled with the breezes to find homes for sprouting, and grew where nothing did before. A true maple, boxelder even today is tapped for its sweet sap, which is made into syrup and sugar. This is especially true in its western range, where the preferred sugar maple fails to grow.
Boxelder's comparatively soft, light wood never attained the woodworking status of the hard and often distinctively grained sugar maple. Yet, where it grows to any great size, it finds its way with other nondescript maples into slack barrels, boxes and crates, woodenware, and inexpensive furniture.
You'll find boxelder (Acer negundo) parading under a number of local names - ash-leaf maple, sugar ash, and Manitoba maple to name a few. Throughout most of its range, boxelder inhabits stream and river bottoms, and lake shorelines. In these moist places, elm, hackberry, black walnut, cottonwood, and willow make up its neighbors.
Except for the occasional specimen in the western part of its range that grows to 75' tall and a diameter of 4', boxelder commonly peaks growth at heights of 40-50' and 2-3' diameters. Rarely does a boxelder reach 100 years of age.
Boxelder's pointed leaves resemble those of white ash, but with more scallops. Double seed pods joined into a v-shape hang on the tree's branches from early summer on. At first glimpse, boxelder's gray-brown bark could also pass for that of white ash - its flattened ridges appear similar - except that the furrows run much shallower.
The wood of boxelder, at 27 pounds per cubic foot dry, weighs nearly the same as white pine and rates as the lightest and weakest of the American maples. Close-grained and creamy white in color, boxelder tends to be brittle. Sometimes a boxelder tree contains wood that carries raspberry-colored streaks and flecks, a property that woodturners find especially appealing for bright bowls, slender goblets, and attractive platters. The red streaks are composed of a pigment from a fungus (Fusarium negundi).
Uses in woodworking
The light wood lends itself to boxes, carvings, turnings, treenware, toys, and simple furniture or storage projects. Spalted boxelder, with its raspberry streaks, is highly prized for accent work and turnings. The wood isn't suitable for outdoor projects.
Where boxelder grows to commercial size, it's mixed and marketed with soft maples for retail sale. Small local mills may distinguish boxelder from soft maples, and specialty suppliers of spalted turning blocks and squares certainly do. Lumber should run less than $2 per board foot for FAS. Veneer or plywood isn't available.
Because there's little difference between the color or the working characteristics of boxelder's heartwood and sapwood, you needn't sort through piles looking for one over the other. Once you have your stock, though, keep these working tips in mind.
If you like to work with hand tools (or want to try it), you'll get a kick out of working this soft maple called boxelder. Aside from being low-cost, it's easy on cutting edges, bits, and abrasives. In fact, this is a perfect wood for kids to work.
If, however, you prefer the bite of power tools, keep the standard techniques listed in the box below in mind, and remember the following tips in your shop:
- Although boxelder isn't as hard as most maple you might be used to working, it does have a tendency to burn. Use only sharp cutting edges.
- Hesitating or force-feeding the workpiece while ripping increases the wood's chance of burning. Use a constant feed rate. While routing, keep the wood or the tool moving at a constant rate.
- Boxelder provides the perfect chance to try your hand-planing skills. With a sharp cutter, its close grain will give you a smooth surface. This characteristic also makes it an excellent wood to sand.
- Speed up the rpm rate when drilling boxelder, even though it's a hardwood. With thick wood or large-diameter bits, raise the bit occasionally to clear out chips and reduce the chance of burning. And use a backing board to avoid tearout of this comparatively brittle wood.
- The wood holds nails and screws quite well, but be sure to predrill to avoid splitting.
- Because of its tight grain, boxelder's cousin sugar maple some times resists normal gluing, and so does boxelder. For best results, put down a ribbon of glue on each joining surface, then press them together to spread the glue. Pull the pieces apart, let the glue become tacky, then rejoin and clamp. Make sure to clean up all squeeze-out.
- Like hard maple, boxelder sometimes produces blotchy staining results. On a scrap, try using a conditioning sealer coat before staining. Or, use gel stains.
All clear finishes, as well as paint, take readily to boxelder.
The straight, close-grained wood of boxelder won't threaten even beginning carvers. Beware, though, that its brittleness can cause runout on long, straight cuts.
No problems on the lathe with boxelder, except in end grain where its brittleness can cause problems.
Any exceptions, and special tips pertaining to this issue's featured wood species, appear elsewhere on this page
- For stability in projects to be used indoors, always work wood with a maximum moisture content of 8 percent. For outdoor use, wood of 12 percent moisture content is okay.
- Feed straight-grained wood into planer knives at a 90° angle. To avoid tearing, feed figured wood or that with twisted grain at a slight angle of 15°, and take shallow cuts of about 1/32".
- For clean cuts, rip with a rip-profile blade that has 24-32 teeth. For crosscutting, use a blade with about 40 teeth.
- Avoid drilling with twist drills. They tend to wander in the wood and cause breakout. Use a backing board under the workpiece to reduce breakout.
- Drill pilot holes for screws.
- Rout with sharp, preferably carbide-tipped, bits and take shallow passes to avoid burning.
- Carving hardwoods generally means shallow gouge bevels—15° to 20°—and shallower cuts.