- Finding the Right Tree
- How Deep to Drill
- Drilling into a Maple Tree for Its Sap
Tapping a maple tree is an experience you can enjoy with your family, but make sure you know how to drill the right hole and depth.
Achieving the right hole and depth the first time can make the difference between an enjoyable spring and the regret of drilling too many unnecessary or distorted holes in maple trees. Before you start drilling, read this guide to ensure a successful tree-tapping experience. The techniques and tricks mentioned here may also apply to walnut and birch trees.
What we are going to learn is to identify a suitable maple tree, know how deep to drill into it, and take all the steps necessary to drill into a maple tree and extract sap from it.
Usually, you need to drill between 1½” and 2”.
Continue reading for more detail.
Finding the Right Tree
Maple tree leaves look like those shown in the picture below. However, you won’t see them during the tree-tapping time in spring, so you will need to identify target trees in autumn.
The target tree’s diameter should be more than 10”, so as to protect smaller and younger trees. If that’s difficult to estimate, wrap measuring tape around the tree, which will give you its circumference. It should be at least 31 1/3” (31.4” or ~80cm). The formula (where 3.14 is taken for the value of pi) is:
Diameter of Tree = the Tree’s Circumference / 3.14
How Deep to Drill
Usually, you can safely drill 1” (one inch) into a maple tree beyond its bark. The thickness of the tree’s bark is, therefore, the key factor to consider. It depends on the tree’s age and its species. Generally, you will find thicker barks in the following cases:
- Older Trees – the older a tree, the more likely its bark will be thick.
- Certain Species – If you come across, for example, red maple, it will likely have thick bark.
If both the above two apply, especially if the tree is very large and old, then more likely than not, you can expect it to have thick bark. Conversely, the younger the tree, the more likely its bark will be thin.
For trees with thick bark, you normally need to drill no more than 2”, so usually the required depth will range between 1½” and 2”. The ‘extra’ depth beyond 1” is to allow for the thickness of the bark.
For example, an ‘average’ sized and aged maple tree might have ½” thick bark. You need to drill 1” beyond the bark, so you need to drill 1 ½” in total starting from the outer side of the bark. The formula is simple:
Depth of drilling = 1” + estimated bark thickness
Drilling into a Maple Tree for Its Sap
You will need the items listed below besides locating a suitable maple tree to drill into.
- Cordless Drill Machine
- Drill Bit – Normally, a 5/16” drill bit will do for a regular spout (otherwise match the spout you have if different)
- Measuring Tape (or ruler)
- Sticky, Insulation, or Painters Tape to wrap around the drill bit as a guide to know the depth you have reached whilst drilling
- The Spout, Spile, or Spigot to insert into the tree
- Rubber mallet to lightly push the spout into place if needed
- Tubing (5/16”) – must be ‘food grade’ and long enough to extend from the hole to the container (might not be needed if using a tap that can drip straight into the container)
- The Container to collect the sap, such as a bottle, jug, can, or bucket (must be food grade and clean).
Step 1: Bark Thickness
Estimate the bark’s thickness based on the tree’s estimated age and type.
Step 2: Drill Bit Depth
Calculate the drill bit depth you will drill using the above formula (just add 1” to the estimated bark thickness). Usually, it will be between 1½” and 2”. A depth closer to 1½” (1.5”) is usually safer for the tree. If you need to drill closer to 2”, it should be done with caution due to the risk of creating a larger patch of sap-conducting wood at that point later.
Step 3: Put Tape on The Drill Bit
Measure the same bit depth from the previous step on the drill bit and position a small piece of a sticky tape’s end on that point.
Step 4: Identify a Suitable Spot
Look for an even spot on the tree that could allow you to make a straight and smooth hole. It’s best to choose that side of the tree where the sun shines most. The reason for this is that the side which receives the greatest sunlight during the day tends to produce most sap.
Step 5: Drill Into the Tree
Drill into the tree, slowly at first. If using a spile that might need a little assistance from gravity, drill at a slight upward angle. Otherwise, a normal spout might not need a slope, so you can drill at a 90° angle (perpendicular to the trunk). Then, gradually level the drill and continue drilling at a faster speed. Only drill as far deep as the mark you made using the tape.
Drilling into a maple tree 
Step 6: Remove Wood Shavings
Remove the wood shavings carefully using the drill bit as you slowly pull it back out.
Note: Don’t be tempted to blow them out yourself. If you do that, the whole tree could become contaminated with the saliva from your mouth. Also, the hole could shrink and close, as part of the tree’s own natural healing process, and consequently, you will end up with less sap flow. (1)
Step 7: Insert the Spout
Once the hole is made successfully and the wood shavings are removed, insert the spout or spile into the tree gently for a snug fit. Only tap lightly and twist it gently, if necessary, using a rubber mallet without striking hard.
Note: You don’t need to push too hard. Don’t be tempted to pound the spout with a hammer or anything else apart from a rubber mallet. If you do that, you could risk damaging the spout. When you are finished tapping, it will also be easier to pull out the spout.
A spile inserted into a maple tree with a bucket underneath (no tubing) 
Step 8: Connect the Tubing
Once the spout is attached in the tree, connect one end of the tubing to its barbed end, and put the other end a little inside inside the container. In some cases, if you can place the container directly under the spout, you might not need tubing at all.
Note: If it is cold and you find it difficult to insert the tube, warm this end of the tubing first in hot water for around 10 to 20 seconds, and then try again.
Step 9: Collect the Sap
With the hole made and the spout and tubing in place, you are now ready to collect the sap inside your container. If it’s a windy day, you may need to hold the container in place, at least for a while.
Note: The container must be thoroughly clean. It must not contain any traces of the previous contents. Milk cartons are unsuitable because they are difficult to clean thoroughly. The delicate tree sap can easily take in this content from the container which can spoil its own quality. (2)
Be aware that different trees produce more or less sap than others. So if you find you’re getting a lot, be prepared with extra containers, and don’t be concerned if it’s less than expected.
Take a look at some of our related articles below.
(1) contaminated with saliva – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/
(2) Milk – https://www.britannica.com/topic/milk
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