Have you ever been gazing in admiration at a beautiful guitar or fiddle that displays alternating bands of light and dark patterns in the wood, not entirely unlike a tiger’s stripes, or the tongues of a flame? Have you noticed that the pattern of the wood’s grain became more or less evident, or even bright, depending on the incidence of the light that struck it, or how you viewed it?
Perhaps you have noticed this effect elsewhere, such as in a beautiful wooden portrait frame or in the construction of an antique muzzleloader’s stock. Sometimes the appearance varies, and the impression of the wood lends itself more to small, rounded bubbles of light and dark areas rather than stripes or streaks. Nonetheless, these are the signature marks of a beautiful type of wood that is affectionately known as tiger maple, and it can be the key to a renewed interest in the interior design of your home. It is certainly enjoying something of a renaissance throughout the rest of the country.
What Is Tiger Maple?
Tiger maple is actually not a misnomer, as it is a figure of wood that sometimes presents itself in maple. Maple, which is typically beautiful and light, is sometimes present in a form that creates lines that transect the grain, producing the familiar patterns. It is called figured, or highly figured, because it is an aspect of the wood that is not actually a part of the grain itself.
An interesting fact about this type of figuring in wood is that it runs perpendicular to the grain, as opposed to parallel to, or with it. The long stripes that are typical of this pattern in maple do not run with the grain, which is why they are frequently present in strips that run across the thinnest portion of a piece of the wood.
The effect is produced when the growth of the wood fibers is distorted in some way or other, which results in the patterning that then becomes known as tiger maple. What’s interesting is that there is no single factor that results in the formation of this figuring, and there is no genetic difference between the Red Maples that produce a tiger pattern and those that do not.
This is one of the factors that has influenced the value of tiger or curly maple - that it cannot be easily or cheaply reproduced. One of the central features of tiger or flame maple is in chatoyancy, which is one of the characteristics of the figuring that adds depth to the overall impression created by the wood.
Chatoyancy? What Is That?
The figuring produced by tiger maple is said to possess chatoyancy, or to be chatoyant. This, corrupted from the French for “cat’s eye,” is another term that is said to describe the effects.
Often reserved as a descriptor for gemstones, chatoyancy is a type of reflectance that is exhibited by certain fibrous materials. Chatoyancy can be described as a certain type of sheen, shine or reflectivity, but this does not paint the entire picture. For a material to be truly considered chatoyant, it must not only be reflective, but the light reflected must run perpendicular to the fibers that produce the effect, resulting in a streak of light that travels in an odd direction with respect to the apparent grain of the material.
For reference, see the picture of Tiger’s Eye in which this chatoyant effect is evident, and for which the material is probably best known. It is this effect that is also produced in the figuring of Tiger Maple, which adds a layer of complexity to the items produced from it - despite their many names.
A Rose by Any Other Name
Tiger maple is not simply known by the former appellation, and there are actually several distinct forms of patterning that may be associated with it.
- Tiger maple, also known as flame maple, ripple maple, curly maple, or pin stripe maple, is the most commonly encountered form of figuring in this wood. These patterns all in some form or other take the form of long stripes, streaks or curls that transect the grain of a piece of the wood from a Red Maple tree, giving it a likeness to tiger’s stripes, tongues of flames, or even thin ribbons, curls or streaks. Furniture produced from this will have alternating light and dark stripes running across the grain of the wood, which will become more or less evident given the treatment and polish of the wood as well as the orientation of the ambient light.
- Blister and quilt maple are also forms of tiger or curly maple, but they lack the characteristic stripes that are commonly associated with it. In place of stripes or streaks, blister and quilt maple appear to be blotched or mottled, somewhat in the likeness of a quilt. It gives the surface of the wood a very attractive “patchwork” appearance.
- Bird’s eye maple (sometimes known as blister maple) is one of the most interesting of all forms of tiger maple, and it lacks both streaks and dappling. In the place of the former, bird’s eye maple possesses a series of dots or rosettes that are either lighter or darker than the surrounding wood grain. This gives blister, or bird’s eye figured maple, what can almost be called a speckled appearance, which is very similar to the bird’s eye patterning that is sometimes found in the root burls of the tree heath.
A Short History of Tiger Maple and Its Applications
Tiger maple wood has a rich history of use in the United States and has become associated with Appalachia because of the prevalence of its use to create furniture, tools, and decorations in that region.
Although the supply of tiger or flame maple fluctuates and is subject to a variety of factors that will affect its availability, it has a long history of use throughout the United States. Colonial furniture producers and woodworkers prized the wood for its durability and beauty, and no collection of colonial furniture would be complete without one entry produced from curly maple.
This unique pattern of wood has also been used widely in the production of Kentucky rifles and other muzzleloaders. It is not altogether rare to see period flintlocks from the Appalachian region with brindle stocks made from curly maple. These stocks are both hard and strong, making them ideal for the application. They are also very handsome, and the practice has persisted to the modern day - many replica flintlocks and cap locks are still produced with brindle stocks that are the signature of curly maple.
This type of wood is also prized for its value in the manufacture of a variety of instruments, including but not limited to guitars and violins. This latter use has garnered curly maple another moniker, being fiddle maple, due to its prevalence among these musical instruments. It’s also worth noting that some critics believe this type of maple to produce variance in sound, and to be superior to other grades of wood for its acoustic properties.
However, far and away, if it can be said that tiger maple is popular for one thing, and if there is one industry that supports its economic viability, it is the furniture industry. Americans are searching for curly maple in droves because it adds depth and movement to their interior designs, as well as a tangibly American character.
How You Can Design and Decorate with Tiger Maple
If you’re looking for a unique way to decorate your home that will give it at once a dashing sense of character and a modest nod to the historical import of regional colonial design, then tiger maple may be just the best way to do so.
There is simply no way to separate this beautiful wood from its central role in the production of uniquely American designs, and it’s enjoying more popularity now than ever. Best of all, there are a variety of ways in which you can work tiger or curly maple furniture and decorations into the design of your home,
Staples: Chairs, Tables, Bookcases and Other Fixtures
Tiger maple produces an effect the gravity of which is impossible to deny. Whereas all woods are beautiful in their own right, due to their natural personalities, the movement and depth of curly maple are unlike anything else we can offer up.
Because of this, the best way to make a mark in a setting is to create a focus with a defining piece of furniture. Curly maple is not meant to serve as an accent mark. It can make its most pronounced expressions as the centerpiece of a location.
You can really make a setting shine with the tasteful addition of a hutch, a bookcase, or a chest made of curly maple, and remember that there are all different patterns and designs you can find in this type of wood. If you don’t believe that a flame pattern would suit your setting well, you could instead seek out the effervescent levity of a similar piece of furniture in a quilt maple or bird’s eye pattern.
Similarly, you can outfit a setting with a dining table or a set of chairs that have been created from curly maple, but allow us to suggest first that you see that the table top has been produced from curly maple, as this large, flat surface will make the greatest impression. The sad truth is that the fine workings of a chair or the legs of some other piece of furniture might lack the commanding presence necessary to advertise the wood, losing the detail of the pattern in deference to the detail of their workmanship.
You can also specifically seek out a smaller item like an end table or a coffee table to make a mark with flame maple, despite the fact that these pieces would likely be smaller and less commanding than their larger counterparts. Not to worry, though - made with a bright, beautiful wood-like curly maple, even these fixtures of decor will draw attention to themselves.
Don’t Miss a Chance to Throw in the Highlights
Finally, if we can offer one gem of wisdom, it’s not to lose sight of the fact that even if you can’t make a piece of tiger maple furniture the fixture of a setting, there are infinite possibilities for decoration using this type of wood. Don’t forget that you can find a variety of decorations, ornaments, and other items crafted from curly maple as well.
For example, if you can’t find a piece of furniture that properly matches the rest of the aesthetic in a given setting, strive instead to work curly maple into the setting some other way. If you can find a wall ornament or other sculpture crafted from it, you’ll get the shine and movement in another package, albeit smaller.
Another great way to work curly maple into a setting, if you can’t find a piece of furniture that suits your tastes, is to use it to frame your artwork - literally. You may be able to find a tasteful curly maple frame that will beautifully array your finest wall art - serving as a literal fixture of a setting and breathing its character into the very atmosphere of the room. In fact, this is an advisable practice to follow even if you can find a large item made of curly maple - it plays off of itself beautifully.
Come Visit Our Showroom!
You can learn a lot online, and you can even look up pictures of the different patterns that are evident within the surface of curly maple, but there is simply no substitute for the real life experience of interacting with it firsthand.
Tiger maple is beautiful in photographs, but the effect is magnified in person. There is a three-dimensional appeal to this pattern, one that has to be experienced to be truly understood, and the purchase of furniture is a highly personal one. For these reasons, we’d love for you to come visit us in our showroom in Peninsula, Ohio!We’re a bit off the path, but we like to think of ourselves as a hidden gem. Come on in to our showroom whenever you’re in our area, and if you’d like to call ahead to schedule a time to come visit, feel free to get in touch with us to ask questions. You can reach us at 330-657-2095. Give us a call, we’re waiting to hear from yo