Welcome to winter!
Now is when our ancestors prepared for the early spring activities, and one of them was tapping the Maple trees for sugar and syrup. Sitting around the woodstove with a knife in hand, the spiles were prepared for use.
Elderberry makes a good spile -
As does Sumac -
Whats a spile?
A spile is the “tap” that is hammered into the tree to enable the sap to flow out and be collected. As with most edible products, metal was purposely not used.
Only wooden utensils were used on things that were eaten. It was thought the metal would ruin the fruit.
So the majority of early food utensils were made of various woods.
I generally tap a few Maples every other year, based on the amount of snow on the ground in February (carrying full five gallon buckets through a few feet of snow up a hill for several hundred feet just doesnt work). Since the woodstove runs constantly through April, this makes boiling it down easy, and the house gets humidfied and smells great at the same time.
While metal spiles are available most of the year (except sap time), I like to keep things simple so I do not lose that knowledge that could be valuable.
Spiles can be made of any soft core wood, Sumac and Elderberry being widely used. I will make one of each for this tutorial, as they are slightly different in wood composition, but the procedure is the same.
Sumac is easily spotted in the winter. Look for dried red berries and fuzzy but smooth saplings with relatively few branches. If you are not certain that it is Staghorn Sumac - DO NOT USE IT. Poison Sumac is identical but has white berries. If you are uncertain and you cannot locate any dried red “staghorn” berries, avoid using it until it can be positively identified.
That said, cut a six foot section that is about 1” outside diameter or slightly less, this will give you a dozen good spiles. Cut into 6 inch sections.
I lightly peel them with a skinning knife (upswept blade) which works well. Remove just the outer bark at this time, then on one end, taper the last 2-3 inches until you reach the soft core wood.
I have read the soft core can be burned out with a red hot poker, but this is really unnecessary as a long screwdriver can easily be poked through the center, then rotated to clean out the debris, which resembles soft foam. I have even done this with a sturdy dried weed, so it does not take much effort.
Pics of processing
If the tapered end gets beat up a bit processing it, just insert a stick the size of the inside hole and fix it with your knife.
Poke a hole with a screwdriver -
Clean out with a stick -
Thats it, all done. One spile ready to use.
Just drill a hole in the tree, about 4ft off the ground, and directly underneath the largest first branch (this is an old timers trick, its where the sap flows best). Gently tap your spile into the hole. Place a bucket beneath it. I would caution against hanging a pail (no matter how small) from the spile, as the rocking motion (freeze and thaw) and the varying weight will work the spile loose.
BONUS ROUND -
My distant ancestors, the Montauketts, had another variation of this which I had learned years ago from grandpa. Instead of hollowing out the center, they split the spile in half, then simply scraped the soft core wood out. They tapered one end to a fairly sharp point. Then, with a hatchet or tomahawk, made a “V” chop in the tree, and drove the spile into the “V”. This eliminated both the rod to clean out the center and the need to drill a hole in the tree.
My attempt to do this with a piece I was using for the first way was unsuccessful as the wood tended to split when tapering it. Larger diameter probably would have worked better in this case.
Additional info: I get about a full gallon from each tap every day, and I carry around a five gallon pail to collect the days haul. I bring this back to the house and dump it in a large pot which sits on the woodstove all day and all night.
I position the pot towards the front so although the water steams off, it does not get hot enough to boil. In this way I can add sap every day all week long. On the weekend I move the pot to the back burner and start to really heat it up. At this point after boiling all week, there is not much water left, and in a few hours it will stop steaming. You can recognize how it is coming along by dipping a stir stick in it. As it goes to syrup it will drip more like a thick oil than water. Pour this off in your jars and seal (the heat will self seal). First timers should use a thermometer to get this right, once you have done it a few times, you can recognize the right time by sight.
If you have gone too long in the cooking, you will end up with a solid block of rock candy. If you havent gone far enough, the syrup will spoil from the trapped water still in it. Practice makes perfect, keep trying, there is nothing like fresh homemade syrup on pancakes.
Other interesting info -
The “first run” is the sweetest and clearest, each run is different. The last run was reserved for making gum and candy. Birch trees can also be tapped, but the run is much shorter. All Maples can be tapped, not just Sugar Maples.