How to Tap a Tree

By Al & Johanna McLauchlan of Rocky Lake Birchworks

Kris & Mike // We first met this lovely duo at the 2015 festival. They had traveled in from The Pas to attend and we were struck by how kind they were. This led to them coming to teach tree-tapping at the 2017 fest. You can find out more about them and their birch syrup business at the link at the end of the article.

Featured Image: Kris & Mike

Which Trees Can be Tapped

Maple syrup can be made from any species of maple tree. Trees that can be tapped include: sugar, black, red and silver maple and box elder trees. Of all the maples, the highest concentration of sugar is found in the sap of the sugar maple. Generally the ratio of sap to syrup for the sugar maple is 40 to 1 (40 litres of sap yields one litre of syrup). Other species of maple have lower concentrations of sugar in their sap. For example; it may require 60 litres of box elder (Manitoba Maple) sap to produce one litre of syrup.  Birch trees have the least amount of sugar in their sap – around 1% – so it takes 120 litres of sap to make one litre of syrup.

What Tools are Needed

The tools required for a small operation are found in most homes or can be easily obtained.

They include:

• Drill  with 7/16″ or 3/8″ drill bit

• Hammer

• Collection containers – plastic buckets, milk jugs, and coffee cans work well

• Large boiling pan (preferably low and broad)

• Candy thermometer

• cheesecloth filter material

• Spiles

When to Tap Trees

Alternating freeze and thaw temperatures are necessary to create the pressure which causes the sap to flow when the tree is tapped. Sap runs best when temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day. In Manitoba these conditions typically occur during the month of March. However, because weather conditions vary somewhat from year to year, and from one location to another, trees can sometimes be tapped as early as mid- February or as late as April. Once temperatures stay above freezing and leaf buds appear, the maple syrup season is over.


How to Tap Trees

Kris & Mike: We have heard that the minimum diameter of a tree to be tapped should be between 6 and 10 inches. Trees under 18″ diameter should have only one tap placed. Make sure you are tapping strong, healthy trees. Our family likes to take a moment to visit with our tree friends and thank them for the precious gift of sap that they share with us, always certain to only take from healthy trees!


Drill a hole in a tree, 2 – 4 feet above the ground. The hole should be drilled at a slight upward angle to a depth of about 2 in [K&M: We were taught to tape the drill bit at a depth of 1.5-2 inches, so as to not drill in too deep and cause unnecessary stress to the tree]. Use a hammer to lightly tap the spile into the hole. Do not hammer the spile too far into the hole as it may cause the wood around the hole to split – resulting in lost sap flow. Hang a sap container from the spile. It is best to use containers that have a cover on them to keep out rain, snow and other forest debris. Empty sap containers once a day and process sap immediately or store in a cool place out of direct sunlight until you are ready. It is recommended that you have at least ten gallons of sap before you start the evaporating process.


How to Process Sap into Syrup

To make syrup from maple sap is a simple process of boiling and evaporation. Since substantial quantities of water will be “cooked off,” most of the boiling should be done outside, preferably over a wood-burning stove. Pour your sap into a large cooking pan (a pan with a large surface area will increase the rate of evaporation during the boiling process). As the water boils off, add more sap. Take care to add only small amounts of sap at a time to avoid killing the boil. Use a candy thermometer attached to the side of the pan to monitor the temperature of the sap. As the sugar in the sap becomes more concentrated, the temperature of the boiling sap will rise. When the sap darkens and the bubbles become smaller, you are approaching the final stages of boiling. At this point, pour the sap into a smaller pan and continue boiling on your indoor stove. When the temperature of the sap reaches 97C degrees, the sap has become syrup! To finish the syrup making process, strain the hot syrup twice through cheesecloth or wool felt, pour into jars and refrigerate. For longer storage, you can also use mason jars and can the syrup.

Rocky Lake Birchworks has been in existence since 2004. They are a family owned business operated by Johanna, Alan, Andy and Peter McLauchlan. The McLauchlan family began tapping 15 trees in 2004 and the company was incorporated as a business on February 2, 2009. The company grew from tapping 15 trees to tapping 800 and started to sell product on the commercial market December 9, 2010. Today they tap over 1500 paper birch trees; they produce in excess of 500 liters of birch syrup and have 32 retailers spread across Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Find their products on their website, and connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.  Photo: Janine Kropla & Josh Dookhie

For more resources on tree-tapping for sap/syrup:

Laura Reeves’ Guide to Useful Plants – From acorns to zoom sticks. Laura included a section in her book about making maple syrup, including some fun ideas for DIY nature spiles.

We wrote a post on tree tapping with kids a while back for EcoParent Magazine.