Backyard Sugarin’
Part 3
Collecting Sap

Dateline: 9 April 2008

In the previous essay of this series I showed and explained how my family taps sugar maple trees to collect sap for making maple syrup. Now I’m going to explain how we collect the sap and store it.

It takes approximately 40 gallons of sugar maple tree sap to make a gallon of finished maple syrup. The exact amount varies because sugar content of sap varies. It varies between different trees, and even within the same tree throughout the season.

Our “sugar bush” is right out the back door of our house, just across the lawn. With only 25 taps to collect, we simply walk from tree to tree with a couple of five-gallon plastic pails. We unhook the galvanized sap pail from the hook on the sap spile (see previous essay for details) and dump the contents into our collecting buckets. Here’s a picture of me doing just that.


And here’s a picture of my son, Robert, filling a pail.


As you can see, collecting sap is a simple process. But that isn’t to say it is easy. Sap weighs around 8 pounds a gallon. The buckets are heavy to carry. The difficulty of the task is compounded by the steep terrain we have to traverse. Keep in mind too that maple season is also mud and ice season. So collecting sap in buckets and carrying them uphill to our collecting tank is a real workout.

There are days throughout the maple season when the sap doesn’t flow at all, and there are days when it really “runs” (which isn’t to say it is actually running out of the tree like a faucet—it’s just dripping fast and a lot of sap accumulates in the pails). On a good day we will collect sap a couple of times. But usually we collect once in the late afternoon. Here is a picture of me carrying some full buckets.


We carry the buckets of sap out of the woods to our makeshift “sugar shack” which is right next to our house, in our wood shed. Before I show you the wood shed and the west side of my house, I need to warn you—this is not a pretty picture. The west side of our house has no siding beyond weathered plywood and some tarpaper. When you are a one-income family and you build your house on a budget, without borrowing money, things like siding can wait....and wait. That’s part of My Christian Agrarian Reality. Here’s the picture:


What you’re looking at is a “temporary” wood shed that has been in place for eight years—far longer than I originally intended. I built it cheap with lumberyard culls and salvaged barn roofing. It does the job. We hand wood through the window in the background and put it in my Yeoman Furniture Wood Box. By the way, CLICK HERE to see the remarkable contrast between the above west side of my house, and the east side.

Underneath the woodshed is a steaming evaporator, which I’ll discuss in more detail in the next essay of this series. For now, I’d like to draw your attention to the big white 55-gallon plastic barrel. That is our sap collection tank. Here is another view:


The 55-gallon barrel is up off the ground so we can gravity-feed sap down into the evaporator. Please note that the barrel is up on top of a homemade Whizbang Garden Cart (an essential homestead tool if there ever was one).

You will also notice in the picture that our collecting buckets are upended over upright poles. That is how we store them to keep them off the ground and clean until the next time we need them.

We fill the barrel by dumping buckets of sap into the top, as shown in this next picture.


We don’t use any electric pumps to get the sap up into the barrel. Man and boy power does the job.

You can see a cloth is over the top of the barrel. That is a piece of sheer nylon curtain material that Marlene bought at a garage sale. It makes a very strong and effective filter and has multiple uses around the homestead. A filter is needed to separate bits of bark and bugs and such from the sap. Here’s another view showing the makeshift filter:


The filter is held in place with clothespins. After dumping our collected sap in the top, I take the clothespins and fabric off and put the lid on. I then clip the material to the roof of the wood shed and let is air dry until next time. In addition to filtering out bugs and bark, the filter will separate any slushy ice that was collected...


When sap partially freezes, the ice has almost no sugar content. So the ice is thrown away and the remaining sap has a higher concentration of sugar. A little icing is good because it results in less boiling time. Ice can form in the holding tank too, as seen in this next picture.


When the barrel ices up like that, it clogs the outlet drain in the bottom, and we have to dip the sap out of the top to get the boil started. As the evaporator heats up, it will thaw the bottom drain. Icing in the barrel makes more work, but I don’t mind because all that ice is water that doesn’t have to be boiled away. When the barrel is empty, I just tip it upside down and knock out the ice.

This next picture shows the water valve that I put on the bottom of the sap barrel.


We store sap until we get most of a barrel. If the weather is cold, the sap will keep for several days. In warmer weather it can go bad after a couple days. It is best to keep the collection tank out of the sun so the sap keeps a well as possible.

That’s the story on collecting maple sap.

In my next essay I will discuss our evaporator and how we boil the maple sap down into syrup.

Stay tuned.....

Click here to go on to Backyard Sugarin' Part 4: Boiling Sap
CLICK HERE to go back to Part 1 of this Backyard Sugarin' series.

Click Here to check out the Wood family's "Sap to Syrup" DVD


Matthew said...

Thanks for this series--another good one packed with valuable information. We've got about four good sized and one *huge* maple (about 4 feet in diameter. Unfortunately we lost its twin across the driveway.) in our yard, and have tossed around the idea of tapping them, but never have. Perhaps next year we will think about it more seriously, since we will be armed a tutorial of how to do it!

I received my Whizbang order about a week ago (thanks for the prompt shipping--seems like some places it's weeks before the order is even processed) and I can hardly wait to start in on the garden cart...although perhaps I need to work on the plucker first, since the birds will be ready to butcher the end of May (and I'd better plan on many interruptions...) :-) I'm still having a hard time finding a barrel--they seem to be a scarce commodity around here.

Thanks again for all of the wonderful info,


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog. Thanks. Someone asked earlier if you could tap trees in the Midwest. We live in Central Il and our family went to a park near Springfield, IL where they demonstrated the whole process. It looks exactly like what you all do. I guess all you need is the trees, a little motivation and a few simple tools! We only have two maples on our small city lot, so we aren't sugarin' yet. However, should God get us to a larger piece of land--we will be on the lookout for maples just for this purpose!


Michael Bunker said...

Herrick, I prefer the West side of your house.

Michael Bunker

Anonymous said...

I scanned back through your essays and can't seem to find the answer to "Can you put more than one tap in a tree?" I live in Kansas and we are not fortunate enough to have a lot of maple trees. Since I have a limited amount, could put a couple taps per tree? I really enjoy your blog!

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Matthew-
Thanks for your nice essay about getting the Whizbang Plucker parts I sent you. I think that is a first. I got my barrels (sap storage & for the plucker) for free from a juice factory that's about an hour from my home. It had apple juice from South America in it. Do you have a juice factory somewhere near you?

Nice of you to post. It was a lot of years between when I wanted to make maple syrup and when I actually was able to. There is a time and a season for everything.

Well, thanks. The whole house was that way for a lot of years. Then I started thinking that if I want to buy some acreage, I should really get things looking more saleable. The nice thing about tarpaper for siding is that the house doesn't look like it's worth much to the tax assessor.

Here's what Rink Mann says about it in his Backyard Sugarin' book: "You are not supposed to tap a tree under 10" in diameter, but you can put two traps in a tree over 18" in diameter and three that's over, say, 28". On a real big old maple you can hang even more buckets, but when I see some stately old maple festooned with five or six buckets it makes me think someone's bleeding it to death."

Anonymous said...

la la la

Anonymous said...


This is a very inspirational series. One thing you might consider given your collecting methods would be to make a few shoulder yokes. I think they would fit well with your philosophy. Tim Springston

Jet Set said...

For the record if you have a flexible tape measure like a sewing tape measure 10" is about 31.5" circumference followed by 56.5" and 88"