Tiger maple, a specialty wood noted for its unusual stripes or lines of its grains, is also known as flame maple, fiddleback maple and curly maple. Tiger maple is cut from red maple (Acer rubrum) so-called because of its brilliant red foliage in the autumn. The red maple, also called soft maple, is a deciduous tree widespread in the north and northeastern U.S. and southern Canada; its wood is not really soft; it is harder than cherry and most other hardwoods.
The stripes of the wood run perpendicular to the grain, resembling the stripes on a tiger. These stripes look like flames to many people who call it flame maple. So many handsome violins, cellos, guitars and other instruments have been made with maple showing these distinctive stripes that it is also called fiddlehead maple. Most people in the U.S. think of fiddleback maple and curly maple as synonyms, although they are different. Curly maple has tiny knots running along the grains of its wood.
The repeated parallel, wavy lines of the stripes on tiger maple give the appearance of undulations. Tiger maple exhibits an usual visual phenomenon, known as "chatoyancy" in gemstones, in which a change of angle makes the dark stripes look light and the light stripes look dark. Botanists and scientists have yet to determine the reason for why red maple grows these exotic grains.
The center of the tree is the most valuable part of cherry, walnut and other hardwoods. The red maple has brown heartwood and greyish white sapwood that produces tiger stripes, making it the most desirable part of the red maple. Figured wood, the term for maple sapwood that has tiger stripes, appears only rarely, but there are more red maple trees than any other species of maple.
The tiger or flame effect is in the grain of the wood, not the finish, although 18th-century makers of furniture, cabinets and violins scraped the finish by hand to accentuate the pattern. Tiger maple that is just sanded appears lifeless and flat. Antique furniture finished with tiger maple is highly prized. Companies that make reproductions of antique furniture employ the same technique.
Tiger maple is usually sold by specialty dealers who buy it as culls or defects from mainstream lumber companies. Working with tiger maples requires skilled cabinet makers, and mainstream companies prefer to cut and cure larger volumes of wood produced by workers with lesser skills.