Late February through mid March is sugaring season in Western Pennsylvania. I may live on the only one acre in the entire township that does not have a single maple tree. Instead, I tapped several trees near my parent’s house. I used plastic tubing and brass compression fittings. I think as much sap dripped onto the ground as into my gallon water cooler bottles.
During the entire season, I made about a gallon of syrup but turned approximately half of that into maple sugar candy. To make syrup from sap, you boil, and boil, and boil. The reduction is 40:1. Last year I made syrup on the kitchen stove in an aluminum foil turkey roasting pan. It was a bad idea — 39 gallons of water boiled into my house.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the process plus the whole family loved the results. So this year I tried to do a better job of planning. First order of business was to find an evaporator (fancy name for a pan) that would hold up and be the right size. Evaporation is a function of surface area so you want a shallow pan that is as big as possible. Practically speaking you can let the sap boil off until it’s about 1″ deep (1/2″ if you are very careful). After that it can scorch quickly. If your pan requires 10 gallons of sap to cover the pan 1″ deep but you only process batches of 10 gallons, then you have a problem. I figured that I would collect during the week and boil on the weekend. Based on last year’s experience, I knew that I would have between 10 gallons and 30 gallons of sap on any given weekend.
I decided that a pan 6″ deep and 12″ X 24″ would be ideal. A gallon of liquid is 231 cubic inches and my pan would be 288 square inches which works out to 1.25 gallons per inch or 7.5 gallons completely full. My approach is to boil 80% to 90% of the way outside, then finish the syrup on the stove where I have much better control over the temperature. While searching for stainless steel sheet stock on ebay, I found a company that specializes in stainless fabrication of kitchens. They sell scrap pieces of stainless steel sheet and even noted that they would fabricate. I called them and they built my pan from 18 gauage 304 stainless steel for $110.
Now that I knew the dimensions of my pan, I could plan the firebox to place it upon. I didn’t want to just have an open flame as I figured too much ash would get into the sap. I also wanted better efficiency. I’m not sure I have a recommendation on how to go about this. In my case, I am very fortunate. My dad is an excellent welder. He welded a steel box 12″ x 12″ X 24″ that sits on a grate. The grate in turn sits on a pair of rails with a pan underneath to catch coals. There’s a 4″ diameter opening on the rear to accommodate a stove pipe.
I wanted to tap more trees this year, so I ordered actual 7/16″ taps from www.themapleguys.com. I also I ordered a thermometer, a hydrometer and a stainless steel tube for use with the hydrometer. In mid February we had a warm spell and I got the sugaring bug. I tapped the three trees that I tapped last year, plus 4 additional large black / sugar maples.
I spent several weekends standing out in the cold, boiling down sap into syrup. One Saturday in particular it was bitterly cold. It takes a lot of wood to boil down the sap. It takes more when it is bitterly cold.