Backyard Sugaring: Collect Maple Sap with Five-Gallon Buckets

A small-scale maple sugaring operation like ours—basically, backyard maple sugaring—doesn’t use vacuum pressure to collect maple sap. Good old-fashioned gravity is our method of choice. There’s two methods to consider when deciding how you want to collect sap from your maple trees. First, there’s the picture postcard method: tap a tree and hang a galvanized metal sap bucket. Half of our taps use this method.

The rest of our taps go the second route, which, though admittedly lacking in nostalgic yesteryear appearance, is cheaper and arguably more efficient in terms of sap collection: collecting sap in a food-grade five-gallon bucket, which serves as a hub for several trees in proximity. Using a five-gallon bucket to collect sap is the best way when you have more than one tree close together, or a single tree with multiple trunks to tap. Here’s all the equipment you need for a cheap and easy backyard maple sugaring operation.

The spiles, or taps themselves

These are what you tap into the holes you drill in the maple trees (or birch trees, which we also tapped last year). The long smooth end goes in the tree, and the drop line (plastic tubing) fits over the ribs of the shorter end. The best bang for your buck is probably getting the 25-pack for $28. But if you don’t want to get in over your head and have 250 gallons of maple sap to process, you can get a 10-pack for $17.

A note on size of the spiles: 7/16″ is the more traditional size, but nowadays 5/16″ spiles are considered better for the tree—i.e., they do less damage year over year. There are also 3/16″ taps out there, but we’ve read the tradeoff with productivity is too big with those. 5/16″ spiles are a good middle ground.

The maple tap lines, tubing, or drop lines

We recommend buying the drop lines for your sugaring setup separately, so that you have a sizable length you can cut from depending on your own needs (the distance between your trees). There are spile-plus-drop-line kits out there, but the lines come pre-cut at a few feet long, which basically assumes you’re only feeding one tree into each five-gallon bucket, which you set at the base of each tree.

The reality is that you might set your bucket at the base of one tapped maple, which then only needs two feet of plastic tubing. But then you have another sugar maple 10 feet away, and another that’s seven feet away, and you want them all to feed into the same bucket. You want to be able to cut your tubing to the specific lengths you need.

So, do yourself a little estimation of your own needs and grab either:

It’s extremely likely you want 100 feet if you’re doing more than two or three taps. Or honestly, if you’re in the New England area, within an hour and a half of Bascom Maple, you should just drive there. It’s worth the gas money for better prices, and the size of the place is impressive, which makes the visit a really amazing experience. (And they were featured in the nonfiction book The Sugar Season.)

The five-gallon bucket

I’m not a chemist, but I imagine you would maybe be fine if you didn’t get food grade five gallon buckets. Of course, disclaimer then: I guarantee nothing and it’s probably not worth the risk. Make the upgrade to food-grade (and don’t forget the lids):

Tools for the setup

This one’s easy:

  1. A drill with a 5/16″ wood bit (battery powered, since you’re going to be walking around)
  2. Hacksaw to cut your tubing to length
  3. Mallet or hammer to tap in the plastic spiles
How to set up your backyard five-gallon bucket sugaring operation

This one is also easy:

  1. Identify your sugar maples
  2. Pick location for your bucket/sap hub to make best use of your available tubing, and keeping in mind that you’re using gravity to feed the sap through the line to the bucket (i.e., the bucket needs to be below the elevation of each tap hole)
  3. Determine how many taps will feed to each bucket
  4. Drill the appropriate number of holes in the bucket lids
  5. Cut your tubing to the lengths necessary to reach from taps to bucket
  6. Insert the ribbed ends of the spiles into the tubing
  7. Drill a hole in each tree, angled slightly upward
  8. Tap the spiles into the maples
  9. Push the tubing through the holes in the bucket lids
  10. Monitor your buckets daily—or on good days, multiple times each day!

Once you’ve collected the sap, you’ll want to boil it, right? Here’s how we built a cheap maple syrup evaporator for less than $50.

Let us know if you have questions or if we missed something! thatyurt (at) gmail (dot) com