What To Know About Poplar Wood
Wondering what you should know about poplar wood before using it for a woodworking project? A pro woodworker shares his insights.
Poplar is one of the workhorse materials of the modern woodshop. Readily available, relatively inexpensive and dimensionally stable, it’s used in everything from paint-grade cabinetry to high-end furniture. It works beautifully with hand tools, machines easily and finishes well.
We’ll walk you through everything you need to know about poplar so you can use it confidently in your next woodworking project.
What is Poplar Wood?
Poplar wood is a hardwood that comes from the tulip poplar. Poplar wood generally has light brown to creamy yellow heartwood. The sapwood is only slightly paler in color and often has no substantial differentiation from the heartwood. It’s lightweight and easy to work with, making it a great choice for interior furniture components like web frames and drawer sides.
Types of Poplar Wood
Variations of poplar exist around the world. Most are difficult to come by in the U.S., so we will focus on the two types of poplar wood readily available here.
Tulip poplar: Sometimes referred to as “yellow poplar,” this is notable for its workability and availability. The poplar tree grows large and fast, so it’s easy to find large, straight, knot-free boards even at your local big box store. As always, we recommend letting your lumber acclimate to your shop environment for a few days or weeks before working. But poplar is reasonably stable and will do well in many environments. It’s softer than most other American hardwoods, however, with a Janka rating of 540 pounds-force (lbf). The Janka hardness rating comes from a test that measures the density of wood species. For context, cherry has a Janka rating of 995 lbf and White Oak comes in at 1,360 lbf.
Rainbow poplar: You may occasionally see a board marked as “rainbow poplar.” That means it’s been mineral stained. This may occur due to high mineral levels in the soil where the tree grew. The result is a beautiful array of greens, browns, purples and reds throughout the wood. While beautiful when freshly milled, poplar is photo-reactive and has a tendency to brown quickly, so that lovely smattering of rainbow colors will fade a dull brown within a year. It’s one of Mother Mature’s crueler jokes on the beauty-seeking woodworker.
The Pros and Cons of Poplar Wood
Availability: Poplar is widely available throughout the U.S. and can be purchased at almost any big box store for a quick weekend project.
Workability: If you enjoy hand-tool woodworking, poplar is a joy to work with. Soft and often straight-grained, it planes well and cutting wood joinery in poplar is a delight.
Finishing: Poplar takes a clear coat well. It is also easy to paint, making it excellent for those among us who love to explore color.
- Fading colors. While poplar sometimes starts out with beautiful greens and purples, it fades to a medium brown within months.
- Durability. Though a hardwood, poplar is on the softer end of the spectrum. It can dent or scratch easily, making it undesirable for high-wear items.
What Is Poplar Wood Used For?
Poplar is used in a wide variety of applications, including:
Furniture: Due to its stability, light weight and low cost, poplar is often used for internal components in production furniture like drawers, sofa frames and cabinet parts.
House trim: High-end house trim and millwork often employs poplar because it is more durable than pine wood and easier to find without knots.
Casework: Many large case pieces, such as a chest of drawers or an armoire, utilize poplar for internal components to help keep cost and weight down.
Poplar Wood Cost and Purchasing
Poplar wood is cheaper than domestic hardwoods like cherry or walnut. That, and its availability, make it an excellent choice for beginner to intermediate woodworkers.
Expect to pay from $3.50 to $10 per board foot, depending on board width and whether it’s pre-surfaced or in the rough. For comparison, most other furniture-grade domestic hardwoods will cost from $5 to $15 per board foot.