New to woodworking? Want some inexpensive wood for a project and don’t know whether to choose poplar or pine? There is a difference in density, texture, and stiffness between the two, so your choice depends on what you want to make.
Pine is beautiful, easy to work, and takes finishes better than poplar. Poplar is easy to work but harder than soft pine, making it a better choice for weight-bearing structures. Hard pine is more robust than poplar but also more expensive. Both take glue, nails, and screws without splitting.
The hardness of wood is indicated with the Janka scale. It was developed by Gabriel Janka to measure a wood’s resistance to wear and denting. The Janka hardness rating for pine is 420, while the Janka hardness rating for poplar is 540, which means poplar is generally harder, but there are hard pines that rate higher.
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Poplar vs Pine: Which One To Choose?
From a woodworking perspective, poplar and pine have a lot in common. Despite the fact poplar is technically a hardwood, they’re both relatively soft woods that are easy to work with. They’re also inexpensive and stain poorly.
Poplar usually has two different color strains, and absorbs stain differently in each section, leading to unattractive results.
Pine also stains poorly, but in a different way. Instead of having two different color strains, it absorbs stain unevenly, leading to blotches on the wood.
I prefer working with pine, because there are actually a number of things you can do to close the wood pores and help the pine stain evenly. I discuss them more here.
You can’t do much to fix poplar’s staining problems.
Additionally, pine is usually cheaper than poplar, especially if you’re at a big box store like Home Depot. You can get nicer pine for about the same price as low-grade poplar, resulting in a better project.
As a result, I usually go with pine, unless I’m building a project where that’s not available. I use poplar dowel rods frequently (like in this Piklar Triangle,) since those don’t come in pine!
And personally, once you figure out how to stain pine, I think it looks pretty good! This coffee table top is made of pine, and it’s one of my favorite projects!
Poplar Wood: The Details
Poplar is classed as a hardwood. Hardwoods are denser and typically come from deciduous trees that grow slowly, while softwood comes from conifers that grow faster.
In the hardwood category, some woods are softer than others, and poplar is one of them. Although it’s a hardwood, it is easier to work than many other types of hardwood and is similar to pine.
Poplar is not a particularly decorative wood and is used as a substitute for aspen, cottonwood, and magnolia in many applications. The heartwood comes in different colors – black, dark green, or light brown. The color doesn’t affect its workability, but you can sometimes order a specific color from a lumber company.
Poplar is relatively soft and easy to work, even though it’s a hardwood. However, because it is less dense than other hardwoods, there may be fuzziness on edges and surfaces when it’s sanded or shaped. Therefore, woodworking tools have to be extremely sharp to avoid tearing it, and you may need to drill it at a slower speed than other, denser wood.
It takes screws and nails without splitting and glues well but is usually painted over. Poplar wood does not absorb staining uniformly across its surface, which is why paint is usually the best finish. If you want it to stain evenly, you need to use a few coats of a pre-stain wood conditioner.
This said it is often used to make kitchen cabinets and then stained to look like oak or cherry. Poplar is less likely to dent than pine but bear in mind that some pine woods are harder than poplar. Soft pine shelving tends to sag more than poplar because it is not as stiff.
Poplar needs to be sanded several times using finer and finer sandpaper as the coarser grits leave sanding marks that must be removed for a smooth appearance. Poplar wood has a higher bending strength and compressive strength than soft pine, which is preferable when making furniture.
You can also use a lathe to make bowls, plates, and vases out of it, and it is popular for hand carving.
Pine: The Details
Pine is classed as a softwood, but there are many pine varieties, and not all of them are equal in strength and density. The soft pines are difficult to distinguish from each other. The three common ones are Eastern White Pine, Western White Pine, and Sugar Pine.
Sugar Pine is the coarsest of the three, while Eastern White Pine is the finest. Western White Pine is in the middle of the other two texture-wise. They are all usually sold interchangeably.
The soft pines are used for veneers, construction crates, matches, boxes, and carving. Eastern White Pine is also used for boatbuilding. Sugar Pine is considerably weaker than southern yellow pine species and is used to make piano keys.
The primary hard pine species of southern yellow pine are the Loblolly Pine, Slash Pine, Longleaf Pine, and Shortleaf Pine and have uneven grains. These pines are denser than the soft pines and have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Although not as hard, Shortleaf Pine is similar in strength to Red Oak.
Caribbean Pine has the same strength as the four main species of southern yellow pine, although it is not in the same group.
Hard pines are used for roof trusses, subflooring, poles, bridges, beams, and piles. Caribbean Pine is also used for flooring, veneer, and plywood. The hard pines have a Janka rating of between 690 and 870, so they are harder than poplar but also more expensive.
Western yellow pines fall between the soft pines and the hard pines on the hardness scale. The two main species are the Lodgepole Pine and the Ponderosa Pine and are sold interchangeably. They are commonly used in crates, cabinets, construction, or as veneer interior trim and plywood.
Certain pine woods leak resins that can clog up cutting edges occasionally. Some people are allergic to the resins, making working with pine more problematic for them. However, pine is popular because it is highly workable, durable, and looks attractive.
It is unnecessary to pre-drill holes for screws and nails and is easy on saw blades. If you want to use pine outdoors, it is best to buy pressure-treated pine. Untreated pine will warp, discolor and crack in the sun and also deteriorates when exposed to moisture.
Pine is easy to work by hand or using power tools. It takes finishes and glues well and is often used for decorative purposes. It is durable and resistant to swelling and splitting. Hard pine is often more attractive than soft pine and is still workable.
Hard pine can be used for outdoor projects and is not as susceptible to rot and water damage as soft pine. The hard pines also tend to have fewer knots and defects. Pine takes finishes, oils, and stains easily and is usually very affordable. Not all pine wood is suitable for making furniture, so do your research before buying.