Poplar: High-Quality Wood or Junk?

Woodworking is a gratifying hobby that can be used to generate an income. Choice, cost, and availability of wood are issues faced by each woodworker; learning to judge whether a specific wood, like poplar, is a high-quality wood is an essential skill every woodworker needs to master.

Poplar is not a high-quality wood, although its straight grain and uniform texture enable high-quality finishes. Poplar wood scores on the low end of the hardwoods but retains characteristics that make it closer to softwoods, making it easier to work. Poplar is one of the most flexible woods.

One of the first design aspects a woodworker needs to decide on before starting a project is what type of wood to use.

High-quality woods are best suited to custom projects or legacy furniture, whereas low-quality woods are the wood of choice for mass-produced, experimental, or cheap projects. Is poplar a high-quality wood suitable for high-end projects, or is it best used for low-cost, lower-quality work?

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Is Poplar A High-Quality Wood?

High quality is probably not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about poplar.

Poplar has a multi-colored grain pattern that consists of a significant amount of green.

This makes it harder to stain nicely, since the two colors will reflect the stain differently, in a way that is usually not considered desireable.

Additionally, it is prone to tearing, denting and scratching, and therefore not desirable building material for high-quality furniture.

However, poplar is one of the nicest and easiest materials for new woodworkers to hone their skills and is well suited for domestic woodworking appliances.

It is the cheapest hardwood available, and therefore a great wood to practice on.

Poplar also takes paint nicely, giving it another reason to shine as a beginning woodworker’s friend.

Poplar dowel rod on wood background.

I frequently use Poplar dowel rods, since they’re cheaper than oak, and take paint so well! This Pikler Triangle project is a great example.

The Ease of Use of Poplar

Hardwoods and softwoods do not get their classification from the “hardness” of the wood. The hardness classification is from the characteristics of the tree from which they are derived rather than the density of the wood, i.e., some softwoods are harder than certain hardwoods. Poplar is classified as a hardwood.

Poplar is often overshadowed by its more famous cousins: Pine and Oak. Pine is the most commonly used softwood as it is cheap and easy to work with; many woodworkers and manufacturers of mid-range furniture exclusively use Pine.

It’s the least expensive wood available that allows manufacturer to claim the product is 100% wood.

Oak, on the other hand, has long been used for high-end projects and is still favored due to the finishes that can be achieved and excellent durability.

It’s much harder than poplar, and is more difficult to work with because of that.

The Janka scale rates the “hardness “of woods. The Janka measurement involves placing a circular steel ball with a diameter of 0.444-inches and placing a hydraulic jack on the ball before measuring the force required to press the ball into the wood.

The Janka scale of poplar is 480. Poplar is one of the softer hardwoods currently available; it is only slightly harder than soft Pine, rated at 384. In comparison, the Brazilian walnut woods have a rating of 3684. Yellow Cedar has a score of 580, making it a comparable wood to poplar.

The Janka score can be increased by drying the wood properly, e.g., wet poplar is softer than dry poplar.

Dependent on the species, poplar has a bending strength of 10100 psi which is strong enough to be used as lumber, siding, and flooring.

What Are The Best Usages Of Poplar?

Poplar has an incredibly versatile range of uses, including:

  1. Paper
  2. Plywood
  3. Cardboard
  4. Pallets
  5. The core inside snowboards
  6. Chopsticks
  7. Toothpicks
  8. The inside structures of guitars and drums.

But as a woodworker, it’s best used on projects you plan to paint. Poplar is smooth and takes paint well.

Additionally, because poplar is a hardwood, it resists warping and shrinking more than softwoods do, making it a more stable material for your project.

It is more expensive than pine and other softwood options, however for a project that requires precision, the stability of the wood is probably a worthwhile tradeoff.

Poplar is an excellent option to consider when making cabinets, toys, or bespoke furniture projects.

Advantages of Poplar Wood

The harder the wood, the greater the wood’s density. The higher the hardness and density, the greater the strength. The downside of this is that the harder the wood, the harder it is to cut.

Thankfully, although poplar is a hardwood, it’s a relatively soft hardwood, so it’s still pretty easy to work with.

Additional benefits of poplar wood include:

  1. Price. Poplar is one of the least expensive hardwoods, making a good choice for new woodworkers who are just starting out working with hardwoods.
  2. It is easier to work on lathes, routers, and saws.
  3. Due to its fine pores, poplar is easy to paint and results in an easily obtained, pleasing finish; it is regularly used for painted furniture.
  4. Although it does dent, it’s a strong wood that can withstand high impact forces.
  5. From a environmental perspective, poplar trees are fast-growing and easily replaced. As a result poplar wood is more renewable than other types.
  6. It retains its shape better than softwood, so it is handy for projects that require stability and are harmed from significant wood movement.

Disadvantages Of Poplar

Poplar is a great wood, but because it’s relatively soft, it dents and tears easily.

That means the finished project is a bit more fragile than projects made with harder woods, and more care needs to be taken during the cutting stage to reduce tear out. I have a whole post on reducing tearout here, if you’re looking for strategies!

Additionally, poplar stains poorly. It has a unique blend of colors that is usually not considered attractive, and isn’t improved with stain.

That means it’s not a good option for replicating more expensive woods.

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