Poplar vs Oak: Which Is Better For Your Project?

Poplar and oak are both hardwoods, but that’s where the similarities end. The color of poplar is considerably lighter than oak and usually has green and yellow streaks running through it. Oak has a distinctive grain with dark streaks of black and brown, while poplar’s grain is much less noticeable.

Poplar is soft hardwood with a hardness roughly half that of oak. It swells when wet and is highly workable but dents and scratches easily. White oak is water and insect-resistant, while red and white oak are more durable, aesthetically pleasing, and resistant to wear. Oak is more expensive.

Oak is heavier and denser than poplar, with a gorgeous grain. It is harder to work than poplar but is of superior quality, and objects made from it are far more durable. Oak is not necessarily hard to work, there are other far denser woods than oak, but it is not nearly as soft as poplar.

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Despite its name, poplar does not belong to the poplar family and is usually called tulipwood in Europe. It is a soft hardwood. One of the main reasons it is so intensively cultivated is because it’s used to make plywood panels.

Poplar that isn’t suitable for plywood goes into particleboard, packaging, and wood pulp. Plywood is heavily used in the furniture sector, where its value lies in its relatively low density.

Poplar is not really a decorative wood unless painted, stained, or otherwise treated to improve its appearance. It is usually painted because it tends to stain unevenly.

It’s classed as utility wood, meaning it is commonly used to manufacture purely for its functional value in pallets, plywood, paper, crates, and picture frames.

Utility woods don’t have much aesthetic appeal and are valued primarily for functionality and lower price. Poplar is widely used in the United States by the construction industry and in furniture frames to support upholstery. It can be used to make cabinets, shelves, wooden beds, toys, and bookshelves.

Poplar is generally used in low-quality products with a shorter lifespan. Poplar trees are fast-growing, providing a ready supply of wood fiber.

Interestingly scientists have been looking at their use in phyto-remediation to clean contaminants from groundwater and soil because of their deep roots and rapid growth.


Oak is used to make flooring, cabinets, and furniture. It comes in many varieties, for instance, red oak, white oak, bur oak, black oak, California black oak, English oak, laurel oak, and chestnut oak.

There are five hundred different types of oak trees worldwide, all belonging to the Quercus family.

The New World oaks are divided into two basic categories – red oak and white oak. They have different qualities and characteristics.

Unlike the red oaks, the white oaks are rot-resistant, so white oak is preferred for boat building and exterior projects.

There are several oaks in both red and white oak categories. The ray fleck pattern of quartersawn red oak is not as prized as that of white oak as it is smaller and of a lower caliber. Due to its ray fleck pattern, white oak is sometimes referred to as ‘tiger oak’ in the trade.

Red oak is usually light brown with a slightly reddish tint, while white oak is the same but with an olive tint. However, it can be difficult for any but the most practiced eye to distinguish between them because of the variations in coloring between individual pieces of wood within the same group.

White oak is commonly used in cooperage for making staves for whisky barrels because it doesn’t leak. It is also used to make flooring, furniture, and cabinets.

The main disadvantages of red and white oak are that they are much harder and heavier than poplar and may be less suitable for intricate wood carving.

Workability Of Poplar

Poplar, being much softer and more flexible than oak, is highly workable. It is relatively stable and takes paint and stains well, but you will need to sand it several times between stainings to give it a more even appearance. It is as workable as pine wood. It takes nails, screws, and glues well.

Poplar is a popular choice for woodworkers as it is inexpensive. However, it dents easily and has a Janka hardness scale of only 540.

Some people say it is too soft for making cabinets and needs more primer and paint than other woods because it soaks them up too quickly.

If you want your project to have decorative value, you should choose red oak over poplar.

Although it is easy to cut, sanding and finishing take more work because the wood fuzzes up during sanding. You need to sand a few times, starting with eighty grit and working up to four hundred grit to remove the fuzziness.

Workability Of Oak

Red Oak

Red oak can be worked with machines or hand tools, although it is significantly harder than poplar, so you may have to be patient.

When making my oak butcherblock countertops, I found that my old table saw was pretty slow at cutting the wood. I upgraded my saw mid-project (I cut off my thumb… hello new Sawstop) and the new saw cut the oak like butter.

Completed butcherblock countertops

When wet, oak can react with iron which causes discoloration and staining. Therefore, galvanized nails should be used instead of iron nails.

Red Oak is also known for taking stains, glue, and finishes nicely. The grain is straight, uneven, and coarse, and the open pores are large.

It’s also a little cheaper than white oak, and is robust, good-looking, and reasonably priced, providing excellent value to those wanting to make furniture and cabinets.

Red oak is not particularly resistant to insects and may become stained or discolored when exposed to water. It has a Janka hardness of 1,220. Unlike white oak, it warps and fades if exposed to the elements.

It’s also is highly workable and won’t dent or scratch easily, but it is more susceptible to denting than white oak. It is easy to sand, has a distinctive appearance, and stains well. Its large pores make it unsuitable for outdoor projects as they can absorb water.

Red oak is lovely, so it has aesthetic as well as functional value. For hand-carving and chisel work, red oak is better than white oak as it is softer.

White Oak

The heartwood of white oak is medium to light brown with an olive cast. The sapwood is paler than the heartwood. White oak can be worked with hand or machine tools and is highly durable.

It also reacts with iron when wet, which leads to discoloration and staining, so don’t use iron nails and screws.

Like Red Oak, White Oak also takes stains, glue, and finishes nicely. It’s readily available, although more expensive than red oak. It has a Janka hardness of 1350, so it is stronger than red oak and more resistant to wear.

White oak, being harder than red oak, takes more effort to work. However, its pores are plugged, so it is far more resistant to water than red oak. It takes screws and nails well, but you will have to pre-bore the holes.

White oak’s grain patterns make it more desirable than red oak, but it is more brittle. It splinters more readily and can shatter if a saw blade is turning too fast. White oak is more valuable than poplar and red oak.

Final Thoughts

Oak is more durable, denser, and attractive than poplar, but also more expensive. When using oak in a project, you want to exploit the wood’s natural beauty and lovely grain, so it shouldn’t be painted. Poplar is best painted, but it is easier to work, can be stained to resemble other, better quality woods, and is widely available.

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