Many people complain about things not being made as good as they were years ago. Furniture needs to be replaced every couple of years, depending on the wear-and-tear. This does have some truth to it. My grandparents kept the same dining room table through their entire marriage, while I had to replace my table twice in just the last decade. See, mine was made of cheaper woods and materials, like plywood and poplar or whitewood.
The reason poplar is considered a cheaper material is for a few reasons. First, it is readily available throughout the country (though it grows mostly in the East). Second, poplar is a softer wood, so it is easier for carpenters and factories to work with. This makes poplar a very popular choice when making furniture and other wooden items.
But how hard is poplar? And why is it so much easier to get ahold of? Why is it an excellent choice for DIYers to use? Most importantly, will it make your projects look cheap in the end?
What Is Poplar?
Poplar trees are a bit of a misnomer because it is more than just a tree. In the lumber industry, poplar wood actually refers to the genus Populus, which includes several trees, including aspens, cottonwoods, and poplars. The smell of the trees is often similar to balsam trees (the balsam poplar also fits into this genus)- you know, that wonderful Christmas smell. The bark is typically white or gray with heart-shaped leaves. Most people recognize the leaves because of the silvery underside, which shimmers in the breeze.
Why Is Poplar Commonly Used?
I mentioned that poplar is all over and easily accessible. This is primarily because of the characteristics of the seeds. These seeds can be recognized every year as they float through the air to far-off locations (hello, allergies). Cotton-like threads sprout from the seeds, allowing the air to carry them far. The cotton-like threads also get easily tangled in things, helping it to travel further on clothing, fur, and other items. It also latches onto grass and bushes so that it can eventually fall to the ground and sprout.
Poplar is found in deciduous areas, where the trees tend to grow very rapidly. While it doesn’t grow as quickly as bamboo (which is a renewable resource), it does grow quickly, so it is great to use in projects. These trees are also known to grow very tall (up to 150 feet) and reach maturity in about 12 years. This is one reason that Christmas trees are deciduous- they grow fairly quickly given the time they are in the ground.
The Janka Scale
For those of you who really want to understand how hard poplar wood is, you should look to the Janka scale. The Janka scale is used throughout the construction industry to explain the durability and hardness of different woods. Before I said that poplar is a softwood. Most resources will describe poplar as a hardwood. So, what gives?
Poplar is a softwood compared to most other woods. It is in a grouping of other softwoods, like pine. However, pine is such a softwood that poplar is considered a hardwood when comparing the two. The higher the Janka number, the harder the wood.
For reference, Brazilian cherry tops the Janka scale at 2,350. Red oak, a popular choice for building high-end cabinetry, has a Janka number of 1,290. Eastern white pine nears the bottom at 380. Poplar, on the other hand, falls about 540 on the Janka scale. As you can see, poplar is definitely on the lower end of the hardness scale.
Why Is It a Good Choice?
Despite its softness, poplar is actually an excellent choice for many projects. Besides its availability (which drives costs down), it is easy to use when building. It holds stain and paint very well, and can be cut relatively easily. Its softness allows carpenters to make rounded cuts and use smaller nails and screws. In fact, many carpenters enjoy using the lathe for intricate details on poplar.
Its affordability also makes it an excellent choice for DIYers. Why? Well, inexperience, of course. Most DIYers are not professionals, which means that there will likely be many periods of trial and error. In fact, one downfall for poplar is that it easily splinters when it is cut incorrectly.
Be sure that your tools are in peak condition, and always use the correct tools when building- it just makes the job so much easier. But when making mistakes, you’ll want to be cost conscience about it.
Poplar is also an excellent choice when compared to pine because it typically does not have the knots that pine wood does. It is a smoother wood, requiring only a fine-grit sanding to get your desired outcome. A heavy grit will simply cause scarring in the wood. However, because it is softwood, it will take screws and nails without splitting as some hardwoods might.
How To Finish Poplar
There is a lot of controversies when discussing the finished product of wood projects. Many people prefer the natural beauty of wood and find it an outright sin to paint over. Poplar, however, is one of the woods that you should feel very comfortable painting over.
As a cheaper wood, it has some deficiencies that harder woods do not. One is that it tends to have a green hue, so when stained, it will likely change the look of the stain from what you want. Also, the tight grain of the wood doesn’t provide the character and grain that other woods will.
That being said, you can stain and finish poplar projects if you desire. To do this, simply stain the poplar as you would any wood. You’ll want to sand it down with high grit sandpaper to smooth out any rough edges. Consider using a gel stain that also includes a wood conditioner to keep your project lasting longer.
Some DIYers even suggest staining poplar the color of more expensive wood to give the finished product a high-end look, such as mahogany or cherry. After you’ve allowed the stain to dry, use polyurethane to seal the wood to give it that beautiful glossy finish.
If you decide you want to paint the poplar- which is a common, moral choice- you must first decide what type of paint to use. Depending on what the project is, you’ll decide between latex and oil-based paint.
Latex is the cheaper of the two, but it does not hold up as well as oil-based paints for daily abuse.
Oil paints will have a harder, glossier finish that will also be much more durable. Unfortunately, it also comes with high VOC gases, so be prepared to paint outdoors if possible. First, sand down the project with fine-grit paper to scratch up the surface. Follow the grain so that the scratches will not be visible after painting. By sanding it down first, the paint and primer will adhere to the wood better.
In either case- painting or staining- poplar projects can be beautiful items in your home that look professionally done. However, keep in mind that even finished poplar projects are not ideal for most outdoor applications.