My grandfather was a carpenter. Every Christmas, he would make each family a wooden item for the home. My favorite was the onion and potato bin with an extra drawer for garlic. He made a lot of fun and different things you would only see made out of wood in a log cabin: trash cans, toilet paper holders, CD racks (yes, I’m dating myself a bit), even lamps. That doesn’t even include the massive dining room tables, side tables, and shelves a plenty he built for us and for clients.
The thing is that he always used a good quality oak to build, so he wanted to keep it natural by staining it (each family had their own stain tint). When using inexpensive wood, like poplar, most people prefer the finished look to be painted. It may seem abhorrent to some to paint wood, but it is not shameful to paint over inexpensive woods. With a few minor steps, you can get a beautiful result.
I want to talk you through the proper steps for completing a poplar project, whether you’ve built it or purchased it. We’ll take a look at how to paint poplar, but also the often less thought of choice of keeping it natural.
What Is Poplar?
Poplar is one of those woods that can be quite difficult to define because of its characteristics. It makes up an entire genus of deciduous trees, including cottonwood, yellow poplar, aspen, and Western balsam. Wait, cottonwood? Yes, the very same cottonwood that people curse in allergy season. The name cottonwood comes from the fact that the seeds have a cotton-like thread system that help it fly through the air and catch on objects. This allows it to disperse quite far, making poplars quite common and a great choice for woodworking projects.
Poplar is considered a hardwood, despite the fact that it is actually quite soft. This is one of the reasons that it is so easy to use in building: it can be cut, nailed, and carved easily.
For reference, there is a scale that botanists use to describe the hardness of wood called the Janka scale. Walnut, one of the hardest woods often used in building, has a Janka of 1010, and cherry, another notorious hardwood, has a Janka of 950. In contrast, Poplar has a Janka of 540, while aspen has a Janka hardness of 380.
So, you have the item you want to paint completed. Since poplar is so diverse, you’d be amazed the uses for it in the home. From furniture bases to fireplace mantels, you can make any spot in your home look gorgeous with the use of a professionally finished piece. But to make it professional, you need to prep the wood properly.
The first step to prepping a poplar project is to sand it down. Obviously, this has likely been done already with a purchased piece, but by using a heavy grit sandpaper (less than 200), you’ll be able to scratch the surface of the wood a bit to let the primer adhere better to the wood. When working with wood, it’s always best to sand in the same direction as the grain. This will prevent it from making unnecessary jagged edges or splintering. It will also guarantee that you cannot see the crosshatched sanding marks beneath the paint.
Once you’ve sanded down the wood, you’ll want to prep as you normally would when painting. If you intend to paint different colors in different spots or are painting something affixed to a wall, use painter’s tape to make sure there is no bleeding of paint.
Be sure to lay down a drop cloth to protect the surrounding flooring. The final prep step is to prime the wood. If you do not prime wood, the tannins can bleed through the paint, causing a blotchy, unprofessional look to your finished product. Most noticeably, you’ll still see the wood’s knots beneath the paint.
Remember, we want to have a beautiful result? Picking the right primer is important. There are three main types of primer out there: latex, oil-based, and shellac.
Latex primer does not stick well to wood, and it also requires you to use latex paint on top of it. Latex primer is also water-based, meaning that it is based in water. No surprise there, but adding water to unfinished wood can cause the grin to swell. This will not be a pretty finish.
Oil-based primers are excellent choices for wood. The oil conditions any unfinished wood, and it allows you to use oil-based paints on top. Oil-based primer will also help to prevent moisture from getting into the wood. However, if there is any moisture in the wood, it will take that much longer to dry and could cause streaking. Remember that oil and water do not mix! Oil-based primer also requires at least 24 hours to dry before you can put on a second coat.
The most advisable primer for wood products is shellac. Shellac is a great sealant, so it will seal the unfinished wood. It also is fast-drying, so you can be ready to paint a second coat in as little as 30 minutes. However, keep in mind a longer dry time is always better if possible. Shellac primer adheres to nearly any surface, so it works on both finished and unfinished wood. Finally, you can cover the shellac primer with nearly any type of paint. The downside to shellac is the smell. This is very high in VOCs, so you’ll want to use a respirator mask and paint in a highly ventilated area.
When painting poplar and other woods, you should first decide what type of paint you want to use. Since you’ve got the primer on the poplar, you will have to select based on that… unless you listened before and used shellac primer. As mentioned before, latex primer requires latex paint. Shellac, however, creates your possibilities.
At this point, you should know what you will use the painted project for. Most poplar is used for furniture pieces, but not cabinetry. This means that it will likely be highly used, but not abused greatly. This is an important thing to note because some paints will hold up better on high-trafficked items. If you plan to paint something like a shelf or mantel, latex paint can be fine, because there won’t be much activity against the paint. Otherwise, rubbing and scratching of items can cause scuffs and chipping in the paint. This means you’ll need to repaint it sooner.
Tables, bookshelves, and other oft-used objects will require a sturdier paint, like oil-based. These paints are more difficult to work with than latex, but it pays off in many ways. Oil-based paints and enamels are often used in construction and commercial uses because it provides a beautiful, hard finish. While it will typically provide a glossy finish, there are many oil-based paints that are available in softer finishes. Oil-based paints are commonly used in commercial ways because they are scratch-resistant, water-resistant, and do not chip. Of course, you cannot use oil-based paints on top of latex primers, so this could be an issue with prefinished items. It will take about 24 hours for the paint to dry and is higher in VOCs than latex, but it will cure in only a week, while latex takes up to 30 days.
I get it. Some people out there just cannot paint wood, no matter the type. Especially if you’ve built it with your own hands, you’ll feel even more attached to the wood. There are a couple of options if you want to keep your poplar in its natural state (meaning without paint). You can either keep it the same color as poplar and just finish it off, or you can stain it.
The first option is obviously the easiest in most instances. You’ll still want to prep the wood by sanding with the grain. Instead, use a light grit (220 or higher) for a soft sanding. You have many choices now to finish and seal the wood, but a common option is polyurethane. Mix equal parts polyurethane and mineral spirits to seal the wood once you’ve wiped the wood clean from the sanding. Apply one thin coat and allow to dry overnight before tackling additional layers of polyurethane. Once this has dried, you can add the first layer of straight polyurethane. Use smooth strokes with the grain and avoid using too much on your brush to prevent drips. Once this coat has dried, wet sand the layer very gently to remove blemishes and then brush on the final layer of polyurethane.
The beauty of poplar is that it takes paint and stain very well. This means that you can use almost any color of stain out there to get the look you want for the piece. Is it a bookshelf for your daughter’s room? You can stain it purple, but you’ll still get the gorgeous wood grain that you wouldn’t with paint. Another popular option is to use a richer stain to look like a more expensive piece of wood. In hardware and paint stores, workers will be able to help you pick out the best tint to match the wood you want. If you want it to look like cherry, use a red tinted stain, use a darker stain to mimic walnut, etc. Some gel stains even include a wood conditioner in it. After you’ve stained it, finish it off with a lacquer or polyurethane to seal the wood.