Oak vs. Poplar: What are the Differences?

I have an endless list of DIY projects at my house. It seriously feels like it is never-ending! Most recently, we are replacing all of the trim in our house…yes, ALL of it! I know, we are crazy. The biggest battle we had was picking what kind of wood we should use. There are so many choices, and everyone has a different opinion! Our two choices came down to oak and poplar- but we wondered, what are the differences?

There are several differences between the two making them both good choices but what it really comes down to is what the wood is being used for. See, each one of them are excellent choices if you use them in the right project.

oak vs poplar

After a lot of research and way too many trips to the local home improvement store, I finally came up with some answers. I found out that there are many differences including color, hardness, appearance, and cost. There is also a pretty big difference in the workability of it. Here is what I learned about what the differences are between oak and poplar and when it is the best time to use them.


Oak and Poplar Appearance

This part is the easiest one to figure out because you can see the differences by simply looking at them next to each other. We went straight to the trim aisle and put the two right next to each other. When holding them that close, there are a lot of differences to be seen.

Poplar has barely any grain and is noticeably lighter in color. It will also have streaks of yellow and green throughout it. Oak, on the other hand, has a strong, definite grain that will have darker streaks of brown and black in it. These grains make oak an excellent choice for staining which is why a lot of people choose it for stained trim and cabinets. While poplar is still able to be stained, it will not look as good as oak. Most people choose poplar for projects where you will be painting it in the end.

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Oak vs. Poplar Hardness

One of the things I learned while researching this is about the Janka Hardness Scale, which is basically a way to measure the density of the wood. The way it works is it tests how much force is needed to get an 11.28mm steel ball shoved halfway into the wood. The higher the number, the harder the wood. The smaller the number, the softer the wood.

Red Oak ranks pretty high on the scale, coming in at about 1290. This means not only is it hardwood, but it is also heavier. Poplar is a lot lower on the scale, measuring about 540. This also means that poplar is a lot lighter than oak.

oak vs poplar hardness

Keep in mind when considering the hardness of the wood you are choosing that the softer the wood, the more it will easily knick or show dings. Remember that pets, children, and other things may cause more dings than you think. After a time, these dings will become more noticeable, and your wood will not look near as nice. You will then have to either fix all the problem areas or choose to replace the wood there. This was new information to me and I always wondered why some wood dinged up more than others.

Working with Oak and Poplar

If you are not too worried about the harness or the appearance, then you might be more worried about whether or not the wood you choose will be easy to work with or not. If you have a lot of cuts to make, it can make your project a lot harder if the wood doesn’t cooperate with you.

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As I mentioned before, for part of our research we just went to the home improvement store and compared the two. First, we checked out the oak. We looked at it and held it, trying to see how bendable and workable it was. Then we grabbed a piece of poplar, and I was shocked at how light and flexible it was compared to the oak! I could actually bend it partway without it breaking or even cracking at all.

This flexibility makes a huge difference when you are talking about sanding, making cuts, and piecing it into small areas. With poplar, even though the softness can cause dings and other issues, it can also make it a very easy wood to work with. Cuts are much easier to make, and you can use the flexibility to help you bend them into small areas easier. Also, when you do find a dent, you can easily sand poplar down and refinish or paint it and have it look back to new in no time.

Oak, on the other hand, can be a little more difficult to work with. Since it is a harder wood, it will wear down your blades a lot faster. There are blades you can get that are carbide-tipped that will not dull out as fast, but these are a bit more expensive. You might also notice when cutting oak that it will sometimes burn or splinter. It can be pretty frustrating to ruin or damage a piece of wood that you paid a good amount for.

Oak is also more time-consuming to fix if you ding or damage it. Since it is hardwood, it takes a lot more effort to sand into it. You will also need to use several grits of sandpaper to make sure the result looks new.

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Prices of Oak and Poplar

This is the question I always want to be answered first. I don’t make my whole decision based on price alone, but I will admit it makes a difference. Between oak and poplar, oak is the more expensive choice. If you are looking for a cheaper option, poplar is the way to go.

What Are Oak and Poplar Best For?

Oak has always been known as a top-of-the-line product that has been used for years. This is the wood you choose when you need hardwood and/or you are going to be staining the end product. You will see oak used for a lot of furniture, flooring, cabinets, trim, and more because it can hold up great to lots of high traffic and wear and tear over years.

Poplar is usually used for projects that you will end up painting. Because the grain in it isn’t as strong as oak, it allows for a really nice, smooth surface to paint. You will see it used as trim work and small woodworking projects. It is also used for trim and bases for furniture where it will be covered by upholstery.