As I was planning out my next woodworking project, I came across an interesting comparison that I thought I would share with you. Which type of wood should I use? I wanted something that would give me the best value for my money, produce the greatest final product and be easy to work with. This led me to compare two very popular types of wood: Poplar and Pine.
A little background on Pine and Poplar
Pine is a very common softwood that comes in two main varieties in the United States, yellow and white. Softwoods grow more quickly than hardwood trees, which causes them to have lower density. Pine is a relatively soft, medium weight wood and it has many, many uses. The uses can range from construction and shelving to children’s furniture and flooring.
Poplar, or whitewood, is a type of hardwood; however, it has a much lower density than most hardwoods and in this way poplar is similar to pine. This is partly why poplar is often compared to pine. Poplar is mainly used for making things like paper, packaging boxes, and cheap plywood. Also, because of poplar’s moisture and flexibility, it can be folded into a rigid structure which makes poplar a great wood for making instruments, such as drums and guitars.
The color of pine wood greatly depends on the variety of pine; but the wood is generally a lighter color, usually with a yellowish tint. However, sometimes pine wood can even have a reddish tone.
Poplar is considered to be “paint grade” wood because of its wide variation in colors. Typically, poplar wood is a cream color with brown or gray streaks throughout the wood. However, it is not uncommon to get a wide variety of colors including: greenish, white, purple, or even black.
Strength and Durability
In terms of durability, neither pine nor poplar is terribly durable. Though Poplar is considered a hardwood, in terms of its durability, it is much closer to a softwood. Neither pine nor poplar should be used in projects that would typically require a hardwood.
With that said, pine is softer than poplar and is thus more prone to scratching and denting. Poplar tends to be just a little bit more durable is recommended over pine for things projects in high traffic areas that will incur wear more quickly. For example, in a mudroom or dining area.
Pine, because of its quicker tree growth and the fact that its trees tend to grow straighter and thus require less millwork, will usually cost less than poplar. This makes it a good choice for a multitude of projects where cost is a factor. Not only is it inexpensive, but it also is easy to work with and readily available.
Poplar tends to be a little more expensive than pine, but not by much. Like I mentioned before, though it is technically a hardwood, it is a softer hardwood and thus less expensive than say walnut or cherry. The pricing of pine and poplar is surprisingly quite comparable
Overall look and feel
Poplar wood is free of knots and pitch and generally has a uniform look. This fact makes it an especially popular choice. Though it comes in a wide variety of colors, it can be easily painted, and its uniformity and lack of pitch and knots makes it a great choice for cabinetry or even detailed craft projects.
Pine wood, on the other hand, often contains knots, pitch and if you purchase it a chain store, maybe lots of moisture. It also has a relatively uniform look to it and has much less color variation than poplar wood.
Painting and Staining
Because hardwoods typically stain more easily and evenly, you would think that poplar would stain well. However, even though poplar is a hardwood, because of its wide color variation, poplar does not typically stain well, at least it doesn’t stain consistently. Again, that is why poplar is considered a paint-grade wood. Unless you are going for a hodge-podge, multi-colored look, poplar is maybe not the best choice for staining.
Pine, on the other hand, will stain relatively well. Because it is softwood, the stain will be a little less even and less easy to get to soak in, but the result is typically favorable.
The undertones of the wood will also affect the way the stain looks. For example, pine wood tends to have a yellow undertone which will come through the stain and alter its appearance. Poplar tends to have a greenish undertone that will affect the stain
Best Projects for each type
As an inexpensive, readily available softwood, pine has seemingly unlimited uses. General uses are for construction and furniture. More specific DIY projects include farmhouse or more rustic style furniture and décor. The types of things you don’t mind having some rough edges or a few knots. The knots in pinewood can either be seen as an annoyance or as character depending on what you are trying to construct.
Poplar, because it has a much more uniform appearance, is great for projects that need a cleaner finish. It’s also wonderful for painting projects and for things you don’t want knots in, such as cabinet fronts. It has a very clean look to it. Poplar is also slightly more durable than pine and as mentioned earlier, is a great choice for projects used in high traffic areas.
Another factor is weight. Poplar, though it is hardwood, actually weighs less than pine. This makes poplar a better choice for cabinets, shelving and, anything else you are wanting to mount on the wall.
Wear on Tools
Because pinewood often contains pitch and it is possible it could get stuck to your saw or planer. This could wear down your equipment more quickly than if you had used poplar wood. You may also need to do more clean-up afterward to remove the pitch from your tools. Poplar, on the other hand, has no pitch to get stuck in your equipment.
Another thing to consider is that pine can have a lot of knots. When you are needing to put in a screw, you need to be aware of where the knots are located because the knots are tough to drill in, and a stuck screw is no fun! This can cause not only frustration but also potential damage to your drill.
Indoor vs outdoor use
It is recommended that untreated pinewood be used indoors, rather than outdoors. This is because untreated pine will immediately start to decay when it is left outside. However, treated pine is used outdoors for lots of different things.
Untreated poplar wood is similar but is expected to last a little longer than pinewood if left outdoors. Untreated poplar is expected to last 3-4 years outdoors. However, If poplar wood is treated it will last a lot longer than that outdoors.
Both poplar and pine are relatively easy woods to work with. They both have low densities, are softer woods, and will finish well with a variety of different materials like glues, paints and stains. The main differences have already been mentioned above. Mainly, the knots, pitch and scratch and dent problems with the pine. And for the poplar, the lack of uniformity in color and that it is a softer hardwood, making it not suitable for hardwood projects.