Tips for Using Poplar in Woodworking Projects

Pile of logs from poplars in La Vega valley in Granada, Andalusia, Spain
Photo by Victor Ovies Arenas / Getty Images

Poplar is a wood species commonly used in a variety of woodworking projects. You can find poplar in many furniture projects, toys, and wood turnings because it is inexpensive, fairly easy to work, and takes nails, screws, and glue well. It works best with paint as a finish, but it can be successfully used to simulate finer woods, provided the proper steps are taken in the finishing process. Poplar is also used quite often for more industrial purposes, such as for the core layer in finer plywoods or for crates and pallets.

Types of Poplar

Poplar wood is considered a hardwood by species, but this can be somewhat confusing, as it is typically softer than pine, a common softwood. In most instances, poplar (or at least the wood sold as poplar in home centers) is actually the wood from the tulip tree. It is a creamy white-colored wood with brown or gray sections or streaks through the grain. Garden-variety poplar wood is also sometimes referred to as yellow poplar or whitewood, but you may also find stocks of poplar that include European black poplar, cottonwood, or some types of aspen.

Costs

Yellow poplar typically costs $3.20 to $4.85 per board foot (stock less than 10 inches wide). Price variations will depend on the thickness of the boards.

Working With Poplar

Poplar is relatively easy to work with, as it takes manipulation with a saw, lathe, or router well. One key is to make sure that your cutting tools are sharp, as poplar can tear if the cutting edges on a tool are less than optimal. Also use a slow feed speed to avoid tearing. Drilling and boring should be done at slower RPM speeds than you would use for other hardwoods.

Because of its relatively soft nature, poplar will need to be sanded with progressively finer grits of sandpaper, as more coarse grits will leave sanding marks that need to be removed. Most woodworkers will find that starting with 80-grit, then progressing through 150-, 220-, 300-, and finally 400-grit sandpapers will yield good results.

Finishing

Poplar is renowned for its ability to take paint well. It is the wood stock of choice when building woodworking projects that need to be painted. It is relatively resistant to decay, and when sanded, primed, and painted thoroughly, it should hold up well to normal wear and tear for many interior projects. If you intend to use poplar for outdoor woodworking plans, you may need to apply a new coat of paint every couple of years, depending on the project and the location of the finished piece.

Staining poplar wood is another matter entirely. In its native form, poplar tends to take stain in a very blotchy manner. For good results when staining, it is imperative that all surfaces are prepared properly with a couple of coats of a pre-stain wood conditioner. This will allow the stain to be absorbed much more evenly and will make the bland grain "pop" a bit more. Gel stains typically work better than penetrating stains. Water-based stains may cause fuzziness on the wood surface, which will require a light sanding before applying a varnish.

Some woodworkers attempt to use poplar to simulate finer hardwoods, such as maple. This can be tricky, since even though the grain of these two woods is somewhat similar, the trained eye can almost always spot the differences. When attempting to mimic another wood such as maple, try to use a selection of wood that is relatively free of gray or greenish sections. Having a bit of the grain is fine, but poplar tends to have large sections that are of a darker color than the common creamy-white.

  • Tip: For best results when mimicking the look of another wood with poplar, be sure to test your stain for the right color on scrap cutoffs of the same poplar boards you used in the project. Remember to apply a couple of coats of pre-stain wood conditioner to the cutoffs before applying your test stains. Fine-tuning your stain color on scrap stock is far better than staining your entire project with the wrong color.