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Tips for Working with Poplar Wood

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Woodworker cutting wooden plank Yagi Studio/Taxi Japan/Getty Images
Poplar is a species of wood that is commonly used in woodworking. You can find poplar in many furniture projects, toys and wood turnings because it is inexpensive, fairly workable and takes nails, screws and glue well. It works best with paint as a finish, but it can often be stained in an attempt 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 the core of 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 should we say what is 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 poplars to include European black poplar, cottonwood or some types of aspen.

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 tend to tear if the cutting edge is less than optimal. When sanding poplar, because of it's relatively soft nature, be sure to use progressively finer grits of sandpaper, as more coarse grits will leave sanding marks that need to be removed with the next finer grit of sandpaper. I typically find that if I start sanding with 80-grit, then move to 150, 220, 300 and finally 400-grit sandpaper is a process that yields good results.

Finishing Poplar:

Poplar is renowned for it's ability to take paint well. It is commonly the wood stock of choice when building woodworking projects that will be painted. It is relatively resistant to decay, and when sanded, primed and painted thoroughly, 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 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. It is imperative that all surfaces that will be stained be prepared properly with a couple of coats of a pre-stain wood conditioner. This will allow the stain to be applied much more evenly, and will make the grain of the poplar pop a bit more.
Some woodworkers attempt to use poplar to simulate finer woods such as maple. This can be tricky, as the grain is somewhat similar, but to the trained eye, the differences will be obvious. When attempting to mimic another wood like maple, try to use poplar that is relatively free of sections of gray or greenish stock. A bit in 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.
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