“Hey, what are you making with that green wood?” asked one of my customers standing in my small cabinet shop many years ago. His question caused me to look at him askance — because I knew well that all of my stock was kiln dried. Then a lightbulb flickered on.
“Oh ... that’s yellow poplar, I use a lot of it.”
“Huh — looks green to me,” he replied.
And he was right. Green and even bluish hues are not uncommon on patches of yellow poplar lumber. Its generally creamy-tan color varies a good deal, and no one will ever choose poplar for its figure or grain, which are — well, boring. But yellow poplar may be the most popular hardwood never seen. Used in untold numbers of upholstered furniture pieces and as the carcass components of cabinets, its strength and easy-to-work nature are the keys to yellow poplar’s versatility.
I’ve talked to many woodworkers who have told me they have stained yellow poplar and applied a top coat, and to their eyes it “...looked exactly like walnut” (or cherry, rosewood — whatever more desirable species they had in mind). Now, far be it for me to second-guess what another woodworker has accomplished, but statements like that do make me wonder whether these folks have actually ever seen what a nicely finished piece of walnut looks like. Personally, I would never select yellow poplar for a project I planned to stain and apply a clear finish to. But when my goal is to paint or cover a piece of furniture — then poplar is the perfect choice.
While not a real “looker” after milling, the yellow poplar tree, also known as the tuliptree, is a beautiful ornamental plant, much valued for its blossoms and luxurious foliage.
The versatility of yellow poplar does not stop at cabinetry or its components. When I asked my friend, sylviculturist Tim Knight, to write a short piece about yellow poplar, he was enthusiastic, identifying it as one of his favorite wood species. In fact, he has a cabin built out of it. He told me that for a while during the 1960s and ’70s yellow poplar was substituted for softwood framing and construction lumber. (There was a shortage of softwood lumber during that period.)
Every woodworker has a species of wood that evokes memories and claims a place in their pantheon of favorite woods. Yellow poplar is one of mine. It is a humble, hardworking all-American hardwood — not flashy, but very dependable. And that’s the reason I chose it to kick off a series of articles on special wood species. Next time out, we’ll have a look at an extremely unique exotic.