Hand Tools Archive

Poplar- a differing lumber

Bill Tindall, E.Tn.
We sold no wood more different tree to tree than poplar and it is not all to do with growth rings (rate of growth). With one exception, I never personally logged any poplar that was turned into wood I dried and used. So, this information is 2nd hand but from persons that ran saw mills. They spoke of "deep woods poplar" and "field poplar". When I bought logs for turning into secondary wood and drawer sides they would choose logs from trees they knew grew close among neighbors in the woods. The wood was soft and mellow to work. Field poplar, trees that grew in more open territory, was harder, denser, and more brittle texture. And there is "Cucumber" (a magnolia) which is graded in with poplar. It is substantially harder and miserable to work. None of this information is of much use to someone buying from the local lumber distributer where you get what you get with no knowledge of the provenance.

Then there is the "poplar from hell". I would love to engage someone knowledgeable in wood structure to discuss what about this wood results in its unique properties. It was a monster tree that grew near Greenville, SC. It grew at least its later life as a yard tree uncrowded by neighbors with a moderate growth rate. It was removed and I was given permission to saw pieces of it that I sawed and split and sawed some more into rift and quartered drawer side stock about 26" long. The remains were destined for firewood.

Poplar normally splits easily. The dried firewood sections from this tree would not split. In fact, drawer side trimmings, a mere 7/16" thick, only reluctantly split and the split surface has hundreds of torn fibers that connect to the adjacent split surface. It is not curly. It just has some fiber structure that ties the vertical grain together.

I can't be fussy about heartwood/sapwood in my use of poplar. I have at hand what I have, and it gets used. Drawer sides will often have some of each. Hence, I am often dovetailing and drawer fit planing boards with both. Personally, I never detected any difference. I use up sapwood in walnut and cherry as secondary wood. This secondary wood often has mixed heartwood and sapwood. Again, I never noticed a difference in working properties within a board. Not denying they exist, just that I don't detect them in what I do and maybe most won't either.

A board with mostly, or all heartwood, would have come from a large old tree, or one that grew slowly, which could lead to differences. A board with all sapwood could come from a rapid growth tree (field poplar). Given the sized logs I see on trucks now days it is likely the poplar at the local lumber source is all or mostly sapwood and came from relatively young, fast growth trees. Thirty years ago we would get poplar boards wider than 12" in our wholesale packs of lumber and they would have substantial heartwood. Now lumber this wide, even in poplar, is rare because the big trees are rare.

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