Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera, or tulip tree), the tallest hardwood tree in North America, also rates as the most valuable commercial species because its intolerance to shade stifles lower branches and produces a perfect, straight trunk with clear lumber even in small trees.

Poplar is one of the most common utility hardwoods in the United States. Though the wood is commonly referred to simply as “Poplar,” it is technically not in the Populus genus itself, (the genus also includes many species of Cottonwood and Aspen), but is instead in the Liriodendron genus, which is Latin for “lily tree.” The flowers of this tree look similar to tulips, hence the common alternate name: Tulip Poplar. — The Wood Database

History in woodworking

Old yellow poplar trees develop massive trunks. Large enough, that the pioneers used harvested trees for dugout canoes. They also learned to make everything from fruit baskets to boxes to trim and household furniture and utensils called “treenware” from the easily worked and versatile wood. Today, the wood of yellow poplar has a variety of uses no other tree can match. With enough strength for most applications, sufficient stiffness, stability, and wear resistance, it’s made into cabinets, doors, furniture, mouldings, musical instruments, plywood cores, toys, and much more.

Where the wood comes from

Principally an eastern tree, you’ll find yellow poplar growing from upstate New York to the Carolinas, and southwest into Missouri, the United States. with nearly two-thirds of the nation’s old growth in the southeastern Appalachians. There, yellow poplar reaches 100’+ heights and 8′ diameters, often free of branches for 80′ or more. In total, the tree represents more than 11% of commercially available hardwoods in the United States.

What you’ll pay

Among the most economical and inexpensive of all domestic hardwoods. A board foot of solid lumber (less than 10″ wide) runs 3.20 to 4.85, depending on thickness. Despite its popularity as a utility wood, it does not come in Plywood or as veneer.

If you live in an area where the tree grows, it is not uncommon to find boards in widths up to 20″, thicknesses to 3″ or more, and lengths to 16 ft.

Choose top-quality wood

The wood of yellow poplar weighs about one-third less than walnut, is only half as strong and hard, and has similar texture and straight grain. Generally speaking it is a great wood for working. Which explains its popularity as the #1 choice for commercially milled premium ‘paint-grade’ mouldings. Depending on the project, you’ll want to take care in choosing the right boards. Properly selected and expertly finished, poplar can mimic walnut, mahogany or cherry for furniture and small projects. Sapwood has a pleasing creamy color – heartwood on the other hand can be a mixed bag when it comes to applying a finish other than prime/paint. So, unless you plan to paint your project, sort through boards looking for a uniform tone or repetitive color variations which may work nicely into the finishing aspect of the project.

Working Yellow Poplar in the Shop

Very easy to work with all hand tools although one of Poplar’s only downsides is its softness. Because of its low density, keep the following in mind when using power tools to machine the wood.

  • Ripping and routing. Yellow poplar does tend to burn, so cut it with sharp blades and bits. Always use a steady feed rate.
  • Assembling. Hardwoods normally require a slower rpm when drilling and boring. With yellow poplar, speed it up to avoid burning. And frequently clean chips from the hole when using large-diameter bits.

Deciding on the right finish

Absolutely a painter’s dream wood. Staining? That’s another matter and can be a real headache if you don’t take care in both preparation and application of stains/dyes. Many times the wood will be streaked with splashes of deep blue, gray, or purple. To some these streaks prove attractive under a clear finish. If you are just looking for a clear finish, you can neutralize the yellow-green cast of the basic wood by adding a toner to the clear coat, but using that technique with the heartwood color variations will produce less predictable results.

Here are a few finishing tips:
 

  • Despite the promise wood conditioners offer, penetrating stains DO NOT work well on this wood. Use a pre-stain conditioner but use Gel Stains.
  • Keep in the mind the base coloring of the wood and plan accordingly. For example: Blend stains – lay down a base coat of Early American and follow that with Dark Walnut to achieve a rich, warm brown color.
  • The wood accepts Water-based finishes but because of the nature of the wood, it must be lightly sanded to knock down the ‘fuzz’ created by the raised grain.
  • Because the wood is so soft, sanding with fine grits of sandpaper will be necessary to obtain a smooth surface.
  • If you are looking for a high sheen painted finish, used sanding sealer (dewaxed shellac) in addition the a primer.
  • Making an outdoor project? Paint is absolutely necessary. Use an oil-base primer for best results.
  • Always test any stain on scrap wood before committing to your project.