Yellow Poplar (aka Tulip Poplar) is the largest hardwood tree found in the eastern North American forest. Reaching heights of 160′ and diameters up to 10′, it’s renowned for producing lumber that is straight, clear and wide. It’s a very abundant specie and has been used extensively whenever a wooden product is needed. In fact, it has been described as “machine food for the wood manufacturing industry.”
Yellow poplar leaf
Yellow poplar end-grain
While it bears the name ‘Poplar’, it’s not a true Poplar (of the Populus genus), but part of the Magnolia family. It takes its name from the fact that the leaves tend to flutter in the breeze, similar to true poplars.
This tree is commonly found from east of the Mississippi River and south of Lake Ontario to Florida. It prefers well-drained soils and despite being a fast growing tree is relatively strong compared to other fast growing species such as the Willows. It’s distinctive two lobed leaf make it easy to identify in the wild.
Yellow Poplar is a diffuse pored wood, meaning all of the cell pores in a yearly growth ring are of a uniform size and distribution. This results in the wood lacking the distinct early/latewood pores that produce the ‘cathedral ‘ grain pattern commonly seen in coarse-grained woods such as the Oaks. As a result of this pore structure, Yellow Poplar is a straight, uniformly grained wood with a medium texture. The typically large sapwood has a pale white colour, while the heart wood is a light yellow to dark green when freshly cut, but tends to age to a dark brown colour. Mineral staining is common in the heart with dark bands of blue, black and purple often present. When this occurs, the wood is often referred to as ‘Rainbow Poplar’.
Once sawn, it dries easily with minimal degrade. Care must be taken during drying to avoid sticker stain which can be a problem given the preponderance of sapwood. While Yellow Poplar is generally considered to have low resistance to decay, old growth lumber was often successfully used for exterior applications due to its lower percentage of sapwood.
Historically, Yellow Poplar was used for framing, trim, furniture and all manner of common wooden objects. Before the introduction of particle board, Yellow Poplar was extensively used for veneered panel cores. Today, it’s mostly used for furniture and interior trim. It excels in taking a painted finish. Using stains, the skilled finisher can use Yellow Poplar to mimic more expensive woods such as cherry and maple. Sliced into veneer, it is used as a core stock for plywood and the veneer is often dyed to provide a multitude of coloured veneer leafs.
For the woodworker, the large availability of Yellow Poplar means an abundant supply of large boards at a reasonable price. Tools must sharp as this wood has a tendency to ‘fuzz’ when worked. Sanding to higher grits than usual may be necessary. It glues, nails and takes screws well and is intermediate in stability, though it’s not a good candidate for steam building. For furniture makers it’s a good secondary wood, and it is the first choice for painted furniture. The hobbyist can use Yellow Poplar for intarsia, painted objects and wooden toys. This is one species of wood that will find a use for itself in the workshops of all woodworkers.