Oak vs Poplar: Expert Guide + Comparison Table


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Some people would say that comparing oak and poplar is like comparing Beauty and the Beast. Oak is a premium wood while poplar is often considered a cheap and basic wood. However, we still think it’s worth digging into the differences, especially for a beginner woodworker who may not want to use expensive oak on a project.

Oak wood is renowned for its strength, durability, and attractive grain patterns, making it ideal for high-quality furniture and flooring. Poplar on the other hand is more affordable, often used for secondary components, such as drawer bottoms or backing material. While oak is preferred for its longevity and premium appearance, poplar is a cost-effective alternative for less visible or temporary applications.

Below we’ll deep dive into the characteristics and pros and cons of each of these types of woods

Oak vs Poplar

Oak is a wood that is several times denser than poplar. Comparing oak and poplar is like comparing chalk and cheese yet, there are some commonalities. Both types of wood play a vital role in the world of woodworking.

Oak is much harder than Poplar with a Janka hardness rating of 1,290 lbf. (Red oak) and against the Janka hardness rating of Poplar at just 540 lbf. However, poplar is harder than white pine which ranks at 380 lbf., and oak is softer than Brazilian walnut has a rating of 3,684 lbf.

Poplar is lighter than red oak, and it is also more resilient and flexible. Oak is more likely to crack or splinter than poplar. So, even at the outset, we see that each type of wood has its special features. Let’s jump right in to discuss some of the finer details of both these types of wood.

Oak: Background

Giant oak tree viewed from bottom up

Oak grows in various parts of Europe and across the United States. Red oak trees grow up to 115 feet and the tree trunks reach a diameter of six meters. The trees take up to a hundred years to grow to make it difficult to find abundant lumber.

We associate oakwood with strength and solidity, but what catches our attention is its striking wood grain. Woodworkers tend to accentuate this classic grain pattern by applying a semi-transparent or transparent finish.

Oak is very popular where the formal and classic ambiance is called for, like in a library or some government building. But if you are looking for a more contemporary look, you would probably choose something lighter like maple or beech, with a tighter wood grain.

Some of the best furniture in the world is made from oak. It is also well-known for the fine panels it makes on walls, windows, and doors. Oak also makes classic hardwood flooring. It exhibits reasonable durability, especially when given a suitable finish.

Learn more about the different types of oak here.

Poplar: Background

amazing poplars alley in an autumn sunset

Poplar trees grow in the eastern part of the United States. They are widely used for landscaping. Poplar trees are very tall and reach up to 160 feet, with tree trunk diameters of up to eight feet.

Poplar wood is unremarkable to look at, but with a suitable stain, it can be made to look quite striking. It is among the softest of hardwoods. It makes upholstered furniture, wooden toys, cabinets, pallets, crates, and plywood.

You will find poplar either dyed or installed in places that will not be visible. The wood is easy to work with, and readily available in most hardware shops and lumberyards. It comes in the form of construction lumber or construction plywood.

Oak vs Poplar: Appearance

Oak comes in multiple colors and shades. The wood grain is the main attraction of this wood. It is so striking that it gives those who work on it an opportunity to showcase their creativity. It also helps that this wood has a natural golden hue.

Poplar is a light wood with a gray-greenish hue that may not appeal to many. This wood is seldom used for its looks and is placed behind better-looking woods. It is often left as it is without applying any finish.

Oak vs Poplar: Durability

The high durability of oak stems from the fact that it takes up to a hundred years to grow. With a suitable sealer applied to the wood, it will become even more durable.

With poplar, you get a much more durable wood, especially with its heartwood. But poplar is prone to insect attack.

Oak vs Poplar: Maintenance

Oak is easy to maintain. You can clean the surface of oak by using a soap and water solution. It needs to be stripped down to the bare wood every year or so, and the finish reapplied. By refinishing oak, you add to its longevity.

Poplar makes good furniture too, but not the type that can withstand heavy loads. Therefore, we aren’t likely to make a dining room or living room furniture from poplar. But you can find a few good projects that use poplar to make light furniture like center tables or footstools.

Oak vs Poplar: Workability and Uses

Kitchen in luxury home with oak wood cabinetry

Iron adversely acts on oak, particularly if the wood is wet. Ugly rust stains will develop, and you cannot erase them. The solution to this problem is to keep oak wood dry, especially if it has nails and screws in it. It is easy to steam bend oak, and it works well with glues, finishes, and stains.

The main uses of oak are for high-end furniture, flooring, cabinets, veneer, and wooden panels for walls, doors, and windows. Oak also plays a prominent role in making whiskey barrels. It imparts a unique flavor to its contents. The tannery industry uses oak because it contains tannin, a vital ingredient required for processing leather.

Poplar is one of the easiest woods to work with, but its downside is that this wood is extremely soft. The low density can occasionally form a fuzz on the surface while sanding or shaping. It can be remedied by using fine-grit sandpaper to rub down the fuzz and eliminate it.

Poplar is rarely used for its looks but we see an exception in rainbow poplar which is endowed with a striking wood grain pattern of contrasting shades. But overall, the dull, grey shades of poplar do not attract much attention.

We can consider poplar a “utility” wood, and you’ll see it used for making upholstered furniture, plywood, the insides of wooden structures (mostly as backing material), and plywood. It is also used in the paper industry as pulpwood.

Table top for a table made of poplar burl wood and transparent epoxy resin.

Oak vs Poplar: Price

Oak takes a long time to grow, so it does not occur in abundance all the time. It also appears as an imported species in the United States. These factors result in oak becoming more expensive than many other hardwoods.

Poplar is a type of wood that we find all across the United States. It is light, easy to transport, and easy to work with as well. Poplar is one of the cheapest types of wood that you can find.

Oak vs Poplar: Sustainability

Oak is a wood with a history of overharvesting that resulted in it getting on the list of endangered wood species. The best solution, if you want sustainable wood, is to buy oak produced in the United States.

If you buy imported oak, ensure that it is FSC-certified, so that you know you are using legally-procured lumber.

Poplar, as we mentioned above, does grow abundantly all across the United States. The wood is sustainably harvested.

Oak vs Poplar: Any other characteristics

Oak has the distinction of making whiskey barrels and it is also used by the leather industry. In addition, Japanese oak makes good professional drums.

Poplar does not have any special characteristics.

Oak vs Poplar: Comparison Table

Parameter

Oak (red)

Poplar

Botanical name  Quercus rubra  Liriodendron tulipifera
Color Light to medium brown with a reddish tint Light grey with a greenish cast
Durability Highly durable  Moderately durable but no resistance to rot or insects
Hardness (Janka Scale) 1,220 lbf.  540 lbf.
Strength Extremely strong  Needs extra support
Maintenance Less maintenance than poplar  Medium maintenance
Price Expensive to highly expensive Cheap
Suitability for outdoors No Indoor use only
Suitability for wood carving Yes No
Workability Yes Easy but leaves fuzzy edges
Smell Characteristic odor Odorless
Availability Abundantly available Easily available
Special features if any Used in the tannery and brewery industries  Nothing significant

Conclusion

Oak and poplar woods have distinct properties that make them suitable for different applications, so they are not directly comparable. While both kinds of wood have their specific uses, they are not interchangeable due to their differing characteristics.

We chose to compare these very different types of woods because of their extensive use in woodworking for various purposes. Sometimes, you may have a project that calls for expensive wood, but with backing from a much cheaper variety of wood.

You can use oak and poplar in combination, where poplar makes up the bulk but oak adds the finishing touch. That way, you can work much faster due to the softness of poplar, with the added advantage of a cost-effective woodworking project due to poplar which is much cheaper than oak. Combine them both and show off your woodworking skills to the world.