Poplar wood for everything

MNTwinsNovember 15, 2012

Our builder has poplar wood spec'ed out for everything. Stained kitchen cabinets, stained trim, painted solid doors (although I may opt for stained), all bathroom vanities. Poplar seems to be somewhat popUlar around here.

We have two young kids who are very hard on everything. I'm a little nervous about the softness of poplar and how it will hold up, but the builder thinks it will be fine. I don't want everything to look terrible in 5 years.

Can anyone share their experiences?

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Poplar is not a pretty wood, doesn't take stain particularly well (gets blotchy easily) and around here is used for trim that is to be painted only. I'd insist on seeing a house your builder has done with all stained poplar before agreeing. You're talking about a LOT of stained poplar so you'd better like the look.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2012 at 10:51PM
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Builders often price houses with the tactic of keeping bid prices low using common and easily available local materials, even though some of these materials, equipment and/or appliances may reasonably be assumed to not be acceptable to the owner. After all, a builder has to come up with a price, particularly for house designs that do not call out all the key materials, equipment, applicances and finishes in detail. This is a common approach with many plan factory and builder's plans.

The result may be that the initial construction price seems acceptable, and only later does the owner find out that the selections and/or allowances may not produce the desired results by the owner.

This is where "extras" come in. Builders are happy to subsitute the more expensive owner choices for an extra cost.

Popular is a smooth faced wood and will take paint well. With care, it will last as well as most softer woods. Even oak and maple (hard woods) are easily dinged, so there's no "bullet-proof" wood.

Stain is not popular's best finish, IMO. Your first choice should be whether you want paint or stained trim and finish materials throughout the house. Second, ask the contractor to see examples of popular in finished houses to see if that's the finished effect you prefer. If not, the only option is to change woods to something you do prefer.

Good luck on your project.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 9:27AM
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Annie Deighnaugh

Poplar is a soft wood...I'd certainly want something more substantial for cabinetry and doors that will get a lot of wear and tear...

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 9:30AM
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Sophie Wheeler

I would NEVER EVER use poplar for anything stained. Maple, alder, oak, cherry, yes. Even though some of those are soft as well. But they at least stain much better and are prettier.

And poplar for painted kitchen cabinetry is a cheap-out. Maple is the standard for a reason.

If your budget dictates this as your choice, then you will actually spend more in labor to try to get it to look decent if you want it stained. And it still won't look great. Might as well paint everything rather than stain it. It will save you money and look better.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 9:44AM
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Poplar is actually a hardwood

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 9:46AM
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Reno is correct, it is a hardwood by definition although it is considered a "soft hardwood". Cabinets, doors and trim are made all the time from Poplar and for interior work it is a fine choice for those applications. It paints beautiful, and if selected carefully it will stain quite nicely and look similar to cherry in appearance (you need to select the pieces without the purple and green crazy grain sections. As far as paint grade cabinets and doors it is used all the time and most people would never even know they had poplar if not told so.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 10:18AM
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Amen to the first 3 paragraphs of VirgilCarters post! My experience exactly.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 12:01PM
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Amen to the first 3 paragraphs of VirgilCarters post! My experience exactly.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 12:08PM
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Thanks for all the information!! I've looked around the internet (and this site) and I see so many different opinions. Some say it's great and can be stained to look like cherry, others say no way and that it's too soft.

The kitchen cabinets are my main concern. I've already been in a few of their model homes with poplar cabinets and I think they actually look pretty nice, however I'm mostly concerned about the durability. I've talked with them about alternatives already, and I'm going to call their cabinet guy.

I really wanted to see what experiences people have had with poplar, if any. Thanks again for all of the information, it's incredibly helpful!

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 1:24PM
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If you want a tough, durable wood without wild graining, maple is a good choice. It can be painterd, washed or stained and look good. But it's not steel!

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 1:28PM
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We used popular for budget reasons for some of our built ins. No it is not as pretty as cherry, and it is blotchy and not the prettiest, butit looks okay with dark stains. when we sampled lighter stains, I didn't like it all.

The stained window is alder for comparision. The floors are pine (even softer!) our kitchen cabinets are painted maple, doors are solid core mdf. We are finishing a home theatre right now and all the woodwork is stained birch. you may want to investigate that as an option. Our front door is mahagony- now that is a pretty wood!

I would ask to see a house that's several years old so you can see how it wears.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 1:29PM
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We used poplar trim in our current house because it's what was in the budget; we're not oak fans and cherry wasn't in the budget. Our millwork was custom made. There is some color variation on individual pieces based upon the grain. I personally like to see the graining in wood so it doesn't bother me. We used a dark stain, and it doesn't look that different than the cherry built-ins and cabinets. Our painter may have primed it first. I know he had to prime the Pella windows.

Another wood to look at is birch. We had birch cabinets in our last house stained in a dark color. Most people thought they were cherry.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 1:55PM
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balsa is also a hardwood.

Hardwood vs. softwood relates only to deciduous vs. conifers.

Deciduous trees are hardwoods.

Conifers are softwoods.

The physical properties of the two have a LOT of overlap.

Douglas fir is a dense, strong, 'hard' wood.

Poplar is a lighter, weaker, hardwood.

It is hard to stain evenly, and rarely looks god when stained.
It has very little figure (AKA 'grain').

Poplar is at its best as a base for paint.
It and birch are considered two VERY good woods for painting (even better than most softwoods).
They have no pores to speak of (like oak) and are easy to work.

Birch can be stained better than poplar though, and has a better (though still pretty bland) figure.

Poplar shows up in higher quality paint grade trim, especially if it has pressed in detailing (it also is great for carved in detailing).

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 5:23PM
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Excellent points by Brickeyee--very helpful on a subject not often discussed. Good reference material for future use.

I've often wondered why so many builder homes are automatically finished with stained cabinets, doors, trim and mouldings. Of course, many folks are used to it and prefer it, so that's obviously part of the reason.

And some homes look best that way, ie, elegant period homes and stained cherry or mahogany wood; modern homes and clear maple, etc.

But, generally, since many stained woods wind up some dark variant of walnut (even though it's truly "American" wood, it's rather yellow-bias color often is very unappealing, particularly under some artificial lighting sources), I wonder why more folks don't want to lighten and brighten their homes with painted cabinets, doors, trim, moulding, etc. Painted trim was/is very common in Revoluntionary War-style Colonial homes and looks timeless, IMO.

Some sources say painted materials are not as durable as stained materials, but I wonder how true that is?

Just a passing thought...

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 9:43AM
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Poplar is a very muddy looking wood when stained. And that's on a good day. Birch is better, but it also can get the blotches in the hands of inexperienced craftsmen. Sad to say, that's who is usually employed on most builds these days. You just don't get topnotch woodwork with a budget, no matter if you paid for premium cherry trim. The finishing is usually left to a "painter" who really doesn't understand the several steps needed to achieve optimal results. And so, even with good wood trim, you don't get work that comes halfway to the quality of the stained woodwork in an older home.

Site built and finished cabinets are a builder abomination that is done to keep to a budget and not for any other reason. Yet, they often call them "custom" and get away with it. Some of the best cabinetry that I've ever seen had the "custom" label. And some of the absolute worst also went by "custom". Buyer beware. You need to do a LOT of research on that before you accept what is "standard" with a builder.

I would never put stained poplar in my own home. I would do painted poplar (Or MDF) , but I don't have 7 kids and a St. Bernard running around the house. If the cabinets or woodwork were expected to stand up to a family use, I'd want painted maple or MDF. Yes, MDF.

For stained cabinetry on a budget, I'd do an alder, realizing that it's softer than cherry. But, it usually doesn't have the upcharge that cherry has. Or, I'd do an oak in a darker stain, thus minimizing the graininess of it. Plain oak is usually the least expensive cabinetry choice, and it takes stain beautifully. I personally prefer quartersawn oak for it's beautiful grain, but that's also usually on a par costwise with cherry.

But, if costs where the driving factor for the decision rather than aesthetics, I'd do painted MDF trim, and put the money saved into cherry cabinets. Nothing takes stain like cherry, and it's a beautiful wood even left natural. It's worth every bit of it's upcharge.

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 12:23PM
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We have stained poplar trim. Ours is stained a medium color. Poplar is difficult to stain and have it look good. The product that was used on ours is BIO POLY NT by Earthpaint. It did not require the wood to be conditioned before being stained. We like the way it turned out. However, we really like wood and don't mind seeing all the graining, seeing where the branches were on the tree, etc. It is not a look for everyone, but for our house, which is in the middle of the woods, it looks appropriate.

The baseboard and window sill in this picture are poplar.

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 8:21PM
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" The finishing is usually left to a "painter" who really doesn't understand the several steps needed to achieve optimal results. "

Te first step to top notch stained wood trim with a clear finish is to finish it BEFORE it is installed, NOT after.

    Bookmark   November 18, 2012 at 10:02AM
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