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Maple vs Poplar Wood (for Furniture, Flooring, and Cabinets)

Maple and poplar are both types of hardwood but they possess different qualities. Below is a detailed comparison to help you choose the right wood for your furniture.

Maple boards on rack inside a wood workshop.

Maple and poplar are used widely in carpentry. Both are types of hardwood, but they have different qualities. Maple is harder and thus generally better suited for making heavy-duty wooden objects, while poplar is softer and, therefore, more advantageous for intricate carpentry work.

Maple is a dense, strong hardwood, well-suited for making objects that undergo significant physical stress, such as tables, flooring, chopping blocks, and tool handles. Poplar is a lighter, more flexible, affordable hardwood than maple, and is used for items like cabinets, doors, and joinery.

Though maple and poplar are both types of hardwood, they have different qualities. Knowing the differences between maple and poplar can be important when deciding which type of wood to use for a particular project.

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Maple and Poplar Wood:  A Brief Overview

Close-up of a cross section of an old poplar tree trunk.

Maple and poplar are hardwoods commonly used to make furniture, flooring, cabinets, and other wooden objects and structures. They are durable, easy to work with, and are more affordable than other widely used hardwoods like oak and cedar.

Maple and poplar have different qualities. One of the main differences is that maple is denser, stronger, and more durable than poplar. Poplar, in contrast, is softer and thus more easily dented and scratched than maple.

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The two tables below show the Janka Hardness score for some common varieties of maple and poplar wood.

Maple speciesJanka score measured in pounds (lb) of force (f)
sugar maple (Acer saccharum)1450lbf
black maple (Acer nigrum)1180lbf
red maple (Acer rubrum)950lbf
Poplar speciesJanka score measured in pounds (lb) of force (f)
bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata)420lbf
American aspen (Populus tremuloides)350lbf
tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera)540lbf

The density and strength of maple make it preferable to poplar for making heavy-use items such as tables, desks, flooring, kitchen chopping blocks, and tool handles.

In contrast, poplar is considerably lighter and easier to work with than maple. For this reason, poplar is a good choice for making cabinets, doors, and small, intricate items like the internal joints of cabinets and furniture.

Poplar wood takes stains, paints, and lacquers more effectively than maple. Having said this, it is also relatively easy to apply these coatings and finishes to enhance the beauty and longevity of maple.

The cost of maple and poplar is another significant distinction between these two types of hardwood. Both are affordable when compared to the average price of other hardwoods. However,  poplar is more affordable than maple, in part because poplar is not as strong as maple.

Maple Wood: Basic Characteristics

Maple wood planks resting on a shelf.

Maple is a durable type of hardwood. The color of maple ranges from light yellow to brown and red and becomes darker over time from exposure to light. There are two main types of maple lumber:

  • soft maple,
  • hard maple.
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Soft maple (often referred to as red maple) is less dense than hard maple. Nevertheless, soft maple has a high degree of density and durability. Soft maple is also flexible and can withstand the strain of being bent and warped better than hard maple.

Many types of soft maple have visually striking grains. Birds-eye or curly maple, for instance, has a beautiful undulating grain pattern, while tiger maple has a variegated grain. Soft maple also has specks of brown to light bright brown running along the grain of the wood.

Hard maple varieties like sugar and black maple are dense and strong. It is a highly durable, long-lasting wood, which is resistant to heavy impacts. Despite the density and strength of maple, it is easier to work with than many other types of hardwood. Sugar maple and black maple are the most common varieties of hard maple used in carpentry.

Working With Maple

Close-up of maple cabinet with drawers.

Maple is a relatively easy type of hardwood to work. Maple holds screws and nails firmly and is not prone to splitting like many commonly used hardwood varieties. Similarly, maple does not warp as severely as other types of hardwood. 

Soft maple is particularly easy to work with because of its softness and lightness. This structural characteristic makes it well suited for making cabinets, doors, and internal joinery. Soft maple is also conducive for intricate, decorative embellishments on furniture, cabinets, and other wooden objects.

The density and strength of hard maple make it well suited for tabletops, desktops, and flooring. Hard maple varieties like black maple and sugar maple can serve as effective alternatives to more expensive types of hardwood such as oak or cedar.

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Maple wood accepts staining well. Soft maple is particularly amenable to being color-stained, as the wood is less dense and thus more absorbent than hard maple wood.

Raw maple does not store well outside and will be weakened and discolored by sun and rain exposure. Excessive moisture can ruin maple lumber by encouraging fungal growth on the wood. It can while also cause raw maple to warp and rot.

Soft maple can be worked with machine tools but can be burnt or chipped if subjected to intense force. A slow and gentle technique is thus necessary for machining soft maple. In contrast, hard maple can damage tools due to its density.

A crucial factor to consider when deciding whether to use hard maple for flooring is that it scratches easily. A transparent protective coating such as shellac should be applied to maple floorboards to prevent unsightly scratches from sullying their aesthetic appeal.

Poplar Wood: Basic Characteristics

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

Poplar is a softer, more flexible, and affordable hardwood than maple. It is white to light yellow and has distinctive brown and green streaks running along the grain. Poplar lumber tends to have green streaked markings that many people consider unsightly imperfections.

Common varieties include white poplar varieties (like bigtooth aspen and American aspen) and yellow poplar varieties (specifically tulip tree).

The softness and lightness of poplar mean that it is more easily dented and scratched than maple and other denser types of hardwood. However, poplar is highly weather-resistant and is not susceptible to warping when exposed to rain, sun, and temperature fluctuations. Yellow poplar is particularly resistant to natural elements.

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Due to its structural and aesthetic characteristics, poplar wood is appropriate for making items such as cabinets, doors, ceiling trimming, and joinery. The ease of working with poplar also makes it well-suited for making small, detailed objects like kitchen spoons and bowls.

The weather resistance and the neat, straight profile of poplar lumber also make this particular type of hardwood a popular choice for roof siding and outdoor decking.

Working With Poplar Wood

Carpenter shaving a poplar wood.

Poplar wood requires far less effort to work with than most other types of hardwood, including soft maple. Indeed, working with poplar is almost comparable with softwoods such as pine.

A significant advantage of working with poplar wood is that it is highly amenable to being worked with hand tools, unlike many hardwood varieties.

The light and soft quality of poplar mean it is not well-suited for flooring.

Poplar can be used successfully for cabinet and furniture-making, though it must be painted or treated with a protective coating because the wood is easily dented and scratched.

The green streaks typically found on poplar timber can be improved through a simple process called tanning. Tanning involves repeatedly leaving the wood in the sun for several hours until the green streaks darken into a more aesthetically pleasing tan or dark brown color. The green markings can be diminished further with an application of gel or oil-based lacquer.

Conclusion

Maple and poplar are affordable varieties of hardwood. Maple is stronger than poplar and is better for making flooring and heavy-duty wooden furniture. In contrast, poplar wood is lighter, more flexible, and easier to work with than maple.

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References:

RHS: Acer

RHS: Populus alba

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Contribution of poplars and willows to sustainable forestry and rural development

Forest Products Laboratory: Maple

Oxford Academic: Forest Science