In my experience, when building projects in your home or making new wood furniture, you need to know the best wood to use, especially when using hardwood. With oak vs poplar wood, using the wrong wood at the wrong place can mean that your projects, cabinets, and even flooring will have a much shorter lifespan overall.
I’m going into detail about several features that make each species suitable for various projects and other considerations to note when venturing into the world of woodworking.
Oak vs Poplar
While these two types of wood are often used together or made the same furniture, they have some very differing properties. Knowing how they are different and their exact strengths and weaknesses will allow you to use them effectively without wasting or overspending.
I’ll take a look at the material features, capabilities, durability, costs, benefits, and general features of both oak and poplar woods. Several things will help you use both kinds of wood in the right places, using the right structural supports.
|Color||Light – Medium brown with a reddish hue||Light grey with a green tint|
|Hardness (measured using the Janka hardness rating)||1290 lbf||540 lbf|
|Durability||Highly durable||Moderately durable but lacks resistance to moisture and insects|
|Maintenance||Requires low maintenance||Requires medium maintenance|
|Strength||Very strong||Requires additional support|
|Outdoor Use||No||Indoor use only|
|Wood Carving Usage||Yes||No|
|Workability||Easy to work with||Easy to work with|
|Special Features||Useful for brewing and tannery||No significant special features|
|Availability||Readily available||Readily available|
Oak is one of the hardwoods that is denser than most other wood like maple or walnut; oak usually measures around 1290 on the Janka scale. Because oak is such dense wood, it usually weighs much more than other woods, making it much more brittle and prone to snapping under stress.
Poplar is one of the softer woods on the market. The wood measures 540 when using the Janka hardness rating, making it hardy enough to handle being used for building material.
Although it is extremely soft, poplar is prized for its flexibility, allowing it to bend under stress, making it perfect for support in other structures.
Poplar is lighter than oak. As a result, it’s more flexible. However, poplar displays unbelievable resilience. Oak is more likely to crack or splinter.
Regarding the design capabilities of oak vs poplar, poplar is easier to work with than most other woods, retaining some strength when shaped. You can shape and create poplar using essential woodworking tools made out of steel and carbide steel.
Oakwood is one of the hardest woods to work with because of its strength and weight, requiring that you use tungsten or carbide steel exclusively. It fails to work as a support structure because of its brittleness but works perfectly as the primary wood for most projects.
Regarding oak vs poplar for overall durability, oak is one of the most highly durable woods when used for flooring, furniture (including upholstered furniture), or cabinets. It can handle scratches and dents without worry.
However, oak will fail when used as the only material when building furniture (including dining room furniture). The wood does not bend easily and will break when bent.
Poplar is the most common wood used to support other wood structures, often used in oak furniture and cabinets to add some flexibility. However, it doesn’t work well when used as the only material used for regular furniture. It becomes easily scratched and dented with the most basic everyday functions.
Oak is relatively easy to maintain. All you need to do is wipe its surface with soap and water. For best results, you’ll need to strip it down to bare wood annually and reapply the finish. This process boosts the longevity of the oak.
Poplar is great for smaller furniture. However, it can’t withstand heavy loads or pressure. You’re unlikely to find large pieces of furniture made from poplar. They’re more suitable for center tables or footstools. These smaller objects are easier to maintain and refinish when necessary.
Oak will usually cost much more than poplar, as good oak trees have become harder to find and mill. With a global shortage that started in 2020, most hardwoods like this have become rare, causing the price to spike a lot.
Poplar is still one of the most low-cost woods you can find on the market, often being part of the reclaimed wood you can find worldwide. Depending on your location, the prices for the wood will differ significantly, depending on the availability of lumber in your area.
What is Oak Wood Traditionally Used for?
Oak wood is traditionally used to build cabinets, furniture, and flooring because of its durability and scratch-resistant properties. Most people prefer to have it because of its ability to be stained to reveal attractive grain patterns that are prized around the world without having to use veneers. (Source: Vermont Woods Studios)
Common usage for oak wood (mainly red oak) is in the construction of barrels in which liquors are aged, with many wineries, whiskey distillers, and rum distilleries only using oak. This has made it one of the most sought-after woods globally as there are multiple ways to be used.
When used for furniture, oak is known to last an extremely long time, with most owners of this furniture enjoying a piece that can last a lifetime. As the wood has become harder to find, many cabinets and furniture pieces are built with oak and other wood combinations to save costs.
What is Poplar Traditionally Used for?
Poplar is one of the most affordable woods currently on the market due to the trees’ fast-growing speed. Many countries grow poplar trees due to the low care needed and the relatively small space they use.
Poplar woods are used in furniture as a support material or when building upholstered furniture like chairs, and they support wood in cabinets. Moldings and trims are also usually made out of poplar, with most common picture frames now also being made out of poplar.
Because of its ease of growth, poplar has become one of the woods most commonly used for industrial purposes. It can be used for crates, pallets (even for pallet beds), and boxes, making it even more poplar.
What is the History of Oak?
The oak tree is one of the oldest living trees globally and is now protected in many countries around the world. It has been used in furniture making since the 9th century when the Vikings built their ships out of oak, with the wood continually being used for shipbuilding until the 19th century.
The rarity and costs of oak have prevented it from being used for large constructions, usually being used for furniture and trim pieces. Some older homes worldwide are still built with oak beams in the roofs, causing high costs when repairing them. (Source: oaksofchevithornebarton.com)
Only recently, with the diversity of some oak trees becoming endangered, has the cost of the oak tree become so high. Most commonly, oak will be used and reused until the wood can no longer be saved, with most furniture manufacturers preferring to use veneers to make oak last as long as possible.
What is the History of Poplar?
There are 25 to 30 wood species of poplar in the world that are commonly farmed or used as purely ornamental trees. The tree grows fast, growing three to five feet each year, reaching maturity in only eight to nine years, reaching a total height of 70 feet for the tallest trees.
This has made poplar one of the most used woods globally because the tree is easy to farm. This is similar to how readily available birch is. Owing to the vast majority of the wood species rotting away quickly, it is hard to know how long the wood has been used. (Source: Vermont Woods Studios)
The trees are native to the northern hemisphere, growing across Europe, Northern America, and Asia. Currently, it is being farmed in India, Europe, South Africa, and parts of the Americas, with the most significant danger to the wood being termites that destroy thousands of trees each year.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Poplar Good Wood to Build Furniture With?
Yes, poplar is a good and affordable wood to build furniture with if you want something cheap and easy to work with. However, if you are producing high-end furniture, it is recommended that you only use poplar to support the surrounding table.
Is Poplar Stronger Than Oak?
No, poplar is not stronger than oak; however, it is much more flexible, allowing the wood to bend when flexed. Poplar is stronger than plywood.
Should You Paint Oak?
No, oak is okay with being stained, varnished, or waxed but will not look good when painted. However, the wood will not absorb the paint and can be sanded clean to reveal the wood underneath.
I recommend using oak (red oak) if you are building furniture, and cabinets, or installing wood flooring. You can use poplar as a support structure if you want to save on costs, but the wood may rot away faster than the oak around it.