WoodSense: Spotlight on Yellow Poplar

Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera, or tulip tree), the tallest hardwood tree in North America, also rates as the most valuable commercial species because its intolerance to shade stifles lower branches and produces a perfect, straight trunk with clear lumber even in small trees.

YOU MAY FIND IT SURPRISING that yellow poplar has yet another commercial value—as a “honey” tree. The blossoms can annually yield up to eight pounds of nectar, equivalent to about four pounds of delectable honey.

History in woodworking

Old yellow poplar trees develop massive trunks. In fact, pioneers hewed dugout canoes from those big boles. They also learned to make everything from fruit baskets to boxes to trim and household furniture and utensils called “treenware” from the easily worked and versatile wood.

Today, the wood of yellow poplar has a variety of uses no other tree can match. With enough strength for most applications, sufficient stiffness, stability, and wear resistance, it’s made into cabinets, doors, furniture, mouldings, musical instruments, plywood cores (see “It’s a fact that…”), toys, and much more. In some locales around the country, yellow poplar even finds its way into light construction and siding.

Yellow Poplar Quick Take

COST Relatively inexpensive
WEIGHT Moderate
DURABILITY Moderate (indoors, and outdoors w/ paint)
TOOL TYPE Hand and power tools
COMMON USES Utility cabinets and furniture, carvings, doors, millwork, mouldings, shelving, toys, treenware, and turnings

Where the wood comes from

Principally an eastern tree, you’ll find yellow poplar growing from upstate New York to the Carolinas, and southwest into Missouri, with nearly two-thirds of the nation’s old growth in the southeastern Appalachians. There, yellow poplar reaches 100'+ heights and 8' diameters, often free of branches for 80' or more. In total, the tree represents more than 11% of commercially available hardwoods in the United States.

What you’ll pay

Although yellow poplar has high commercial value due to its incredible versatility, to you the consumer, it’s relatively bargain priced. A board foot of 4/4 (3/16") FAS lumber costs about $2.60. Sorry, you won’t find plywood available, nor veneer (it all goes for cross-banding). However, near its source you can expect to find boards in widths up to 20", thicknesses to 3" or more, and lengths to 16'! (Because wood from magnolia, the cucumber tree, is practically identical, it’s sometimes mixed in.)

It’s a fact that...

  • There may be taller yellow poplars, but you’ll discover the overall largest one in Bedford, Virginia. The National Register of Big Trees lists it as the species’ champion at only 111' tall, but it boasts a girth of 516"!
  • Want to see a bunch of big yellow poplars? Visit the Joyce Kilmer (“I think that I will never see…”) Forest in North Carolina. Many tower up to 150' tall.
  • In the late 1800s, some of the first plywood made in the United States was three-ply, cross-grained, yellow poplar panels used for one-piece carriage tops.

How to select the best stock

The wood of yellow poplar weighs about one-third less than walnut, is only half as strong and hard (see chart), and has similar texture and straight grain. In other words, it’s a great wood for working. The problem? Choosing the right boards—unless you’ll paint your project (the wood takes paint very well, by the way). That’s because the sapwood has a pleasing creamy color but the heartwood can be a mixed bag.

That part of the wood ranges in color from pale green to tan, many times streaked by deep blue, gray, and purple, all harmless mineral stains that won’t go away. To some these streaks prove attractive under a clear finish. But if you like less color variation, specify all sapwood or sort through the boards for uniform tone.

Working yellow poplar in the shop

Looking for wood that’s easy to work with hand tools? You’ll find it with yellow poplar, but keep the following in mind when using power tools to machine the wood. 

• Ripping and routing. Yellow poplar does tend to burn, so cut it with sharp blades and bits. Always use a steady feed rate.

• Assembling. Hardwoods normally require a slower rpm when drilling and boring. With yellow poplar, speed it up to avoid burning. And frequently clean chips from the hole when using large-diameter bits.

Deciding on the right finish

The only finishing headache you’ll have with yellow poplar is staining. It has a yellow-green cast that you can neutralize by adding a toner to the clear coat, but the heartwood color variations make results unpredictable. 

So first test any stain on scrapwood similar to your project stock. 

There’s no doubt that yellow poplar ranks as a top-rate paintable wood. For outdoor use, paint is absolutely necessary.

Yellow Poplar Finishing Secrets

  • You may find the simple figure of this wood boring unless stained. If you do, use either a pigmented stain or dye. It can be a low-cost look-alike to cherry and mahogany.
  • Sheen makes even this Plain Jane wood look great, and a film finish (over stain or dye) will give you that. A penetrating finish, such as oil/varnish, won’t.
  • For durability plus sheen, apply a water-based polyurethane. Sand off all fuzz between coats.
  • Water-based paint requires a primer coat followed by light sanding to eliminate raised wood fibers and achieve a smooth finish.
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