The psychedelic swirling patterns of wood grain can be truly stunning works of art. This is art that comes directly from nature, and after all, no artists can top the majesty and beauty of the natural world. Exotic hardwoods are prized for their unique patterns and colors, sometimes costing a small fortune per board foot. I love a fancy new kind of wood as much as the next woodworker, but I find one of the most visually appealing kinds of wood to be one readily available at your local Home Depot. Poplar is cheap, lightweight, and often covered in paint or stain upon final presentation.
Poplar can be anything from pale white to jet black. It can have purple and green streaks, also known as rainbow poplar, which look almost holographic when finish is applied. I see boards of poplar wood all the time in lumber stores that are so beautiful they could be hung on a wall and called art.
The two pictures above show some tabletops I made featuring dark pieces of poplar alongside other more prestigious types of wood like Zebra, Sapele, and Canary. Now call me crazy, but I feel like much of the time poplar steals the show. Most other wood has a more consistent color scheme, but the splashes of black, purple, and green that are found in poplar are unlike that of any other kind of wood. Now look at an example of a tabletop with some lighter hued poplar.
Both end pieces of this tabletop are made of poplar. Contrast that with the red oak in the center. Oak may be a strong and durable wood, but it cannot match the visually striking nature of poplar. Part of the reason for this inconsistency in color and grain pattern is that poplar trees grow relatively quickly. This fast paced growth is what makes the wood so exciting to look at.
I only feel the need to write this post because I’ve heard woodworkers dismiss poplar for not being durable enough, often writing it off as wood to be painted or stained. I believe poplar to be the perfect wood for beginner woodworkers because it is soft, lightweight, cheap, and incredible looking. It doesn’t do well outside, but for interior use the possibilities of poplar are endless.
By Dan Goodman