Is Poplar Good for Outdoor Use?

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Poplar enjoys widespread use in woodworking for its cost-effectiveness, adaptability, and user-friendliness. Yet, for outdoor applications, one must weigh considerations like its durability, decay resistance, and capacity to endure severe weather. 

If you’re pondering whether Poplar makes the cut for outdoor use, let me share some insights. Keep reading!

Is Poplar Ideal to Use for Exterior Furniture?

In most cases, poplar is not ideal for exterior furniture due to its low natural durability and susceptibility to decay and insect damage. However, it can still be used for outdoor furniture if properly treated and maintained. 

For example, a poplar outdoor bench can last several years if coated with a protective finish and regularly sealed against moisture and other outdoor elements.

Benefits of Using Poplar for Outdoors

While it may not be the most durable or naturally resistant wood for outdoor use, poplar still offers several benefits that make it a popular choice for many woodworkers. Let’s explore some key advantages of using poplar for outdoor projects.

Poplar

High Density

Poplar is a dense hardwood with a tight, uniform grain structure, making it resistant to water penetration and less likely to swell or shrink with changes in humidity. 

The high density of poplar wood makes it less susceptible to moisture absorption, warping, and splitting. It is an excellent choice for outdoor projects that require stable and durable wood.

Closed Grain Wood

Compared to open-grain woods like oak or ash lumber, poplar’s closed grain means that it has a smoother surface that is less likely to trap dirt, water, or other outdoor debris that can lead to decay or rot. 

This makes poplar easier to clean and maintain and less likely to be affected by moisture-related problems that can compromise the wood’s structural integrity. 

milling Poplar wood

Furthermore, poplar’s closed grain makes it a great candidate for painting or staining, allowing the wood to have a more uniform appearance with a smooth finish.

It’s Softer Compared to Other Hardwoods

The fact that poplar is a relatively soft hardwood compared to other popular outdoor wood choices like oak or cedar may not seem like an advantage at first. However, this characteristic can make poplar more desirable for certain outdoor applications.

For example, the softer nature of poplar makes it easier to work with using standard woodworking tools, such as saws, drills, and sanders, which allows woodworkers to shape and customize poplar for their specific outdoor projects easily. 

Besides, the softer nature of poplar can also make it more forgiving when it comes to expansion and contraction due to changes in temperature and humidity. This can be especially important for outdoor furniture or structures exposed to various weather conditions.

Poplar rough cut

Overall, while the softness of poplar may not make it the most durable choice for outdoor use, it can offer some benefits in terms of ease of use, customization, and appearance.

Light in Weight

Poplar’s light weight is a benefit for outdoor use because it makes the wood easier to work with and handle during construction, which can save time and effort. It can also make transporting and shipping more economical, reducing the overall cost of a project. 

Finally, poplar’s lightweight can be advantageous for projects that require a lightweight material, such as outdoor furniture that needs to be moved around frequently or structures like treehouses or swing sets that require a sturdy yet lightweight frame.

Drawbacks of Using Poplar for Outdoors

Prone to Water Damage

Poplar wood is prone to water damage due to its low natural resistance to moisture. When exposed to water, poplar can absorb moisture, causing it to swell and potentially warp or crack over time.

Poplar bookshelves

The softness of poplar wood can make it more vulnerable to dents, scratches, and other types of damage from water or moisture, especially when it has not been properly treated or sealed to protect against water damage.

Prone to Scratches and Dents

Poplar’s workability and malleability, while advantageous for shaping and crafting, also render it more susceptible to damage from daily use. This characteristic should be a consideration if you’re planning an outdoor project where high durability and resistance to wear are critical.

However, if properly treated and maintained, poplar can still be a viable option for outdoor use, especially for projects less likely to be heavy wear and tear. 

Steps to Finishing Poplar for Outdoor Use

Finishing poplar for outdoor use requires a few essential steps to protect the wood from the elements and enhance its natural beauty. I suggest following the steps below: 

Step #1: Polish and Clean the Wood

Start by using a soft-bristled brush or a vacuum cleaner with a soft brush attachment to remove any dust or debris from the surface of the wood. Make sure to remove any debris from the pores and crevices of the wood.

clean wood surface

Next, dampen a soft cloth with water or a gentle wood cleaner, and use it to wipe down the surface of the wood. Make sure to wipe with the grain of the wood, and avoid getting the wood too wet.

If there are any stains or spots on the wood, use a wood cleaner or a mixture of water and vinegar to remove them. Apply the cleaner or mixture to the affected area, and let it sit for a few minutes before wiping it away with a damp cloth.

Lastly, use fine-grit sandpaper to sand the surface of the wood lightly. Sanding helps to smooth out any rough spots or uneven areas on the surface of the wood.

Step #2: Coat With a Wood Conditioner

Coating poplar with a wood conditioner do ensures the wood absorbs the finish evenly and prevents blotching. Using a brush or a clean cloth, apply a liberal coat of wood conditioner to the surface of the poplar wood. Apply the conditioner evenly and work it into the wood fibers.

apply wood conditioner to Poplar

Allow the wood conditioner to penetrate the wood for the recommended amount of time, usually between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on the brand. Then, wipe off any excess conditioner with a clean cloth.

Step #3: Wait Until Dry

Once the wood conditioner has set and dried, proceed with a light sanding over the wood’s surface using fine-grit sandpaper. 

This step is crucial as it smooths down any grain that’s been raised during the conditioning process, ensuring the wood is perfectly prepped for the finishing touches.

It is best to wait until the wood conditioner is fully dry before applying the finish. This will ensure that the finish adheres well to the wood, absorbs evenly, and produces a smooth and beautiful final product.

Step #4: Stain the Wood

Staining poplar wood can improve its appearance, even out the color, highlight the natural grain patterns, and provide additional protection from UV damage. It is a simple and effective way to enhance the natural beauty of the wood and create a stunning finished product.

apply stain on Poplar wood

Using a brush or a clean cloth, apply the wood stain to the poplar wood, working with the grain of the wood. Be sure to apply the stain evenly and thoroughly, ensuring no drips or puddles.

Step #5: Allow the Wood to Fully Dry

Generally, it’s advisable to let the wood sit for a minimum of 24-48 hours in an environment that is warm, dry, and well-aerated, and out of direct sunlight or close to any heat sources. 

You can assess the dryness of the wood by gently touching it to see if it feels cool or moist to the touch.

If it does, you should allow it more time to dry before proceeding with the finishing process. Allowing the poplar wood to dry fully is an important step in the finishing process that helps to ensure a successful and long-lasting finish. 

Step #6: Stain Again and Wait for it to Dry

To achieve the specific shade and depth of color you want with your stain, it might be necessary to layer on a second or even a third coat. 

Repeat the initial application process for each additional layer, making sure to let each coat dry completely before moving on to the next.

dry stain on Poplar wood

Once the stain has fully dried, apply a sealer or topcoat to the poplar wood to protect it and enhance the finished appearance. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the specific sealer or topcoat product used.

Does Poplar Have Natural Rot Resistance?

Indeed, poplar isn’t naturally resistant to decay. It’s categorized as a non-durable wood species, vulnerable to rot, deterioration, and pests if not properly treated and if it remains exposed to moisture over time.

However, proper treatment and finishing techniques can make poplar wood more resistant to rot and decay. 

Outdoor Furniture Pieces You Can Do With Poplar

With its versatility and affordability, poplar can be a great choice for any outdoor project. Here are some ideas for outdoor furniture pieces that you can create with poplar:

deck furniture

Conclusion

Whether you’re an experienced craftsperson or a newcomer to woodworking, poplar can indeed be suitable for outdoor projects. Although it lacks the inherent rot resistance of some other woods, with the proper finish and regular upkeep, it can withstand the elements.

If affordability and versatility are high on your list, and you’re prepared to put in the effort for its upkeep, poplar is certainly worth considering for your outdoor endeavors.

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Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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