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Experiences w/ poplar? Need basswood replacement

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  • Experiences w/ poplar? Need basswood replacement

    What are your experiences with carving poplar? What different species are available on the East Coast, or is it all yellow (tulip) poplar? And most importantly, do you find it to be dimensionally stable over time?

    My boss and I are traditional frame makers. We make our own moldings, carve ornament, gesso, water gild, etc. Basswood has long been the standard for quality frames in America, but we can no longer find a reliable source for consistently good basswood. Too often, it’s just to punky and light. We’re at the point now where we would like to find a new species of wood to use. My boss had a bad experience with poplar twisting and warping, and he swore he’d never use it again. But it seems to be pretty similar to basswood, and it’s readily available. I haven’t used poplar in a few years, but I remember it seemed easy to work.

    I’d love to hear other ideas for wood species to try. I haven’t used butternut, just because it doesn’t seem like it’s very widely available in large quantity. But if you know of a good source in the mid atlantic, I would be interested to give it a try. We usually buy a few hundred board feet at a time, so that’s a concern. Also, the more closed grain, the better. Large open can pores make finishing with gesso difficult.

    Thank you for the input.

  • #2
    The East Coast is long. So narrowing it down by state would help.

    Basswood can be found but the best basswood comes from the Wisconsin area. I'm sure the further north you go the better. If you're buying your wood in the south, well the growing conditions are much different than the north and that is where the quality of the wood differs.

    As for poplar, there are a lot of woods called poplar. The most common is the yellow poplar which is what you see in Home Depot. I would say it is just as stable as Basswood. It too depends on where it comes from. The further north, the better.

    Now, my suggestion would be to look further north to purchase your basswood. I realize if you're in the southern East coast that presents to be a cost factor. But if you're in the middle Eastern coast, you can purchase your wood in Pennsylvania or Ohio, and your wood will be somewhat better. But the slowing the growing season, the better the wood.

    Have you tried aspen? It is a wood similar to poplar--and often called the same. It too can be a problem depending on where the wood comes from.

    Best of luck!

    Bob L


    • #3
      What is your east coast availability of birch (Betula sp) like? I used a lot of it for mass producing spoons and forks.

      Aspen poplar is used for the warp-free mass production of disposable chop sticks for the asian market.

      Another poplar, often with tinges of green in the wood, is sold here as warp-free 1/2" x 6" stock called "drawer-side."
      Which is exactly what it is intended for. I carve a lot of it for wood-cut printing. Holds good detail.
      Brian T


      • #4
        We would all like trouble-free wood. The reality is that all wood is variable. The tree grew for forty years on that ridge, subjected to a nearly constant wind. Now that it's harvested, it's releasing the stresses of all those years. The other trees grew just over the ridge, protected from the constant wind.


        • #5
          Gilder, we wood burned a lot of Italian Poplar which was great and most people got it from cabinet makers. The key is "Italian." Regular store poplar isn't even close. I'm out of my league here but would think Butternut would be good for frames, as well as birch. I can understand the lack of sources for Butternut though.

          Quality basswood comes from Wisconsin and Minnesota and is a lot different than the Eastern stuff. I've tried carving Eastern Basswood and the kindest thing I can say is it is "junk." Worthless.

          Please update us on what you find for a solution.
          Living among knives and fire.


          • #6
            Thanks for the replies. We’re in Virginia, about 75 miles west of Washington. Pennsylvania isn’t too far, so I’ll look for basswood up there. I know a lot of our basswood has come from North Carolina, although we’ve gotten it from around the Baltimore area, as well. Maybe we’re buying too far South.

            As for poplar, it seems like most of the stuff around here is yellow poplar. If it’s just referred to as “poplar,” is it safe to assume that it is yellow poplar? I’ve worked with what I believe was yellow poplar, but I didn’t order the wood, so I don’t know for sure where it came from. I remember it seemed slightly denser than basswood.

            Am am I correct then that, generally speaking, yellow poplar is also usually better from the north?

            Im not aware of anybody around here who sells aspen, but I haven’t gone looking for it, either. I think it only grows out west, but I don’t know how much of it makes it east.


            • #7
              Here's a good reference resource.
              Just be careful of the sloppy uses of common names.
              Sometimes there are regional differences.

              Explore the woods, break out of the ordinary. Identifying and using hundreds of woods worldwide.
              Brian T


              • #8
                Brian beat me to it with the wood database link. Here's another link that is useful to me:

                Yellow poplar sometimes called tulip poplar is a bit harder than basswood. It holds detail well. Often found in DIY stores. I haven't found it to warp significantly, but as Phil points out, depends on where it grew.

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                • #9
                  Gilder, Italian Poplar, and Northern Basswood are great. I'd stay away from any Eastern stuff. I'd at least try it for comparison...big difference.
                  Living among knives and fire.



                  • #10
                    Hi Gilder
                    I have been using yellow poplar from a hundred year old pipe organ to make Christmas tree ornaments, it takes more effort to carve than basswood,it holds detail very well, sands nicely and paints very well,
                    moisture content about 0% LOL


                    • #11
                      Thank you all. I’ll try the yellow poplar, and I’ll try having some northern basswood shipped.


                      • #12
                        In line with frame making, when I was learning to hand cut dovetails I made an Amish style foot stool with a step halfway to the top from Home Depot Poplar. In the nearly 20 years since I made it it hasn't shrunk, warped or split and it's strictly a dovetail and dabs of wood glue assembly, not a metal fastener in it. The finish is hand-rubbed oil which does show some scuffing from frequent use in the kitchen.