Top 3 Finishes for Poplar Wood

If you talk about hardwoods, poplar undoubtedly is one of the most unpopular ones. It is notorious for being spongy in different areas of the grain. So staining the wood is extremely difficult unless you use a wood conditioner. Poplar is a hardwood but it is pretty soft and can be dented and scratched without effort.

Not to mention its spongy nature means it absorbs moisture very easily. However, it is pretty affordable lumber and readily available, making it a viable option to make woodworking projects. Choosing a finish for poplar carefully is very important due to its nature. So in this article, we will be going over the top 3 finishes for poplar wood.

The top 3 finishes for poplar are tung oil, polyurethane, and gel stain. Since tung oil is very durable against water, something like poplar that absorbs water readily can use the moisture barrier. Polyurethane is a  pretty good sealer and a few layers of it would do really good to protect poplar from moisture. Lastly, stains are not a good option for poplar as it is more spongy in some areas than others. This causes stains to blotch on the wood, ruining its appeal. This is why something like a gel stain is useful as it is thicker and applies evenly on the surface of poplar wood.

As far as hardwoods go, poplar is pretty low on the Janka hardness scale. This is why it is easy to dent and scratch compared to other hardwoods. Any hardwood under the 1000 Janka hardness rating will dent easy.

The grain of poplar is also very simple and not as appealing as something like oak or maple. However, it is very cheap compared to those hardwoods and can be used for multiple applications. You can also make furniture from poplar, however, you need to make sure to choose a good finish so that it does not damage easily. You also need to be careful about sealing the poplar well since it absorbs moisture like a sponge.

Best Natural Finish for Poplar

Tung oil is the best natural oil finish for any wood and that includes poplar. It has some of the best water-resistant properties that cannot be compared to any other oil finish. People in Asian countries have been using it to water-proof their boats for centuries. It serves as a great way to protect wood against moisture even in the modern day. Poplar absorbs water like a sponge so it is only logical to use a natural finish that will protect the wood from moisture. Because poplar does not have any water-resistant properties and is susceptible to rot and decay.

Applying any finish on poplar is tricky due to its properties. Some areas on poplar are softer than others so they will absorb more finish than others and end up darker. This is why most finishes end up blotchy on poplar wood. The trick is to not let the tung oil sit on the wood for too long. After 5-10 minutes of applying the first coat of tung oil, you should wipe off the excess. This way the soft areas will not have much time to absorb more finish than others. 

Tung oil can be found in your local hardware store or you can always order it online. Hope’s 100% Pure Natural Tung oil is a great option if you are unsure of which brand to go for. It has better drying times and you can apply multiple coats on your poplar furniture to help get better water resistance on it.

Best Clear Finish for Poplar Wood

Polyurethane is the best clear finish if you are looking to waterproof your polar wood. Lacquer is another great option but it does not give you the durability polyurethane does. This makes it an extremely suitable clear finish for wood that can be easily dented like poplar. Polyurethane dries to a hard clear film finish when it dries. This seals off poplar and also creates a layer of added protection for the wood.

To apply polyurethane to poplar you need to apply at least 4-5 coats. The first and second coats of the clear poly finish will be absorbed by the wood. After which the third, fourth, and fifth coats of the clear finish will sit on top of the wood and harden. They will seal off the wood entirely and create a barrier that will protect the poplar from any moisture. All these coats of polyurethane will guard the wood against denting easily and increase its durability.

Polyurethane clear coat finish is really easy to find at your local hardware store. It is the second most popular clear finish amongst woodworkers, the first being lacquer. Varathane’s Ultimate Polyurethane is amongst the top brands in the market for the clear finish.

Best Stain for Poplar Wood

Poplar does not take stain well unless you use something like wood conditioner on it. The soft spongy areas of poplar end up absorbing more than the others giving it a blotched look. This is why stain is the worst finish for this kind of wood. However, if you really want to stain poplar then go for something like a gel stain. Gel stains are just like normal stains, just they aren’t in the form of a runny liquid. So they end up sitting on top of the surface instead of being absorbed by it. This gives it the traditional stain look while ensuring that the poplar does not get uneven spots.

Applying gel stain is pretty similar to how you apply traditional stain. Take a rag or a foam brush and soak it in the gel stain. Then apply it onto the surface of the wood making sure you cover the entire surface evenly. Let the gel stain sit for around 5-15 minutes and after that take a rag and wipe off the excess. If you want a darker shade then apply a second coat otherwise leave it as it is. Once your stain dries you can apply a clear coat finish on top to seal the stain.

You can find traditional stains easily at your local hardware and woodworking stores. If you are having trouble finding a gel stain locally, then ordering it online is the way to go. General Finishes Gel Stain is a top brand that has multiple shades of stain available. So if you are looking for something a bit different than the usual stain shades, they have other options as well.

Is Lacquer Good for Poplar?

Lacquer is a great clear finish and probably the most preferred clear finish amongst woodworkers. Some will argue it is a wipe-on poly finish, but most people just lean towards lacquer for its easy application. It gives a shiny glossy visual to furniture compared to the satin look of polyurethane. Applying lacquer to poplar is a great way to seal it. You can spray on 5-7 coats of lacquer on your poplar wood and let it cure for a few weeks.

By the time it dries and then cures, it will have hardened to a clear film finish. The finish is pretty durable and with enough coats, it can seal poplar. So if you strongly lean towards lacquer instead of polyurethane, you can use that as well. Just make sure to apply enough coats to seal it completely since the first few coats will be absorbed by poplar wood.

FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions

Is boiled linseed oil good for poplar wood?

Boiled linseed oil is not the best oil finish for poplar. While it is hydrophobic and repels water, it does not give the best protection to wood against moisture. Compared to that, tung oil does a great job of making wood water resistant. Not to mention, poplar is a very light-coloured wood and linseed oil will yellow over time and ruin its natural look.

Can you apply polyurethane over an oil finish?

Yes, you can apply a clear coat like polyurethane or lacquer over poplar that has already been finished with an oil.

Should you seal poplar wood?

Yes, it is very important to seal poplar wood because it absorbs moisture a lot more compared to other woods. It has spongy soft spots that absorb water and cause it to rot and decay. So sealing it with a clear coat finish like polyurethane and lacquer is essential if you want your poplar furniture to last long.

Can you paint poplar?

Poplar is classified as a paint-grade wood. This is because of its soft spongy spots that do not absorb finish evenly causing blotches. 

Final Thoughts

Poplar is a wood that many woodworkers avoid using most of the time. It is softer than most hardwoods and can cause a lot of problems when you are finishing it. However, the key is to understand that poplar has soft spots and will absorb finish unevenly. Though with proper precautions and care you can finish poplar with most natural and synthetic finishes available to you.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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