Oak vs. Poplar: Which One to Use?

Oak vs. Poplar: Which One to Use?

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If you are thinking of building something around your home, whether for a small woodworking project or a large construction job, there are many different types of solid wood to choose from. Two very popular types of wood in North America include oak and poplar.

That said, these materials are substantially different from each other, and they warrant a side-by-side comparison. So, let’s get right to it and figure out which of these two types of wood is best used for a variety of purposes, and which one you should use next.

What Is Oak?

First, we have the oak tree. Today we are going to focus specifically on the red oak tree. The reason for this is that it is the most commonly found in North America, as well as one of the most popular for construction. That said, there are well over 160 different types of oak trees that can be found throughout the world, most of them being found in the Northern Hemisphere.

The oak tree is a flowering deciduous tree, which means that it does lose its leaves during the winter and colder seasons. It is also a type of hardwood, and it is known for being quite structurally sound, dense, heavy, and hard, as well as resistant to physical damage, particularly denting and scratching.

With that being said, it is not very pest or moisture-resistant, and should not be used for outdoor purposes, especially if not properly sealed or treated. Even if properly sealed, it is still not the first choice for outdoor use. It’s also not going to resist mold, fungus, or rotting very well. As for appearance, red oak features a fairly straight and tight grain, as well as a coarse and uneven texture.

This wood also features a lot of knots, gaps, and holes, and usually has a brownish-red color. Oak can be used for a variety of purposes, especially for indoor needs, mainly things like furniture, decorative pieces, cabinets, flooring, and other small purposes.

What Is Poplar?

We then have the poplar tree, which is also a deciduous hardwood tree, although it is quite soft. There are technically over 35 different species of poplar in the world. However, as far as North America is concerned, one of the most common types is the yellow poplar, so this is what we are going to be focusing on today.

The poplar tree is generally native to the Northern Hemisphere, mostly in North America, Northern Asia, and Northern Europe. Although poplar is a type of hardwood, it is actually one of the least dense, lightest, softest, and least structurally sound hardwoods around. It also doesn’t have very much sap or resin, so it’s not very moisture, rot, or pest-resistant.

However, poplar does have a fairly straight grain that is very tight and uniform in nature, plus it really doesn’t have any gaps, knots, or voids. The wood has a yellowish and creamy white color and is generally used for many utilitarian purposes, such as for low-end furniture, plywood, pallets, slabs, and other low-end applications. It is best used for indoor purposes, and it is quite affordable.

Oak vs. Poplar: What Are the Differences?

Now that we know what both oak and poplar are, let’s figure out what makes these two types of wood different from each other.


The red oak tree features a Janka hardness rating of 1,220 lbf, whereas yellow poplar comes in at just 540 lbf. As you can see, although yellow poplar is technically a type of hardwood, it is actually extremely soft.

This means that it is not very resistant to denting and scratching, so it’s generally not used for high-end purposes, especially for things like furniture and floors that need to be able to take a lot of punishment. Red oak, on the other hand, is much harder and more durable in this sense and is therefore a popular choice for any high-traffic areas or things like furniture.


In terms of its weight, red oak is quite dense, and it comes in at 43 lbs per cubic foot. Yellow poplar, on the other hand, is much lighter, as it comes in at just 29 lbs per cubic foot. As you can see, oak is much heavier. On one hand, this does lend to its increased durability and a structural soundness. However, because it’s so much heavier, it can also be a bit harder to work with.

Pest and Moisture Resistance

Although this is not really a difference, it is worth noting that neither yellow poplar nor red oak is very moisture or pest-resistant at all. If we had to choose one, we would say that red oak is likely the better choice for outdoor use when compared to yellow poplar.

However, neither of these types of wood, even if properly treated and sealed, will last very long when exposed to high levels of moisture over a prolonged period of time. In simplest terms, neither should be used for outdoor applications or for any purpose that involves a lot of exposure to moisture, such as use in bathrooms.

Overall Strength and Durability

As for the overall strength and durability, if we are talking about the modulus of rupture, the modulus of elasticity, or the compressive strength, red oak scores much higher on all of these fronts, making it the better choice for strength and durability. If you had to choose one for basic construction purposes, it would be red oak.


Poplar is a fairly easy type of wood to work with. It tends to be easy to glue, saw, stain, paint, and everything in between. It also isn’t very heavy. On the other hand, red oak is a bit harder to work with because it is a fair bit heavier, plus it does also contain some gaps and knots. However, in the grand scheme of things, both are fairly easy to work with.

Appearance – Color and Grain

As for the appearance, most people would agree that red oak is by far the better looking of these two types of wood, as it has a reddish-brown color, a straight grain, and a somewhat coarse texture.

On the other hand, yellow poplar has a creamy, yellowish-white color, along with a straight grain and a uniform texture. Although it is technically a matter of personal preference, most people would say that red oak is the better-looking of the two.


In terms of the cost, you can pay up to $25 per board foot for red oak, whereas yellow poplar should not cost you more than $6 per board foot. As you can see, yellow poplar is definitely the more affordable of the two.

When to Use Oak?

If you need a type of board that is extremely hard, dense, and durable, then red oak is the way to go. Red oak is more than ideal for indoor purposes, especially for high-traffic areas that need to take a whole lot of punishment.

It is more than suitable for furniture, decorative pieces, cabinets, and more. Just keep in mind that red oak is not very moisture-resistant, so you might want to keep it out of bathrooms, and you definitely don’t want to use it outdoors.

When to Use Poplar?

Yellow poplar is a decent type of wood to use indoors, especially for utilitarian purposes. It can be used for basic construction lumber, building boxes and crates, and even low-end furniture. Just don’t expect it to be very structurally sound, so we probably wouldn’t use it to build a whole house.

It also isn’t overly moisture-resistant, so keep it out of the bathroom and don’t use it outdoors. That said, if you need some extremely affordable lumber that won’t break your bank, yellow poplar is a good choice.

Alternatives to Oak and Poplar

Seeing as neither oak nor poplar is ideal for outdoor purposes because they aren’t very pest or moisture-resistant, you might want to consider other types of wood including mahogany, teak, spruce, and cedar. These are all much more pest and moisture-resistant and are suitable for outdoor use.


As you can see, both red oak and yellow poplar are decent types of wood to consider. Yes, there are some major differences between them, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Now that you know what these types of wood excel at, you can determine for yourself what projects you want to use them for.