If your goal is to find the best type of wood for a certain project, then you have come to the right place. Today, we are going to compare two very popular and commonly used types of wood, poplar and cedar. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, and knowing what these are will help you decide which one to use for your next big woodworking or construction project.
Let’s find out whether Poplar or cedar is the better type of wood for you.
What Is Poplar?
First, we have the poplar tree. This is a deciduous hardwood tree that can be found in most parts of the world. There are actually over 35 different types of poplar trees, and most of them are found in the Northern Hemisphere, mostly in Northern Europe, North America, and Northern Asia.
One of the most commonly found types of poplar tree in North America, which also happens to be the most popular for construction, is the yellow poplar. Therefore, this is our main focus for today. Although this tree is technically a type of hardwood, it’s actually not very dense or hard, nor is it structurally sound.
Furthermore, this material also doesn’t contain many oils or resins, so it’s not very resistant to moisture or pests and is not the best for outdoor purposes. With that being said, many people do like the appearance of poplar, as it features a straight grain, a tight and uniform texture, and it doesn’t have many voids, gaps, or knots.
At the same time, it has a creamy white or yellowish color. For the most part, it is generally used for utilitarian purposes, such as for making slabs, pallets, plywood, low-end furniture, and other low-end applications. There is also the fact that yellow poplar is a very affordable type of wood, making it appealing to those on a budget.
What Is Cedar?
We then have the cedar tree, which is an extremely large evergreen that can be found in the Pacific Northwest. Here, we are talking about the western red cedar, as this is one of the most commonly used cedar varieties for construction purposes.
This is a coniferous tree, and it is generally found in Canada and the USA, although certain types can also be found in the Himalayas and in the Mediterranean. Technically speaking, cedar is a part of the Cypress tree family, and it is actually a softwood.
The red cedar can grow up to 200’ tall and reach 13’ in diameter, therefore making it one of the largest trees in North America. This type of wood is also known for being extremely fragrant.
The center of cedar features a reddish-brown color, which is usually a bit darker brown than red, and it has a very smooth and straight grain, although it may have some irregularities or waves. Cedar does also have a lot of gaps, knots, and voids. All of that being said, many people do like the appearance of it.
Western red cedar is actually extremely soft and not very dense, so it’s not very resistant to physical damage. With that being said, one of the biggest advantages that you get with this wood is that it is ideal for outdoor use, as it is very resistant to moisture and decay, insect damage, and mold. Cedar can be used for making canoe paddles, totem poles, boats, boxes, and tools, and is also ideal for outdoor furniture.
Cedar vs Poplar: What Are the Differences?
Now that we know what both western red cedar and yellow poplar are, let’s take a closer look at what makes these two types of wood different from each other.
Both of these types of wood are fairly soft, with yellow poplar coming in at 540 lbf on the Janka hardness scale, whereas western red cedar comes in at just 350 lbf.
This means that poplar is significantly harder than western red cedar, although both are still fairly soft. When it comes down to it, neither is very resistant to denting and scratching, so care should be taken when using both of these types of wood in high-traffic areas or for things like furniture.
What is interesting to note is that yellow poplar is also heavier than cedar, not just harder. Western red cedar features a density of 23 lbs/ft3. On the other hand, yellow poplar features a density of 29 lbs/ft3. As you can see, poplar is therefore significantly heavier than western red cedar. This does in part lead to its higher durability, although its heavier weight does also make it harder to work with.
Pest and Moisture Resistance
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between these two is that yellow poplar is not at all resistant to moisture or pests, and should therefore in no circumstances be used for outdoor purposes, especially when not properly sealed or treated.
However, western red cedar is very resistant to moisture and pests and is in fact one of the most moisture-resistant types of wood that grows naturally in North America. Because of this, it is an absolutely fantastic option when it comes to outdoor use.
Not only is yellow poplar heavier and harder than western red cedar, but it also scores much higher in all of the other categories that determine the strength of wood. This includes the compressive strength, the modulus of elasticity, and the modulus of rupture.
What it really all comes down to is that poplar is just a much harder, stronger, and more structurally sound type of wood that can handle more weight and pressure than red cedar.
Both of these types of wood are fairly easy to work with, but with that being said, western red cedar is known for having many knots and gaps, which can cause problems when it comes to sawing and nailing. Due to the oils contained in western red cedar, it is also not quite as easy to paint or stain as poplar, although it’s also not overly difficult.
Appearance – Color and Grain
Another big difference here is the appearance of these two types of wood. Yellow poplar features a creamy white or yellowish color whereas western red cedar is more of a reddish-brown. Furthermore, western red cedar has a lot of gaps, knots, and voids, whereas poplar does not.
Cedar is also known for having more waves and irregularities in the grain. For the most part, people usually agree that western red cedar is a very nice-looking type of wood, whereas yellow poplar is more basic in appearance, which is why it is generally used for more utilitarian purposes.
Western red cedar should not cost you more than $15 per board foot, whereas poplar is going to top out at around $7 per board foot.
When to use Poplar?
If you just need a very basic and affordable type of wood for utilitarian purposes, such as for boxes, crates, pallets, slabs, and even for things like veneer, low-end furniture, and very basic decorative pieces, then yellow poplar is a fine type of wood to use. Just remember that it is not at all ideal for outdoor use as it is not very resistant to pests or moisture.
When to Use Cedar?
If you are looking for a type of wood that is ideal for outdoor use, then using western red cedar is a great option. It’s one of the best types of wood found in North America as far as outdoor use is concerned. With that being said, remember that it is not very hard, dense, or structurally sound, so you really shouldn’t use it for any weight-bearing or structural purposes.
Alternatives to Poplar and Cedar
Both of the types of wood that we discussed today really are not very strong, and this goes for structural integrity, weight-bearing, hardness, and density. There are far harder, stronger, and denser types of wood out there.
Just some of the types of wood that you might want to consider for weight-bearing applications include oak, maple, teak, mahogany, ebony, and elm. All of these types of wood are much harder and more structurally sound.
For more inspiration, read our article about cedar alternatives.
The bottom line here is that both yellow poplar and western red cedar have their specific uses. One is best used for basic utilitarian purposes whereas the other excels at outdoor use. Now that you know what the differences between the two are, you can make an informed decision as to which one to use for various projects.