Poplar and Cypress are two extremely useful types of wood. Depending on where you are in the US, either of these trees is likely to be the most commonly used, alongside pine.
But the difficult part to understand is which one is right to use for a particular job. When you know the qualities of each tree, this decision is much easier. That’s why, in this article, we’ll compare poplar and cypress, so you know which tree to use for your woodworking.
What Is Poplar?
Poplar is one of the most frequently used woods in the USA, where it’s used for a huge range of different projects.
Variations between regions mean that poplar wood can also be called tulip and yellow poplar. There are, in fact, different types of poplar trees, including the white poplar. In this article, when referring to poplar, we are talking about yellow poplar.
Rather confusingly, poplar isn’t actually from the scientific genus ‘Populus’. Scientifically, the yellow poplar is called Liriodendron tulipifera, which makes it part of the ‘lily tree’ family. When the trees from this family create flowers, they resemble tulips, hence the alternative name, ‘tulip wood’.
The poplar tree is distributed throughout the eastern United States. In this area, it is often the tallest tree, reaching a height of up to 160,’ with a trunk diameter of up to 8’.
What Is Cypress?
The cypress tree is very important in the United States, particularly in Louisiana, where it is the state tree. If you imagine the swamps of the southern US, you are probably picturing the cypress tree. This tree is also commonly called swamp cypress and bald cypress. However, the terms sinker, pecky, and tidewater red cypress are also alternative names.
The tree is deciduous and will drop its needles over the winter, unlike coniferous, evergreen trees. Scientifically, the tree is a member of the Cupressaceae genus but is called Taxodium distichum. The cypress tree can grow to 120’ tall and reach a trunk diameter of 5’.
Poplar vs. Cypress: What Are the Differences?
Evaluating different timbers across key criteria helps to clearly define the difference between them. In this section, we’ll discuss the strength, appearance, grain, workability, and sustainability of poplar and cypress.
The strength of a board of timber is defined by more than just the species. Timber should be checked for defects and infestations if it has to match a specific strength for construction work.
Poplar has a Janka hardness of 540 lbf and a crushing strength of 5,540 lbf/in2. Comparatively, cypress comes in at 510 lbf on the hardness scale, with a crushing strength of 6,360 lbf/in2.
Interestingly, poplar is harder on the Janka scale while cypress has a higher crushing strength. Both timbers are on the lower end of the Janka hardness scale, meaning they are rather soft compared to many other species.
Color and Appearance
The heartwood of poplar ranges from a light, off-white cream to a yellow-brown. Sometimes gray and green can streak through the grain as well. The sapwood can appear very similar to the heartwood and is not always easy to differentiate. The color of the sapwood is most often a pale yellow or white. Sometimes reds, greens, purples, and yellows appear in sawn timber too. UV exposure will make colors darken over time.
Cypress is also a light-colored timber. The heartwood can be a pale yellow-brown, and the sapwood is usually very light. Occasionally, if the timber has been attacked by a fungus, dark areas will be on the boards and small holes will be present, this type of appearance is called pecky cypress.
The swamp habitat of cypress means that sometimes pieces of timber can be submerged in water. This variation of the timber is called sinker cypress, which has darker heartwood and warmer tones.
The grain of both poplar and cypress is most often straight and uniform, with a medium coarseness. Unfinished cypress faces can have an oily feel to the touch.
Poplar is one of the easiest timbers to work with. However, because poplar is so soft, there can be issues if this is not factored in. For example, edges and corners will crumble, and grain will bruise if tools aren’t sharp and if faces are compressed. Poplar doesn’t commonly cause irritation and allergic reactions, however, eye, skin, and respiratory issues occasionally occur.
When working cypress, it’s important to take small amounts at a time. Light passes will minimize the amount of tear-out, as well as keep tools razor sharp. Glues, finishes, and paints adhere well to the wood and apply easily. Severe allergies aren’t common with cypress, however, sometimes respiratory irritation is reported by woodworkers.
Neither poplar nor cypress is on the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List. This means that the populations are not at risk and their futures are considered safe.
When to Use Poplar Wood?
Poplar is not often used when the centerpiece of the project is wood. However, sometimes specimens with a lot of coloring will be celebrated in a project. For many people, poplar is considered a utility timber. Often you will find this wood used in pallets, plywood, crates, and painted and upholstered furniture. Poplar is very light, so it is often utilized in projects where weight is a consideration.
When to Use Cypress Wood?
Cypress wood is highly regarded because of its water resistance, which makes it well-suited for exterior work. For example, construction, garden furniture, cladding, docks, and boats are projects that cypress is commonly used on. Alongside this, interior trim and veneer are made from this material. The tree also creates ‘knees’, which grow from aerial roots, and are sometimes used for woodcarving projects.
Alternatives to Poplar and Cypress Wood
It’s important to identify alternative timber choices, in case either isn’t available or of high enough quality.
Pine is a generic term for a lot of different softwood trees with pine needles. Pine is usually one of the cheapest timbers available and is the main type of timber used in general construction.
Maple differs from poplar and cypress because it is much harder. However, some maple trees can be very light and pale, which looks more similar to the lighter tones of poplar and cypress.
Poplar and cypress are extremely common trees that are used in countless projects every day. If you need timber that is weather-resistant, cypress is a better choice. However, deciding which timber is best for your project will largely come down to the availability and quality of the stock.