Quick. What's the first wood that comes to mind when you think of 'paint grade'?
...was it Poplar?
If it was, you're not alone. Poplar is a lot of cabinetmaker's first choice for paint grade cabinet doors.
We have a confession to make, though. We're not the biggest fans of it.
We know, we know. It's a popular choice. And we understand why. It's one of the most affordable species on the market and it's very easy to cut and mill.
But we've run into a few issues with Poplar cabinet doors over the years (especially if they're painted) that we'd like to share. Let's talk about them.
1. Dents easily
Even though it's considered a hardwood by species, Poplar is one of the softest woods you can use for cabinets. It dents if you look at it the wrong way.
In fact, it's the softest wood we offer. See hardness scale below.
Here's the thing. Poplar's one of the most popular paint-grade woods. But when you refer to the scale, you can see it has the lowest rating. This means Poplar dents easily. Which doesn't make it a great choice for paint.
We suggest steering away from Poplar for kitchen projects altogether. It's too soft for a hard use environment like a kitchen. Go with a denser wood instead, or if you're choosing Poplar because of budget, HDF or MDF would be a better choice. It will have less seasonal movement and be more impervious to dents and dings.
2. Too much movement
Poplar is not known for its stability.
The Poplar tree grows incredibly fast. Like a weed.
It has wider, less dense annual rings which makes for a less stable wood. And because of this weed-like structure, it has a tendency to twist, warp, and swell with moisture and humidity.
Not only does it swell and expand, it also shrinks when it gets dry. That constant movement will cause paint to crack and chip and can even result in your doors not latching properly over time.
3. Needs more paint and primer
Poplar is extremely porous.
Because of that, it soaks up paint like a sponge and will require additional coats of primer and paint.
Plus, the end grain of Poplar is very absorbent and not as tight as other woods. This ends up being problematic because it sucks up moisture really easily.
Poplar end grain
We suggest using Birch or HDF over Poplar for paint. They're both denser and usually only require one single coat of primer followed by a coat of paint.
4. Requires more sanding and 'fuzzes' up
Though Poplar is one of the easiest woods to cut, it's a bit more labor intensive when it comes to sanding and finishing.
Because of its soft nature, Poplar needs to be sanded with finer grits of sandpaper. More coarse grits leave sanding marks. On top of that, Poplar has a tendency to 'fuzz up' during sanding. So if you don't notice it before finishing, well... you definitely will after.
Poplar 'fuzzing' up after sanding.
4 tips if you do work with Poplar
Since Poplar grows so fast it's one of the most available and therefore affordable woods on the market (except right now, pricing and availability is a little crazy for all wood).
Plus, it's extremely easy on tooling and saw blades. So we can't fault any cabinetmaker for choosing it.
If you do end up using Poplar, here are 4 quick tips to make working with it a bit easier:
- When sanding, start with 80- grit and then work your way up to 400 for best results.
- Make sure to have a stable environment when the doors arrive and paint them ASAP to properly seal them and avoid any warping/swelling.
- Machined edges tend to fuzz with Poplar. Be sure to check and remove all fuzz before finishing.
- Poplar has a lot of color variation - it's white to yellow in color, and sometimes it can be slightly greenish. Because of this, we recommend not choosing Poplar if you're going to stain the wood.
With everything we went over above, there are some characteristics Poplar has that, in our opinion, aren't the best for high quality cabinet doors.
Poplar works best as a secondary wood - for hidden furniture parts, mouldings, face frames, and cabinet structure. But for cabinet doors? The focal-point of a kitchen that withstand a lot of use? Not so much.
There are a lot of better options on the market that are durable, easier to work with, and still fit low budget projects. One of our favorite alternatives is HDF cabinet doors. It's an extremely affordable option that's strong, doesn't expand/contract, and applies paint beautifully.
And if you're looking for a solid wood alternative, you can't go wrong with Birch. It's cost-effective, sands and machines well, and receives paint beautifully.
Painting your cabinets? Read more about it here: