Poplar Versus Maple for Hand-Painted Cabinetry

Cabinetmakers discuss whether a high-end cabinet job should use Maple or Cabinet for doors. December 8, 2010

OK, I have a client that I did a set of kitchen drawings for and quoted as maple with painted conversion varnish. I've done many pieces in the past including cabinets and period furniture pieces so he knows the quality of work I do. He was a little concerned on price and layout and was very upfront about it and said he wanted a world known high end outfit that shall remain un-named come and give design and pricing. I was fine with that. The short version is that it turns out they use poplar as material and hand apply the finish in place using paints available locally, oil based I assume. I gave him my honest opinion. Now I would like yoursí.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor C:
Hard maple is hard, soft maple is less hard, poplar is soft. Personally I don't think it matters unless the item is subject to hard use or the item requires joinery capable of withstanding racking (such as a table or chair leg).

From contributor J:
Poplar is also less stable than maple, in addition to being very soft. You can dent the stuff with your fingernail easily. I'd be more worried about the finish being hand applied on site. Enameling is difficult to do well. It can look great, but often it does not. Depends on the look you want too.

From contributor R:
Poplar is a hard wood, but a soft hard wood. Soft maple mills a bit harder but easier to get a smooth painted finish. We use poplar mostly. I did on my kitchen cabinets. I would use soft maple if I could do it over.

From contributor W:
We switched from poplar to maple a few years back and will never go back. Maple is much harder and takes paint much better - (smoother) and it simply holds up better. It's also more dimensionally stable, so over time it doesn't move as much and your joint lines don't show as much. A sight applied oil finish isn't even in the same category as a catalyzed lacquer or CV finish.

From contributor D:
Poplar will telegraph wood grain no matter how well it is prepped. Maple will not. We have found that Maple joints in faceframes and doors tend to develop hairline cracks more frequently than in poplar. I don't think it's due to movement of the wood, and more the fact that maple is so hard the glue won't hold as well over time. This is especially true on square detailed cope and stick doors. The difference between hand brushed oil based paint and a spray applied conversion varnish has everything to do with the look and feel, and nothing to do with durability. Clients that want a hand brushed oil should be informed of the durability issues however.

From contributor O:
Soft maple is far superior in every way I can think of and is only a bit more in my area. I'd tell that customer to leave the cabinetmaking to me.

From contributor Y:
We use red maple for paint grade unless the client is really tight with money. It isn't all that much more and finishes really nicely. It works very nicely and is reasonably stable. There is always an issue with some movement on painted cabinets. If you can use a detail that helps conceal the inevitable crack in the paint where the style and rail meet. Keep panels as narrow as possible, or use veneered panels. Follow AWI for actual high end work. That means veneered panels!

From contributor B:
A kitchen gets worked in, no getting around it. We use the most durable finish products we can so why not use a harder wood. Poplar is fine for some things but we are talking high end kitchen here. At least use soft maple. Or ask your supplier for hard in a mixed calico or natural grade it will have some boards with color and some white and part white perfect for paint grade at the cost or less then poplar. The integrity dent resistance and the way maple machines is superior then poplar the way it can get so fuzzy.

From contributor P:
I don't know if it's related to the change in material, but I just finished a kitchen in soft maple, and have sunken glue joints in the glued-up drawer faces. Invisible in the white, they showed up fine once the paint was applied. Apparently it's a result of the wood swelling from the moisture in the glue, then sanding before the moisture leaves and the swelling goes down. One of the WOODWEB posts on this issue suggests a seven day period after glue-up before doing any final surfacing work. The door company, of course, clamps it for an hour or so and then proceeds. I've used poplar for years without incident, and will probably return to it for future projects. I don't think the relative softness is an issue in cabinet door/drawer applications.

From contributor F:
I use soft maple and have for years. Poplar is too soft in my opinion and not worth the hassle to save very little money. Realistically the wood should not make a big difference in the price of a high end kitchen. Soft maple is very close to poplar in my area, but even if it were double it's still a very small part of the cost. You have to figure less than $1k difference even for a really big kitchen. In a high end kitchen that's likely a small fraction of the price.

As for the finish I agree with the other poster that it's a personal preference. If the only concern is how tough the finish is why not use plastic doors? I do think the hand applied finish looks great if done correctly. I spray my doors because that's what most people want, a product that looks like it came out of a factory. But on a traditional style kitchen a brushed finish can look great.

From contributor P:
I assume that the joint sinking would be more pronounced in a less dense wood like poplar that would have more potential to swell when glued, so I am not blaming the material particularly. Iím just curious after years of using poplar in this application without any trouble, then having it crop up now.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Here is a technical comparison of HM, SM and YP. We like to use yellow poplar for the name so that it is not confused with aspen poplar. Soft maple can be red maple or silver maple; red is denser and harder; red number given first).

HM 1450 pounds
SM 950/700 pounds
YP 540
SHRINKAGE (stability, with low being more stable)
HM 9.9
SM 8.2/7.2

YP 8.2
(Of course, if the MC does not change much--the wood is properly dried to the correct MC--then stability is not an issue.)

The more unstable the wood, the more likely it will develop hairline cracks at the joints when the MC changes, which does happen annually for sure. Get the correct MC and the correct gluing and a good vapor resistant finish and there will be few problems. Sunken joints are a moisture issue, as mentioned above, but higher shrinkage means more difference. Nevertheless, if the MC is wrong, it will happen with any species. Incorrect MC is a bigger factor than shrinkage amount. Raised grain (or telegraphing) is common when stock removal when planing and especially when sanding is high and the wood is softer. Gentle sanding will eliminate it.

HM .63
SM .54/.47
YP .42
The lower the density, the less chip out but the more fuzzing. Gluing is easier with low density but more glue may be needed.