The tree that yields the wood variant known as Rainbow Poplar is scientifically known as Liriodendron tulipifera. To further confuse the issue of identification, the tree may also be known by a variety of common names including, but not necessarily limited to: tulip tree, American tulip tree, tuliptree, tulip poplar, whitewood, fiddle-tree and yellow poplar. Despite its order in the list, Yellow Poplar seems common among wood workers. It is also important to note that despite the common name appellation of “poplar,” this tree is NOT in the genus Populus, despite the commonality of the scientific and common name.
Yellow Poplar is native to a large swath of North America, ranging from It is native to eastern North America from southern Ontario and Illinois eastward across southern New England and south to central Florida and Louisiana. This is one of the tallest of the native North America trees, known to reach up to 190 feet in height, often with no branches up to 80-100 feet, making it a very popular and common timber tree.
The term “Rainbow Poplar” does not refer to a separate wood species, but rather is a designation of Yellow Poplar that has been stained due to mineral contamination. The resulting mineral stained wood, not commonly encountered but also not exactly rare exhibits a variety of colors ranging from green, purple, black, and red. It is this distinct variety of colors that turns an otherwise ordinary piece of Yellow Poplar into the intriguing Rainbow Poplar. The precise cause of these streaks and discolored wood produced in certain trees is not fully understood.
On most boards, Yellow Poplar presents with a light cream to yellowish brown color, with occasional streaks of gray or green. As noted above, Yellow Poplar can also be seen in mineral stained colors ranging from dark purple to red, green, or yellow. When this coloration occurs, the wood is referred to as Rainbow Poplar. The colors tend to darken upon exposure to light.
Yellow Poplar typically has a straight, uniform grain, with a medium texture and closed pores, making it very useful for surfaces intended for painting.
Yellow Poplar heartwood is variably rated as being on a continuum from moderately durable to non-durable in decay resistance, depending on whom you consult. This could have implication for some of the common uses of Yellow Poplar, especially for outdoor usage.
No distinctive scent is reported with this species, but my experience of working with the mineral stained Rainbow Poplar was that there was a faint metallic scent in the air when sanding the material.
Yellow Poplar is among the most economical and inexpensive of all domestic hardwoods. Yellow Poplar should be affordably priced, especially in the eastern United States where it grows naturally. However, it may be difficult to find in sizes that are suitable for work other than pens or knives since most of the Yellow Poplar harvested is turned into timber size pieces. Local suppliers are the best bet for bowl blank sized pieces.
The only on-line retail prices I can locate are for non-Rainbow Poplar timber pieces, which isn’t surprising. Again, a local store catering to wood workers, or more specifically to wood turners is the best likely source. I obtained mine from just such a store which had locally sourced bowl blanks of good size, up to 8”x8”x5” for less than $10 each. These were in various green, non-seasoned, condition.
Woodfinder is a website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers and I can’t speak to the quality of any of them, but they do have the advantage of performing searches based on your location which might allow you to visit a wood dealer in person to hand pick what you want to work with at a price you are comfortable paying.
Poplar is one of the most common utility hardwoods in the United States. Seldom used for its appearance, except in the case of Rainbow Poplar, Poplar is a utility wood in nearly every sense. It’s used for pallets, crates, upholstered furniture frames, pulpwood, and plywood. Poplar veneer is also used for a variety of applications either dyed in various colors, or on hidden undersides of veneered panels to counteract the pull of the glue on an exposed side that has been veneered with another, more decorative wood species. Curiously, Yellow Poplar is the wood of choice for organ interiors due to the way it seals around pipes and fittings. It is increasingly used in application where the harder to find White Pine was formerly used as well.
Rainbow Poplar may be used for decorative purposes and decorative items, particularly lathe turned items, but this is generally not a commercial scale activity associated with Poplar.
Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, Yellow Poplar has been reported as an irritant. The most common reactions include eye, skin, and respiratory irritation.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of exotic hardwoods is available from The Wood Database along with additional information about the best use of a dust collection system, coupled with the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, which is highly recommended when machining this wood. Fortunately, I have never experienced any negative side effects from working with Yellow Poplar.
My Personal Experiences
Although I specifically worked with a piece of Rainbow Poplar, the workability and general information remains consistent with Yellow Poplar.
When I first started working with large blank of Rainbow Poplar I was incredibly frustrated. It seemed to cut very roughly and resisted my tools to some degree. But the real frustration came in trying to sand the material in that the end grain tear out would simply NOT come out no matter how hard I worked at it with both very sharp tools and good, fresh sandpaper. The difficulty really was that the wood was WET and you simply cannot sand wet wood! Lesson learned here.
After I let the wood dry, of course it warped, which was another lesson learned in that I had removed more than I should have in the initial turning and barely had enough material left to work out the worst of the warp, although it didn’t crack and check as badly as it might have done, and I view those checks that are present as additive interest marks on the bowl as a whole. Once I adjusted to the reality of the wood being wet and let it dry, the working of the material was actually quite easy and I encountered no more difficulty in working with, sanding, and finishing this piece of Rainbow Poplar.
Given that the wood is generally very affordable it would seem almost silly to not try working with it at least once to see how you like the workability and the color of the wood. The piece that I worked with in some respects rivals more exotic species for color and figure at a price that is very minimal, especially when compared to the prices for exotics of comparable size. You should be able to find a piece to make a respectable size bowl for under $10 and that really is a bargain in the wood world today.