picket fence failure due to wrong materials

Is Poplar OK Outdoors?


Poplar Wood – Not for Outdoors!

I admit it. I used Poplar outdoors and quickly regretted it. We built a large fence and used Poplar trim. (See the Tennis Court Fencing here)

We asked 15 carpenters, 10 lumber yards and consulted every library book on the shelf to find out what would last and what wouldn’t. The information just wasn’t there. (Yes, this was 25 years ago, it was pre-internet days).  About 10 years in they had to change some of the trim, which was about half Poplar and half Pine. The Pine trim was fine, but the Poplar was looking much like the photo below.  This is why I am sharing this information today.  Mostly because I kind of wonder if they replaced it with poplar trim again…

Very little information exists to help you decide what type of wood works well outdoors. You are really better off using the old standards like red cedar, mahogany or pressure treated pine then gambling on a new species that nobody can tell you what will happen. I was called in to estimate replacing the fence shown here and photographed it because it was such a good illustration of what happens to woods like poplar when it is used outdoors, even if you stain it.

The builders of the fence found in Beaches Toronto also mixed their trim. They used some Poplar and some Pine trim. Pine will last fairly well if it is sealed, but Poplar just turns to dust in a few years. The caps, even though they were pressure treated were not sealed. You can see the curve from it soaking up water in both images. Sealing anything that might see standing water (like caps) is always a good idea. Epoxy is the best type of sealer, and quite often we use epoxy adhesive with thickener for caps like this.

designers fence failure 3
Poplar outdoors Fence Failure Photo

Poplar exposed to the elements just turns to dust


The Wrong Type of Wood will Turn to Dust!

I can remember a business in Barrie making old-fashioned screen doors out of poplar…2 years and the warranty work started—they were out of business shortly after.

That tennis court fence was about 3 years old when I met with a pair of 90-year-old carpenters for information about how to do chinking on a log home that would last longer than 10 years. (what they told me will be another post). These old timers were the ones that told me Poplar’s ugly secret. He walked up to the fence to the corner of a post trim and picked out a smaller profile. Near the miter joint and squeezed it with his fingernail. “Poplar Huh?” It was already getting spongy.

designers fence poplar outdoors
What happens to Poplar Trim Outdoors? It Disappears in no time!

Poplar is a species of tree that grows along the outside of the forest and grows about 3 times as fast as Maple or Oak. It has no thick sap like pine so it draws water in like a sponge. Since it grows faster–it rots faster. Its purpose in the forest is to break up the ground to allow the more long-lasting species to grow stronger. Rotting poplars supply nutrients to help the other trees grow.

So… No POPLAR Outdoors, please!


Ps: The trouble with doing this kind of decorative work outside is that the stock trim you buy from the big box stores is mostly Poplar–and rookie builders just don’t know. They typically look for profiles that look good together, and don’t get me wrong, proportions and style are important, but species is paramount!

It is a hard lesson to learn if you offer a warranty!

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