Basswood Versus Poplar or Maple for Paint-Grade Face Frames

Cabinetmakers discuss the hardness of various wood species, and the way they take paint. December 7, 2008

I've been considering changing suppliers and one that I'm talking to is big on basswood for face-frames. I've only ever used poplar for my paint-grade faces and really have no experience with basswood. What do you think about it? Does is route as nicely as poplar? Does it finish as well? Could I possibly use it for my stain-grade stuff? What do you think are the biggest differences?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor H:
Don't do it. Bass is not a good choice for finishing with paint or for its strength.

From contributor C:
I try to buy 500/1000 feet at a time. Cull the dark wood for paint grade. My customers love it and desire a stronger built piece. I haven’t even used poplar. I just don't want to keep up with yet another species in my bin. As a bonus you could use some curly wood as well. I built a podium from left over curly and it was simple but very sharp.

From contributor A:
The major complaint about poplar for faceframes is painting time. It really takes two coats of primer and two topcoats to bury that grainy look. It's like a sponge and soaks up the first coat of primer. Soft maple is also harder (more durable) and more stable for building cabinet doors. The cost difference is about a $1 a board foot. Not significant in most projects, but in the end it saves you on the finishing end big time. You will always get a better paint job with soft maple because it is so much harder.

From contributor J:
Add another vote for soft maple. I'll use poplar for small projects that won't see a lot of use and abuse. But if it's going to be a kitchen or other high use situation its soft maple. Never used basswood but I have to agree with the others, it seems awfully soft for cabinet work.

I also think I'd be second guessing starting a new relationship with a supplier recommending something that's maybe less than desirable? I count on my suppliers for good advice on products, and I'm not sure recommending basswood is good advice?

From contributor K:
I'll never use poplar for paint grade again, only soft maple. The poplar telegraphs the grain too much and is very noticeable. I tried a variety of sanding methods and nothing helped.

From the original questioner:
To contributor J: you're exactly right - that's why I wanted everyone’s opinion. I was a bit worried about the product as well as any company that would push an inferior product.

From contributor C:
I have been thinking about this issue. We have friends that bought from a local cabinet company (now out of business) a fairly good size job. They asked me to come by and see if I could dress it up a bit they felt as if it needed something.

Being a cabinet maker the first thing I noticed it was basswood. As we talked they shared that they had been lied to and that "birch was hard". I explained that the lie was that it was actually basswood. Now that is getting ripped off!

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
In the northern U.S., poplar is the name that refers to aspen poplar, which is a soft hardwood similar in many ways to basswood. It is likely that the basswood sales person was making this comparison and so was correct. It is likely that the original questioner here and the responses were all thinking about yellow-poplar (tulip poplar) which is indeed much heavier, harder, etc. in which case basswood is not a good substitute. As mentioned, yellow birch and soft maple would be good.

From contributor C:
Well not meaning to beat a dead horse, but I have worked for several local shops and some are beat-um cheat-um. Some are good upstanding folks.

I have seen many stained and painted jobs in basswood. I have always thought the shop owner/sales rep. just played on the ignorance of the customer. I would have no problem so long as the customer really knew what they are getting.

I am glad to hear others are using good solid wood for paint grade. Another note - I live in an area where we have seen huge growth and most homes are getting prefab. This is not a bad thing for me, I have replaced several kitchens only a few years old, even some not that old custom.

From contributor R:
Yellow poplar is only about 20% harder than basswood. Red maple is about twice as hard and yellow birch is about three times as hard.

For face frames MOE and MOR differences between basswood and poplar are moot. All other workable and mechanical properties of basswood are equal to or superior to poplar. It finishes better than poplar, it takes a stain better and is more stable than any of the afore mentioned. Use whatever you want, but saying it is inferior without considering all the factors or ever having used it, is nonsense and perpetuating what amounts to nothing more than an old wives' tale, which does no service to the industry.

From contributor A:
When I started back in the mid 90's we used to use tons of eastern white pine for paint grade work - obviously soft, but a pleasure to work.

Tulip poplar essentially replaced it for custom paint grade trim and millwork. I've never used basswood (except for carving class in grade school), yellow poplar is not used in the northeast as far as I know. Many people try tulip poplar for cabinets, but once they use soft maple there is no going back, unless someone else is painting it.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Basswood has a hardness of 410 pounds, while yellow poplar (tulip poplar) is 540 pounds. Basswood is about 75% of the hardness of y-p (or y-p is 30% harder than basswood).

From contributor R:

Indeed, I came up with about 28% off the top of my head but typed 20. The point was that if they intend to beat the crap out of the cabinets or park a Mack truck on them there is no real difference between the two.

I have never understood the mentality of trying to make wood look like plastic. But then again I'm not afraid to build cabinets out of solid wood either. I have done it thousands of times.