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The bottom falls out on poplar sales

A year ago, when Woodshop News last wrote about the poplar market, retail and wholesale dealers were enthusiastic about the amount of poplar they were selling, its escalating prices and their higher profit margin. Now it's pretty much a dead wood and prices have dropped significantly, to the point where there is little money to be made on the few sales that are made. All in all, it is a pretty dismal picture.

Average retail prices for 4/4 FAS poplar, as reported in Woodshop News. Prices are based on informal telephone and Internet surveys.

"I was surprised about the pricing dropping," says Jerry Anton of O'Shea Lumber, a wholesaler in Glen Rock, Pa. "The low grade is hard to find. I guess that is what has been going overseas. Apparently they don't develop much low grade if you are not cutting much on the uppers, but the price keeps dropping. The price dropped some over the Thanksgiving holiday, which is kind of unusual. We're still moving it, but the prices are killing me."

Yellow poplar's specific gravity: .42. Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water. Yellow poplar's radial shrinkage: 4.6 percent. Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces. Yellow poplar's tangential shrinkage: 8.2 percent. Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces. Example: A 12" wide flatsawn yellow poplar board will shrink .207" (about 7/32") from 12 percent moisture content to 6 percent and a quartersawn board will shrink .116" (about 1/8").

"You couldn't give it away," says Brad Stewart of Chipmunk Hardwoods in Edgewater, Fla. "In Florida, this market is absolutely horrible for domestics. I've had no interest in poplar, no interest in red oak. I just had a couple of huge orders in white oak, but it is just slow. It is scary. There is no construction here and very little remodels and half of everything is for sale. And I would say the other half of what is left is probably bank-owned; even though it doesn't have a for-sale sign, it is in litigation. It is horrible here."

Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is usually referred to simply as poplar and is also known as tulip tree and tulip poplar. Despite its name, yellow poplar is a member of the magnolia family. True poplars include aspen (Populus tremuloides), cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), all members of the willow family.

"We've seen the prices come back down," says Steve Wall, owner of Steve Wall Lumber in Mayodan, N.C. "It was a little bit hot several months ago, but the wholesale price has dropped on it. There are some good buys out there on poplar. We sell most of it as a secondary wood or a paint-grade wood."

Yellow poplar grows from southern New England to Florida and west to Missouri, and is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Trees reach heights of 100'-150' and are often free of limbs up to 75'. Trunk diameters of 8' are common. Poplar is a fast grower and, for a hardwood, is soft and lightweight with a specific gravity of .42.

"I've been quoting poplar and guys are really selling it cheap, but it is a cheap wood anyway," Anton says. "You don't make anything on the stuff. Soft maple has been dropping, too. A lot of guys use that for paint grade, even some for replacing hard maple, but it seems like prices on everything but walnut is dropping. November and December are usually pretty slow anyway; you have hunting season and the holidays coming. I just don't know. There's nothing too promising out there."

The overwhelming attribute of poplar is that it takes paint extremely well. It is used extensively as a secondary wood and for all types of cabinetry, paint-grade doors, frames and trim, sashes, boxes, crates, baskets and shipping pallets. Poplar's sapwood is narrow and creamy-white; the heartwood is yellow to brown to greenish-brown. The wood's grain is straight with a fine-to-medium texture and poplar has very few knots. The wood can be stained to resemble walnut or cherry and it dries rapidly and glues well, but doesn't hold nails particularly well.

"I thought we had hit the bottom, but now I don't think so," Stewart says. "I think it is going to take somebody else to be President, for one, and people are afraid to spend money. They are petrified and I am, too, so we're not. There are still too many suppliers and until that middle aspect of our business disappears - we've had a few go under - but there are still way too many people selling wood. And the quality is horrible; I've never seen the quality this bad. I bet I've sent back more this year than I have bought."

Retail prices for 100 bf of kiln-dried, 4/4 FAS yellow poplar, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $2.20 to $2.50/bf in the Northeast; $2.10 to $2.60/bf in the Southeast; $1.95 to $2.35/bf in the Midwest; and $2.35/bf to $2.80/bf in the West.

Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS yellow poplar ranged from $1,980 to $2,175/mbf in the Northeast; $1,850 to $2,050/mbf in the Southeast, $1,850 to $2,000/mbf in the Midwest; and $2,175 to $2,300/mbf in the West.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.

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