Is Cottonwood Good for Woodworking?

Working with different kinds of wood is exciting. You get to learn more about various hardwoods and softwoods and find out the best woodworking woods. Let’s focus on a popular wood species used in different projects: cottonwood.

Is cottonwood suitable for woodworking? Yes it is, but there are some limitations. We’ll find out in this woodworking guide about cottonwood.

What is Cottonwood?

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Cottonwood is a tree belonging to the genus populus. It has diverse species which can grow from 49 to 164 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Cottonwood comes from the populus tree. This tree is mainly grown as an ornamental plant with many cultivars.

Cottonwood trees can grow very large at a rapid pace. Most cultivars start to take root immediately after it is cut or even when broken branches are left on the ground. Some cottonwoods have erect or columnar stems, which are widely available across Europe and parts of southwest Asia.

Some populus species can grow to become invasive with vigorous root systems that can stretch up to 40 meters. When left unmanaged or planted close to a structure or house, the roots can damage foundations, walls, and pipes as these look for areas with moisture.

Poplar wood is grown commercially in India by farmers in the Punjab region. There are two common varieties: the G48 and the w22. Cottonwood trees are cultivated using cuttings and are harvested yearly in January or in February.

Cottonwood Tree Characteristics

It’s difficult to describe the cottonwood or poplar tree because of its diverse characteristics. For young trees, the bark is smooth with a white to green or dark gray color. Many poplar species will continue to have smooth bark, while some may develop deeply-fissured barks.

This tree has stout shoots with buds found at the end. The leaves have spiral arrangements and can vary in size and shape. The cottonwood tree develops flowers and will appear early in spring. This tree also produces fruit with a green to reddish-brown color that matures during midsummer. Open the fruit, and you’ll find brown seeds with long hairs.

There are numerous species of cottonwood, and we’ll tackle the most popular ones to see which are best for woodworking:

  • Eastern Cottonwood – Populus deltoids
  • White Poplar – Populus alba
  • Balsam Poplar – Populus balsamifera
  • Black Poplar – Populus nigra
  • Black Cottonwood – Populus trichocarpa  

Is Cottonwood Great for Woodworking?

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Cottonwood is suitable for woodworking, but experts don’t recommend using this wood 100%. Not all woodworking projects will work great with cottonwood.

This wood is very light, and thus, it’s easy to carry and work with. Cutting a large piece of cottonwood is much easier when using power tools as there’s hardly any resistance.

Cottonwood is the best choice if you’re looking for wood for carving small projects. You can use hand tools to cut even the most intricate details. This wood also accepts all kinds of glues and paint, and it has excellent nail holding capabilities.

Cottonwood is only suitable for small woodworking projects such as ornaments, picture frames, and arts and crafts. It is not a good kind of wood for larger, load-bearing woodworking projects like shelves, desks, tables, and stools.

Cottonwood will snap when bent. It has low strength, and thus, you may need to support it with another kind of solid hardwood. This wood needs additional finishing as the fuzzy surface affects the outer appearance of the project. It’s hard to use sandpaper and apply stain.

Poplar is unsuitable for most woodworking projects because it’s classified as low-grade wood. It is susceptible to decay and will quickly deteriorate when exposed to water or moisture. Also, this wood tears rapidly, making it unfit for large projects.

Do not use cottonwood to build indoor furniture because of its poor strength, soft grains, and stringy surface. Also, many great options are available, such as birch, oak, maple, and walnut, so don’t use cottonwood.

What are the Other Uses of Cottonwood?

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Now that you know the characteristics of cottonwood and that it’s only suited for small woodworking projects, let’s look at other uses of this wood.

The key to using cottonwood for different applications is to select the ideal species for your project. Two kinds of cottonwood are used in various applications: the eastern cottonwood and the black cottonwood.

The eastern variety is stronger, while the black cottonwood has a good smell. We’ll discuss these in better detail below.

Carving

The most common use of cottonwood is for carving. It is a soft wood; thus, you need extra care when handling it and using sharp tools. The bark of the cottonwood tree is easier to work with than the wood. Remember to use sharp tools if you want to carve using cottonwood.

Both the eastern and black cottonwood species are perfect for carving. The barks of these trees are easy to work with, especially when you remove the outer layers. Be careful as stop cuts can cause tearing because its grain is not similar to most carving woods.

Cottonwood is used to make folk figures, fairy houses, wood spirits, and other lovely projects. This wood breaks easily, so be careful when cutting and working. Another widespread use of cottonwood is mask-making because it’s lightweight, affordable, and workable.

If you wish to use cottonwood for carving, choose the best wood by checking the grain. It must not be too porous. There must be no fungus and any visible physical damage. If you want to practice your carving skills, you can use light and porous poplar wood.

When it comes to finishing cottonwood projects, experts encounter multiple challenges. The surface of your project will look dull because of its fuzzy grain. It is hard to finish even by applying oil to the surface. Repeated oil application on the surface will eliminate the dullness and give you a glossy appearance.

Manufacturing Paper and Light Objects

Fast-growing hybrid poplar species are grown in huge plantations to be used as paper. Because this tree grows quickly, there is no shortage of pulpwood coming from cottonwood trees. Aside from paper, poplar is also helpful in manufacturing matches and matchboxes.

This softwood is also used as cheap lumber to make pallets, plywood, and boxes. The box of a certain kind of chees called Camembert cheese is made of light poplar wood as this wood does not have any smell or taste that can affect Camembert cheeses.

Poplar may be used together with other woods to make snowboards. The snowboard core must be light and durable, so poplar is used for its flexibility and lightweight properties together with other strong woods like maple.

This wood is sometimes used in constructing guitar, electric guitar, and drum bodies.  This wood can be used as a hearth for a bow drill when adequately seasoned. Poplar wood contains high amounts of natural chemicals called tannins which is why it’s used in manufacturing leather in European countries.

Poplar is useful in the manufacturing of wooden shoes, wooden ladles, wooden spoons, and chopsticks. There are also poplar baking trays and molds. These kitchen aids are durable enough to use in the freezer, microwave, or standard oven.

In Pakistan, the poplar wood is used as termite traps as the wood is very susceptible to insect and pest growth. Poplar logs are used to bait termites so that these won’t harm crops.

Poplar logs are also helpful as growing mediums for a kind of edible mushroom called shitake. Meanwhile, Lombardy poplars are helpful as a windbreak in agricultural fields to prevent wind erosion in areas.

Energy and Fuel

Poplar is an energy crop such as biomass and as energy in forestry systems. In the United Kingdom, it is grown as a short rotation crop for up to 5 years; these are harvested and eventually burned. The yield can be up to 12 oven-dry tons for every hectare. In Italy, they can produce up to 16.4 oven-dry tonnes of poplar biomass per hectare a year. This results in a positive energy output balance and increased energy efficiency. In the United States, poplar is also helpful as a biofuel.

What are the Qualities of Cottonwood?

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These are the general characteristics of cottonwood. Consider these characteristics when choosing suitable wood for woodworking and other projects.

Color and Grain Texture

Cottonwood has a grayish-white to very light brown wood color. This wood can quickly become discolored due to oxidation. Also, fungal stains can change the color of cottonwood. There are also very noticeable pores on the surface of cottonwood. These can affect the overall appearance of your project.

Presence of Odor and Taste

Cottonwood does not emit any odor when it is dry. When the wood is wet, the smell is like filthy trash. Meanwhile, this wood does not have any taste. It is one of the many reasons it helps craft ladles, spoons, toothpicks, chopsticks, and other kitchen tools.

Durability

Cottonwood is not durable and will also decay quickly and significantly when exposed to water or moisture. This is the main reason it is not helpful in building furniture.

Drying Time

This wood dries fast. When you apply paint or stain, these products can dry quickly. We recommend following the paint or stain drying times to ensure efficient drying.

Strength

Poplar strength is deficient as this comes with very low density. However, it will not split when you nail it near the wood’s end.

Workability

Cottonwood is lightweight and can tear easily. The wood will develop a fuzzy surface when cut, and thus, your blades and saws should be very sharp to avoid any mistakes. If you use blunt tools, you’ll be working more hours just to finish your project. This wood will accept nails easily. Paint and glues dry well.

Are There Different Species of Cottonwood?

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The following are the most popular cottonwood species available. It’s always best to consider the properties of the cottonwood species before you use any of these for your projects.

Eastern Cottonwood

Eastern cottonwood bears the name because of its cotton-like strings that you’ll find attached to its seeds. The eastern cottonwood is the state tree of Nebraska and Kansas.

  • Distribution: This wood is native to Central and Eastern United States
  • Tree Size: 100 to 165 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide
  • Average Dried Weight: 28 pounds per cubic feet
  • Specific Gravity: .37, .45
  • Janka Hardness: 430 pounds-feet
  • Appearance and Color: the heartwood is light brown. It has a pale yellow to white sapwood, which blends with the heartwood.
  • Grain and Texture: this wood has a straight grain with a slightly irregular or interlocked pattern. It has a uniform texture and low luster.
  • Resistance to Rotting: eastern cottonwood is not durable and is very susceptible to pests and insects.
  • Odor: eastern cottonwood has a sour odor when freshly cut, but this smell disappears once it is dried.
  • Availability: this wood is commonly found in utility or hobby shops. It is affordable and readily available.
  • Workability: this is easy to work with using power and hand tools, but your blades and cutters must be cut to prevent fuzziness. It will not split and holds nails poorly. 
  • Uses: eastern cottonwood helps make veneers, boxes, crates, plywood, and for utility work. 

Black Cottonwood

Black cottonwood is one of the largest hardwood trees from the western parts of North America.

  • Distribution: Black cottonwood is common in Northwestern North America
  • Tree Size: 80 to 150 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide
  • Average Dried Weight: 24 pounds per cubic feet
  • Specific Gravity: .31, .38
  • Janka Hardness: 350 pounds-feet
  • Appearance and Color: Black cottonwood has a light brown heartwood with a pale yellow to white sapwood. The two blends with no specific distinction.
  • Grain and Texture: the grain is slightly irregular and sometimes interlocked. There is also even texture across the grain with low luster.
  • Resistance to Rotting: this wood is not durable and is very susceptible to pests and insects
  • Odor: this wood has a sour smell when freshly cut, but this will be gone once the wood has been dried.
  • Availability: Black cottonwood has low value and is not used as lumber. It is cheap and widely available in most hobby and craft stores.
  • Workability: this wood is easy to work, but you need very sharp blades, cutters, and saws to cut it to avoid fuzziness. You cannot split it, and it will not hold nails well. Black cottonwood may distort or warp during drying. It accepts finishes and glues very well. 
  • Uses: Black cottonwood is also used in making veneers, plywood, crates, boxes, and in making small decorative items. 

White Poplar

Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci painted on panels made of white poplar? This poplar wood species is also called silver-leaf as their leaves have a glossy green tip and silvery-white body.

  • Distribution: White poplar is from Southern and Central Europe and is also from Central Asia
  • Tree Size: 50 to 80 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide
  • Average Dried Weight: 28 pounds per cubic feet
  • Specific Gravity: .36, .44
  • Janka Hardness: 410 pounds-feet
  • Resistance to Rotting: White poplar is not resistant to rotting and moisture damage. It is also susceptible to insects and pests.
  • Odor: there is no characteristic odor when working with white poplar wood.  

 Balsam Poplar

The balsam poplar wood species is the source of the “Balm of Gilead.” This is a valuable compound helpful in manufacturing different skincare products. 

  • Distribution: Balsam poplar is found in the Northern United States and Canada
  • Tree Size: 80 to 100 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide
  • Average Dried Weight: 23 pounds per cubic feet
  • Specific Gravity: .31, .37
  • Janka Hardness: 300 pounds-feet
  • Resistance to Rotting: this wood is very susceptible to rotting, moisture damage, and insects
  • Odor: it does not possess any characteristic odor

Black Poplar

Black poplar is a widespread poplar species. A cultivar called Lombardy poplar was one of the most popular woods in the United States back in the 18th and 19th centuries. This popularity was due to its tremendous growth into a slender and columnar tree.

  • Distribution: This tree is common in Europe, Northern Africa, Western Asia, and North America.
  • Tree Size: 65 to 100 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide
  • Average Dried Weight: 24 pounds per cubic feet
  • Specific Gravity: .31, .39
  • Janka Hardness: 460 pounds-feet
  • Appearance and Color: the heartwood of the black popular is light brown, while the sapwood is a pale yellow to white. There is no distinction between the sapwood and the heartwood. There is a burl that develops in black poplar wood, and this burl is sold as Mapa or Mappa.
  • Grain and Texture: the grain is slightly irregular or interlocked, and it comes with a medium texture and poor luster.
  • Resistance to Rotting: this wood is not durable and is very susceptible to insects and pests.
  • Odor: Black poplar does not have any smell.
  • Availability: this wood is classified as utility lumber all over Europe. This tree is affordable and readily available. The black poplar burl sections are sold as veneer sheets and are known for being very expensive.
  • Workability: this wood is easy to work with using power and hand tools. You need sharp blades and saws to prevent fuzz. This wood can warp and change shape when dried, but it accepts glues and paints well. 
  • Uses: Black poplar is valuable as utility lumber, crates, boxes, plywood, etc. The burl sections are used to make fine furniture, inlays, veneer, and drum shells. 

How to Use Cottonwood?

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Experts use cottonwood to do light projects. But this wood must be prepared before it can be used in various projects. Here are a few tips to help you use poplar in your projects.

  • Use well-seasoned poplar boards. Seasoning this wood can improve its dimensional stability, reduce decay attacks, and improve its strength.
  • Examine poplar wood before use. Feel the wood for any dampness and any water pockets. Place the wood indoors before use to balance its humidity.
  • Cut cottonwood at higher speeds. Use sharp knives and cutters to avoid or reduce fuzzing.
  • Use a rip-set blade when ripping to avoid tearing out or chipping.
  • There’s no need to pre-drill this wood for screws as it is light and will not easily split.
  • Use a sanding sealer to reduce fuzziness, and once dry, sand the wood. Reapply the sealer and sand again.
  • Most cottonwoods won’t accept staining products well. Apply the wood conditioner first before you stain. Make sure to follow the instructions on using these products for the best results.
  • Keep the cutting edges of your knives sharp to avoid stringiness when carving.
  • Apply paint or stain to improve the wood’s natural luster.

The FDA approves the use of cottonwood to be used as food containers. You can use this to make bowls and covered containers. Consider these tips for these projects.

  • Use cottonwood with a moisture content of 8% for maximum stability.
  • Avoid tearing by using straight-grained cottonwood in planer knives with a 90-degree angle. For wood with the twisted or figured grain, use a slight bend at 15 degrees and make shallow cuts.
  • Use a rip-profile blade with about 24 to 32 teeth to create clean cuts. To achieve smooth crosscuts, you need a 40-tooth blade.
  • Don’t use twist drills, as these can lead to breakouts. Always use a backing board on your working table or workspace to prevent scratching.
  • Use a carbide-tipped blade for routing. Prevent burning by making shallow passes.
  • When using cottonwood for carving projects, make shallow gouges at 15 to 20 degrees. Always make shallow cuts.

Final Words

Cottonwood is suitable for woodworking but only on light, non-load-bearing projects. You cannot use this wood to make furniture as this is weak, bends easily, and has an unappealing surface. Cottonwood is useful as plywood, veneer, and for making light boxes and crates.

This wood helps make light kitchen items such as food containers, spoons, ladles, chopsticks, etc. Consider our tips if you’re thinking of using cottonwood for a project. Also, learn more about the qualities of the cottonwood species you want to use to get the best results in your woodworking projects.

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