I’ve been making kubb sets for about 12 years and have used many different kinds of wood. I’ve made softwood sets out of pine, spruce, and fir. These woods are easy to work with and inexpensive, but the game pieces are fairly lightweight. I’ve made hardwood sets out of oak, cherry, maple, and ash. These woods can create pretty heavy game pieces–sometimes beyond the recommended weight limit for many tournaments. But, in my opinion, the best wood for making kubb sets is poplar.
Why poplar? There are many reasons why, but first, let’s talk about what it is. The word “poplar” (pronounced “päplәr) has its origins in ancient Rome where these trees were planted in public places where large groups of people gathered. The Latin word for “people” is “populas” which is one of the plant species in the family Salicaceae. Other popular species in this family include the aspen and cottonwood. “Popple”, a word often used interchangeably with “poplar”, is actually a colloquial word that refers to a higher grade of aspen. However, you’ll often hear both terms used in Michigan and the upper Midwest to refer to the same species of tree.
Poplar is a deciduous tree. It sheds its leaves annually. There are over 30 species that can be found throughout the northern hemisphere. It grows quickly and can often be found near wetlands. The bark is usually light green with leaves that are round or heart-shaped. Younger trees have smooth bark while older trees have deep ridges. Sometimes the bark will be smooth and have little hash marks or hairline cracks along the bark. These trees are easy to pick out once you know what to look for.
Poplar is considered one of the lightest of all hardwoods, yet the wood is strong and hard enough for many uses. In fact, it was strong enough in ancient times for warriors to use it as shields in battle. Hardwoods are dense (rings are closer) and they tend to do better with resisting rot and insects. On the Janka scale of hardness (the force needed to embed a steel ball), poplar is rated at 540. In comparison, Eastern White Pine is rated at 380, White Oak is 1360, and Brazilian Walnut a whopping 3684! Today, poplar is commonly used to make pallets, paper, plywood, chop sticks, guitars, drums, and yard games. Here’s an interesting fact—in 1503 the Mona Lisa was painted on a thin piece of poplar!
With all the wood on the market today, why make kubb sets out of poplar?
- Poplar is relatively inexpensive compared to other hardwoods, making it more affordable for the do-it-yourselfer or to buy a set at retail. 4 x 4 poplar runs about $1.75 per foot while 4 x 4 red oak, hickory, maple, and ash runs about $2.50 per foot. On the higher end, the same size cherry and white oak are $3.50 per foot.
- Versus softwood game pieces, poplar will hold up better and last longer. Compared to hardwood game pieces, poplar batons and kubbs are lighter and easier to throw, making it safer and easier to use by all ages.
- Poplar is easy to cut, carve and sand. I plane, cut, and lathe a lot of poplar to make my game pieces. The cutting tools glide easily along the wood with very little sanding needed.
- It shrinks very little when seasoned. In fact, I milled a large poplar tree in the fall of 2017 into large slabs. After the pieces dried to less than 10 percent moisture content, I saw very little splitting or cracking.
- The wood stains well. Most of the time a wood conditioner is not needed.
- The wood is usually straight and true with very little warping.
- It glues up nicely. The lamination makes the wood stronger and less likely to break over time, especially during those many hours of violent game play! If a good quality wood glue is used it is unlikely to ever break at the point of adhesion.
What is the downside to using poplar?
- The weights can fluctuate quite a bit. When I make batons I have to weigh them because I’ll get some that are very light, about 6 ounces (0.17 kilograms), or very heavy, about 12 ounces (0.34 kilograms). A good range is between 8 ounces (0.23 kilograms) and 10 ounces (0.28 kilograms).
- Another thing to consider is that sometimes with certain species of this wood you’ll get raised wood fibers that are fuzzy and hard to sand out.
- Poplar will tend to show dents after heavy game use versus harder woods such as maple, birch, and walnut.
Let us know your thoughts and experiences using poplar in the comment section below.