Wood for Toys

I did not get around to posting much material on this site last month, and since the holidays are coming, I am going to try to put up a short series of posts on making wooden toys. This first one is limited to materials.

I am often asked what kind of wood I like best for making wooden toys and the answer surprises a lot of people. Poplar. Most wood-workers pass poplar by. It has a strange greenish color and if you ask about it at the lumberyard, the most often repeated assessment you get is that it is a great wood to use if you are going to paint it. Since most carpenters HATE to paint, the discussion often ends there. However, for making toys, poplar has some wonderful properties.

Most of the toys that I make have pieces that are complex in shape. Poplar has a close dense grain that is not prone to splitting, which makes it a good candidate for complex shapes. Additionally the grain is generally very straight and has less tendency towards knots than other species. Technically a soft-hardwood, Poplar stands up to hard use better than a softwood like pine, but is much easier to shape than a hardwood like maple or oak. I do use hard maple, ash, or oak for parts that will be repeatedly stressed, and I use select pine for carving pilots, drivers, or other figures, but poplar does the bulk of the work. It is comparatively light for having such a dense grain, which translates to; less prone to break when dropped on the floor. Other undeniable virtues are that it is readily available, fast growing, and a common species that is relatively inexpensive. All of which make it an ideal material for toy making.

If I can go back to the paint issue for a moment, poplar does have an unusual color, but I leave it bright under several coats of varnish or tung oil on a regular basis. One of the reasons for this is that varnish dulls the more unusual greenish tones in the wood, the other is that over time, varnished poplar turns a beautiful golden brown. Toys that might have looked a bit pale and raw when new turn into beautiful heirlooms over time. It does not take that much time either, a couple of years can make significant transformation. A decade can transform a toy made of poplar from a pale loved plaything to a thing of beauty worthy of a special place of admiration.

New Poplar

New Poplar

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