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Maple vs Poplar

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by Treyzer, Apr 13, 2009.

  1. This is probably a question for our esteemed luthiers.

    Maple seem to be the typical wood used for the sides and back plates of double basses. However poplar has and is also used. Many Italian basses employ the ever popular, (I couldn't resist) poplar.

    I have always wondered what are the pros and cons of both woods in terms of tone and wood strength?
  2. So any interest in this topic. Can we explore other topics besides Hide Glue and sound post cracks?

  3. Any one interested in this topic? Searched and searched and couldn't find any threads on this!!!
  4. Turnaround

    Turnaround Commercial User

    May 6, 2004
    Toronto Canada
    Independent Instrument Technician, and Contractor to Club Bass and Guitar - Toronto
    It's an interesting question. I would never consider poplar for a DB, but you got me thinking....

    Maple is a lot harder than poplar, but siginifcantly less stable. Dimensional changes in poplar with varying humidity are less that in maple, so the use of poplar makes some sense.

    OTOH, maple is harder, less prone to damage. And prettier when it comes to figure in the wood. Hmmmm....
  5. Why do you suppose so many Italian basses have been made and are being made with poplar backs and sides Turnaround?
  6. Is there a wood type = Sound type study anywhere. I'm interested in the Maple vs Poplar, but also Willow and Walnut.
  7. Dr Rod

    Dr Rod

    Aug 19, 2005
    I have a poplar bass and I am very happy with the sound of it.

    If I had to compare it with my previous maple basses I would say that the sound is more lush, perhaps less direct.

    Having said that, so many other things could be responsible for that lush sound that I would not assume it's just the poplar.
  8. Mike Arnopol

    Mike Arnopol Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 4, 2005
    Owner of MAS Soundworks
    I just had a bass made in poplar. To me, poplar is much warmer and darker in sound. Maybe maple is punchier. I would think that maybe maple is more stable, but I don't know. Most of the older Italian basses that I admire are poplar, pear or other woods other than maple.
  9. all the aforementioned woods have their own endearing qualities, they have all been put to task as tonewoods in some form or another. the use of the less dense,softer woods for DB may produce an even and more balanced approach in complimenting the top plate.but...it may lack the horsepower when it gets to reaching up and out..
    DB is the sum of its parts,many recipes,many taste.
    I have exported many containers of yellow poplar logs to Milan,are these DBs "old" world poplar or closer to "home"?
  10. don leister

    don leister

    Mar 6, 2009
    When you say poplar do mean the American 'tulip poplar'? The easternstuff is not a true poplar and not the same as the European poplar used for instruments. The american wood is hard to find cut on the quarter, usually has noticable color variations and compared to european maple is a bit more 'splitty'. And then there is the greenish color initially.
    Don't mean to be so disparaging, it (tulip poplar) may work well, I have no direct instrument building experience with it but considerable (other) woodworking experience. It grows quite large around here in central Virginia , 4'+ diameter. I often think about what kind of bass it would make.
    Have you ever tried it?

    Those that have seen basses made from poplar was it American or European?
    And more specifically, was it cut on the quarter, slab, rift? How did it play and sound?
    The differences between maples just in North America is considerable (weight especially) so it would be good to know more about what we call poplar.
  11. 1st Bass

    1st Bass

    May 26, 2005
    Forest Grove, OR
    I remember seeing a photo of either Frank Daniels or his dad, examining a section of Carolina poplar about eight feet long, that had to be six feet in diameter. How I would love to have a shot at a log like that! I have seen his violins made of that wood, and they are spectacular, though not the same as maple, obviously. His customers like them, and he sells everything he makes, so...

    Anyone know anything about Carolina Poplar? Where to find it, etc?

    Chet Bishop
  12. i know a little...it is doubtful that it was a carolina poplar,they rarely if ever develope into the size you witnessed in the photo..they're fast growing,break up easily,and therefore tend to be smaller in stature and shortlived. they inhabit the south and mid-atlantic states and have no real economic value. the wood is used for crates,pallets etc. flat leaf stems so they flutter and are easy to spot.;)
    i believe you were looking at an eastern yellow (tulip) poplar...and readily available..but hurrry things are not looking good in the woods these days.
  13. I was thinking more of the poplar grown in Italy. Many Italian basses are made with this wood. I believe Arnold has built basses with this wood as well.
  14. neroantico


    Jan 23, 2004
    italy, milan
    Dear Friends,

    I live in northern Italy, the area named Padana flatland from Turin to Venice and Ferrara/ Ravenna is so rich of poplar.
    I think luthiers in the past got to use what was avaible, studies on wood came later....but they learnt how to make sound it good to establish a tradition...

    Just an opinion.

  15. Matthew Tucker

    Matthew Tucker Commercial User

    Aug 21, 2002
    Sydney, Australia
    Owner: Bresque Basses, Sydney Basses and Cellos
    Obviously, they both work, but given that maple has such a stunning flame pattern, its no wonder that makers prefer a wood that LOOKS killer, even though an excellent instrument can be made from both. If you can sell one for more than the other based only on the looks, all other things equal, what would you do?

    Also, you can make half a dozen violins from the wood used to make a bass. To keep your profits up and the bass price down, it would probably be good business to turn your maple into fiddles, and keep the planks of poplar or whatever you have left for the basses.

    Maple is a beautiful wood to carve, too. I don't know what poplar is like. But working with wood that is easy to work with, is a real plus.
  16. Turnaround

    Turnaround Commercial User

    May 6, 2004
    Toronto Canada
    Independent Instrument Technician, and Contractor to Club Bass and Guitar - Toronto

    Cost? Availability? Workability? Or maybe it's just a better wood for the job. Apparently like there are varying opinions on this.
  17. uprightben


    Nov 3, 2006
    Boone, NC
    Poplar is a confusing wood to talk about beause it is a rather loose term. Italian poplar is a completley different thing that the american varieties, and it is the italian stuff that has been used for instruments. I am currently making a violin neck out of american tulip poplar just to get some practice carving scrolls, and I would hate to have to use the stuff in a real instrument- it is very difficult to carve without splitting it. I think that Mathew nailed the motivation for using other woods than maple by the old italian makers. It is also my opinion that the size and scale of the bass can really bring out the beauty of unfigured wood. Something with no figure and really visible growth rings might look ugly on a violin, but when you see more of it it can suddenly look very beautifull.

    As for sound, I've never had my hands on a poplar bass. I played a cherry kolstien once, and it sounded great. My intuition is that a master maker can use just about any wood work for the back and sides, and some species are more of a challenge than others.
  18. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    This topic has come up several times over the years, from a few different angles. For backs and sides, we've seen and heard about willow -- a good performer but not especially in the beautiful category Matthew talks about. For beauty, we've also heard about and seen quarter-sawn sycamore. I don't imagine there's too much of that in Oz, but it's pretty cheap and common here in North America.
  19. 1st Bass

    1st Bass

    May 26, 2005
    Forest Grove, OR
  20. Mike Arnopol

    Mike Arnopol Supporting Member Commercial User

    Jan 4, 2005
    Owner of MAS Soundworks
    I was looking into the various "poplars" a while ago when I was thinking of having one of Gagnon"s luthiers (sans Gagnon) in the Phillipines make me a bass. I decided to have one made by Golia. The closest wood that is similar to Italian Poplar is a not-very-available wood in North America known as "black Poplar" As mentioned, what we see as poplar even at hardwood brokers is the greenish stuff known as tulipwood. This apparently is not a good choice. It is true that likely the Italians came upon slab cut poplar and other cheaper woods for basses out of economic motivation. No luthier was going to waste a nice piece of maple (or quarter sawn spruce) for a bass. Basses were considered more utilitarian instruments. What happened was that unknowingly (maybe at first) they found out that in terms of sonics that the more plain and possibly slab cut woods sounded better on bass. Now there were some great Italian basses made with quarter sawn maple, but maybe a minority.

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