That’s So Poplar

In Jay Van Arsdale’s book, “Shoji: How to Design, Build, and install Japanese Screens“, there is a section on selecting the proper wood for the project of building one’s first set of shoji screens. For Poplar, he writes,

“little grain figuring; green yellows to brown with dark streaks; good for painting and staining; little porosity in surface or end grain; works well.”

For the example in the book, it is assumed that the builder will create (4) 24″x36″ screens. Based on the dimensions of the individual pieces (stiles, rails, kumiko), it is suggested that (1) 6′ 2″x6″ board will contain enough wood for one screen, provided it is all usable lumber. My thought was to buy enough 6′ pieces to build those four screens with the idea that the first couple screens would be practice and the last two might actually be good enough to put somewhere in the house.

Hill’s Hardwood Supply in Iowa City, IA is a great place to find this lumber. And while they don’t carry Port Orford Cedar, they do have myriad other species. I chose Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) for three reasons; ease of use, cost, and sustainability/locality. Although not technically native to my part of Iowa, they do quite well here and are barely outside of their home range. Also, we just planted one in our front yard last spring, hence a personal connection to the wood.

Hill’s provides rough cut lumber but not a website so you’ll just have to walk in and introduce yourself. If you plan on coming to Iowa for Handworks this May, consider stopping by-it’s only about 25 minutes from Amana and right off Interstate 80. In the warehouse are two walls lined with pallets of rough cut lumber including an entire pallet of 8/4 poplar in 12′ lengths. These pieces ranged anywhere from 6-8″ wide and after picking through, I found two nice 12′ pieces which the owner was more than happy to cut in half so that I could fit them into my station wagon. And on the way out I found a 8′ 8/4 piece of Cherry that had a 2′ crack extended out from a knot towards one end, which I couldn’t pass up. If this shoji experiment goes well, I’ll make my final screen using that piece.

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