American Popple, Medieval Joinery

Yes, I said “Popple” not “Poplar.” There are a goodly number of folks who don’t quite understand the difference, and the importance of that difference.

A few years ago my ire with this particular conflict was created when I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On display they have a world-famous piece known as “The Medici Chest.”

The Medici Chest, 15th Century, Florence. Image from the PMA Website.

Most interesting of this piece is the conservation and restoration being performed by the PMA, which I’ll link too as well. This conservation effort and the related documentation is awesome. What makes my teeth ache, however, is the general description of the piece:

“Made in Florence, Italy, Europec. 1450-60
Poplar with painted decoration…”

My first though was an acerbic query as to how a hardwood that hadn’t existed in Europe since the end of the last Ice Age was used in making this very large chest in the middle of the 1400’s. Columbus wouldn’t make his first attempt at circumnavigation for another 30-40 years, and even then it’d be still a while more before North American hardwoods would even begin to be exported back to Europe.

Really this is a common problem due to the differences in naming practices between the US and Europe. What Europeans (generally) call Poplar, Americans call Popple. What Americans call Poplar is what the rest of the world refers to as North American Poop Wood Tulip Poplar. This is another instance where I am dismayed by the curators and museum staff when it comes to accuracy. If they wanted to be more accurate without the confusion, they could change the card to read that this chest is made out of Cottonwood.

Yep, I said Cottonwood. Populus nigra is native to Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Southern France) and one of the three Species of the Populus Genus to be named “Cottonwood.” The other two are common North American woods, Eastern and Western Cottonwood (Populus deltoides and Populus fremontii, respectively). Granted, it could also be White Popple (Populus Alba), or equally incorrectly identified and actually a species of the group known as as Aspens. Regardless, in any of these cases we are at least in the same genus when discussing the lumber used in making this chest. Tulip Poplar, for record, is correctly known as Liriodendron tulipfera. Though the working properties are vaguely similar, Tulip Poplar is nothing close to actual European Poplar.

This week I’ll be working on some basic six board chests. By happenstance, I will have the opportunity to use Eastern Cottonwood which is amazingly close to European Popple. And, it’s probably the least expensive lumber one can find in the Midwest United States.

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