The Duke of Burl

In the world of burls, mappa burl veneer affords an economical choice

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Mappa burl, from the European poplar trees (Populus nigra to be exact), has grown more and more popular as a dashboard veneer, according to Ben Clift, an owner of Renaissance Specialty Veneer Products (RSVP) in Columbus, IN.

"Mappa burl is used in factory and after-market dashboards in both high-end and low-end applications," says Clift. "Mappa has always been used in furniture and architectural applications. The burl character is unique in the fact that it is more like an ingrown bark than the true burl you see in maple, madrona, walnut, Carpathian elm and other burls. Although it is a European species, it has been grown in the West Coast of the United States by some early Italian immigrants."

Family Name

Populus nigra of the Family Salicaceae.

Common Names

Mappa burl, mapa burl, mapi burl, mapa maser, lupa de chopo, loupe de peuplier.


Grows to average heights of 100 to 115 feet. Weight averages 28 pounds per cubic foot.


  • Mappa burl should be dried slowly and with care. Experts report that some surface checking may occur during drying.
  • Easy to work with all tools, but slow feeds are recommended for power tools and especially sharp surfaces are needed to overcome the burled surface irregularities.
  • Glues well and takes screws and nails well, too.
  • Wood takes all standard finishes, and experts recommend filling small holes with wood paste or other filling material before finishing.

A burl is defined as a hard, woody outgrowth on a tree, more or less rounded in form, usually resulting from the entwined growth of a cluster of sporadically occurring buds. While a burl might appear to be an unattractive growth on a tree, it's often the site of some of the world's most complex figures-and mappa burl is no exception. Mappa burl's heartwood is generally a pale-to-medium-colored brown and the burls are little spots of reddish brown and black.

Ben McGuire, president of FormWood Industries Inc., Jeffersonville, IN, describes mappa burl as a poplar with burly eyes. "We book and butt pieces to get 4-foot by 8-foot panels. It resembles a light maple in color with mahogany-toned eyes."

McGuire says mappa burl is popular for an array of high end uses, such as plane interiors and automobile dashboards. It's also often used as an inlay for tabletops and other different types of furniture.

"Sales of mappa burl have picked up in the last few years because it is an economically-priced veneer. Some customers are dying it various colors to resemble other more costly veneers," McGuire says. He adds that it's been dyed to resemble myrtle burl, maple burl, Carpathian elm burl and even redwood burl.

Custom woodworker Steve Holman, owner of Holman Studios, Fine Custom Furniture in Dorset, VT, has only worked with mappa burl once, but the result was a stunning desk. "I work with a wide range of woods but this marked my first experience with mappa burl and it was the choice of the interior designer from Washington, D.C., who specified it for the client." Holman designed the desk with interior designer Sally Gresham who was restoring a townhouse in Georgetown. The desk combines mappa burl veneer with maple, ebonized maple, ebony, leather and gold leaf.

Holman and the client were thrilled with the results but when he first saw the mappa burl veneer he was underwhelmed. "The finished mappa burl is spectacular stuff; burls typically have a lot of action going on. But the original poplar as a color is a sort of dead white and I was slightly disappointed when I saw it. We went with an aniline dye to get a honey gold, which gives the veneer a wonderful warm tone and makes the figure go wild. The result is very arresting and the client was delighted. European poplar can be a yuck color but it takes staining or dyes well and mappa burl is the same way."

Holman did have to do some filling with the veneer. "A lot of the G���¿eyes' were gone so I used a shellac stick to fill them in." Holman had very little trouble working with the veneer and in the end used a high-speed router to get clean edges.

Mappa burl's uses include high-end furniture, panels and cabinetry along with a variety of specialty items such as cigar humidors, jewelry boxes, picture frames and clocks.

European poplars include a variety of Populus species, including Populus nigra, Populus Canadensis, Populus robusta and Populus tremula. However, Populus nigra is the only European poplar said to yield mappa burl. While European poplars have a slight blunting effect on tools, mappa burl is said to require very sharp tools because of the nature of the burly material. Experts also recommend using slow feed speeds for best results.


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