In the world of structural building materials, poplar trees are about as useful as toothpicks; their weak, low-density wood is quick to snap under excess weight. But Oregon State University wood science professor Fred Kamke is changing the construction industry’s low opinion of hybrid poplar. Kamke compresses the wood using heat, steam and pressure until it is twice as strong as old-growth Douglas fir. “You don’t have to simply accept the properties of wood that Mother Nature provided,” he says. While hardwoods such as fir and pine take decades to mature, hybrid poplar reach maximum height in 10 to 15 years and thrive in Oregon, where they can be planted in tight crops. Kamke says the wood, which would otherwise be made into paper and pulp, is so strong when treated that it could replace steel and concrete for some construction purposes. Kamke is looking for an investor to finance a factory to produce the new wood product. Until then, they will keep looking for better ways to turn toothpicks into timber.