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Maple paints just as well as poplar and is almost as cheap. It's much harder, so it resists dents and dings (maybe) a little better. I've used both, and like both. Pick what's easiest to get/cheapest or whatever criteria matters. As for the paint, DO NOT use latex. A good acrylic (sometimes labeled latex acrylic) is just as easy to clean up, looks much nicer, and is more durable to clean up stuff. A particular brand might be Sherwin Williams Pro Classic. The polyurethane idea is a bad one, the paint will be plenty durable, and the poly is just introducing extra work/cost, and possibly yellowing of the coat. Be aware that painted projects are actually more work than stain/clear coat ones. The wood has to be perfect, any imperfections telegraph through the paint. You didn't mention what the material for the panels will be. If it's a man made material (like MDF) the machined edges will have to be sealed to be as smooth as the rest of the panel. Just my opinions.....
 
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