June 23, 2022
Wood carving hobbyists are increasing in numbers. It is a great way to bond with the young ones and teach them new skills. This is also a productive way of passing time that can result not only in many beautiful works of art but also for objects that has practical uses inside our homes. Beginner carvers or whittlers are often confused about what tools or wood to use. As in any wood carving project, if you have the right equipment, the process is easy, and the end result is satisfactory.
Whittling or carving wood is easier if you know the different type of woods that is suitable for the project you are doing. Knowing the texture and unique characteristics of each wood are the first step in making sure each wood carving project is not the last for first-time carvers.
While there is a wide variety of wood that is available in the market today, it is not difficult to choose the best possible option for your carving needs. The wood industry uses Janka Hardness Test, named after an Austrian wood researcher Gabriel Janka, to measure each wood’s dentition and wear resistance.
According to the Janka Hardness Test, here are the softest types of wood include balsa, Basswood, and Butternut. These are the most beginner-friendly and easiest kinds of wood that most suitable for carving.
1) Balsa Wood
Janka Hardness Test Rating: 70lbf
Scientific Name: Ochroma pyramidale
This type of wood originated from Balsa trees, commonly found in Central America, South America, and Mexico. Due to its deciduous angiosperm classification as a tree, it is referred to as hardwood even if it has the softest wood, making it the softest commercial hardwood.
The density of balsa wood is quite porous. It pretty much can absorb water from the air. Some parts of it are softer or harder than the other parts. Warping through time is to be expected. The color of the inner core or heartwood is a mixture of light red and brown, while the sapwood or outer softer wood layer is off-white to light tan in color. This wood can be painted on, but several coats will be needed as it has the tendency to soak them all up. Expect a shorter life span and durability with this wood.
It is also the permeable type of wood that makes it light and perfect for hand carving. It’s very lightweight and soft. Thus, it’s most suitable for craft craving. Those model airplanes, miniature buildings, and bridges are oftentimes made of Balsa wood. However, the texture is quite grainy and coarse, so it is best to use very sharp tools in cutting through the wood as the edge tends to get wooly or fuzzy. Using glue is the best option when joining parts rather than nails or screws.
Janka Hardness Rating: 410lbf
Scienticfic Name: Tilia Americana
In North America, it is simply known as Basswood or American Basswood, but do not be surprised if it is called Limewood or American Linden in Europe. It came from Tilia trees or lime trees (not to be confused with fruit-bearing lime trees) that can grow up to 60 feet to 120 feet tall with a trunk diameter between 3 and 5 feet. It has a light gray to light brown colored bark. The leaves are mostly asymmetrical and have a unique heart shape. Expect to see flowers bloom during the months of June and July with a pleasant, relaxing scent. They are widely distributed in the Eastern North American regions.
Basswood is the perfect and favorite choice for wood carving or wood whittling projects. It has a very fine closed-grain texture without knots and does not splinter easily. Painting, staining, or polishing will not be a problem as well as using glues on it. The wood’s natural color is pale brown with faint tinges of white or red, and it is odorless. There is only a slight difference between the colors of the sapwood and heartwood.
It is considered the king of all types of whittling or carving wood, especially for beginners. While it is heavier than balsa, it is generally considered a lightweight and perfect for hand-carving projects. Any new carver can cut or shape detailed patterns without worrying about encountering knots and defects since they are quite uncommon with Basswood.
Most wood shops or DIY craft shops, whether online or in-store, offer precut and pre-shaped Basswood carving blocks for both professional carvers and hobbyists. Aside from wood carving, plywood, and lumber needs, Basswood is also used for making plaques, moldings, boxes, veneers, wood pulp, fiber products, and musical instruments, particularly the electric guitar bodies.
3) Butternut Wood
Janka Hardness Rating: 490lbf
Scientific Name: Juglans cinerea
The Butternut wood came from tree species that are closely related to the walnut, which is widely found in the southeast part of Canada and the eastern regions of the United States. It can grow to a tree size of 65 to 100 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 2 to 3 feet. It is also known as “white walnut” due to its pale gray bark color, and the grain is quite similar to that of the expensive Black Walnut.
The texture of the butternut wood is between medium and rough with a straight grain and natural silky luster. While it is harder than Balsa and Basswood, it is still one of the softest woods that is preferred by woodcarvers or whittlers. The wood can also be used with machine tools in cutting design patterns aside from hand carving techniques. However, sharp tools are recommended to avoid any problems as fuzzy or wooly surfaces can be encountered after sanding the wood.
The color of the sapwood is a mixture of light yellow and white, while the heartwood is between light and medium tannish brown. It is also not unusual to find some reddish tint on it, and just like Balsa and Basswood, it is odorless too. Both online and in-store shops usually have it in carving and lumber blanks.
However, Butternut is one of the main because Butternut is that sometimes it has wormholes as the tree is prone to insect attack. However, due to its similarity to the Black Walnut, it is popular for those looking for an inexpensive way to mimic the Black Walnut wood. Butternut stains easily and so painting over it will not be a problem. Check the woodblocks thoroughly for wormholes before buying them.
Asie from carving, it is often used for making furniture, veneer, crates, and boxes. The wood is still available in the market, but the tree species in North America has been under observation due to a fungal disease affliction. The number of Butternut trees has been decreasing quickly over the years, and so the Fish and Wildlife authorities in the US have added it to the federal concern species list.
Janka Hardness Rating: 430lbf
The Silver Fir, known as Abies Alba, is considered the softest wood for carving. It is native to the European mountains from Normandy to the Pyrenees and many other countries of Europe. You will also find it in Christmas tree plantations in North America’s North East region.
You might have already learned that Paulownia and balsa are the softest hardwood at hand. So, you’re a bit confused as to why the Abies Alba is considered the softest wood for carving. The reason is that the Abies Alba is a softwood, not a hardwood like the balsa and Paulownia.
Abies Alba belongs to the world’s five softest wood. Yet, it isn’t a common wood. It is a bit pricey and might not be that durable. Moreover, you will find better alternatives for Silver Fir. It features a huge coniferous tree that can grow up to 200 feet tall, up to 4 feet and 11 inches in diameter. The wood is lightweight and comes with fine light-colored grains with even texture and long fibers.
Although Silver Fir is not commonly used for carving, you will quickly find this wood from any wood supplier because it is frequently used for other woodworking applications and construction works. Silver Fir might not be the favorite for carving, though it is not a bad choice for carving.
Janka Hardness Rating: 900lbf
Cedar comes in a wide variety of species with almost the same densities ranging from 13,000 to 16,000 Newtons. Cedarwood, of course, belongs to the top ten softest wood on Earth. Besides, it is excellent to use for carving.
The Red, White, and Yellow Cedars are the most common cedar types, though many like the Yellow Cedar for its wonderful smell.
Cedar, of course, is expensive, though if you get one, you will indeed have a pleasant and engaging carving time with it. However, you can also find other wood types that are less expensive but almost of the same quality as the cedar. As such, you might feel a bit overpaying when opting for cedar.
The cedar’s price per linear foot ranges from eight to twenty dollars. When using cedar, it will be best to seal or varnish it because water might be unforgiving with cedar. Of course, cedar offers better water resistance, but water would still damage this wood.
Wood carving belongs to the oldest craft in our world. Neatly carved images and patterns give a regal look to any product. So, if you want to engage in carving as a beginner, it will be best to know the best and softest wood for carving.
The softest wood you can use for carving is balsa wood. It is also the favorite of many tyros in woodworking. Yet as you become more versatile with your carving skills, you can transition to other wood types. Carving is a skill that you can raise into an art. You can hone your carving skill and raise it a notch higher with constant practice.
Among the three kinds of wood, Butternut is obviously for expert carvers. Basswood is the best choice for beginners or intermediate whittlers or carvers. It is not as soft when compared to the Balsa wood, but it is soft enough to be easily manipulated and bent. It is not as strong as Butternut, but it has a natural strength that makes it easy to work with. Overall, the good outweighs the bad.
Just remember that before tackling a wood carving project, having the right tools and choosing the appropriate material matters a lot. Learn to differentiate one wood from another to find the one most suitable for your carving needs.
Jason is a 40-year-old woodworker, carpenter and author who have been involved in the woodworking and woodcraft industry with 17 years of experience. He is expertise in technical aspects, woodcraft and furniture building projects.