Wood is wood.
That’s what I thought when I first started carving.
But I quickly realized that I couldn’t be further from the truth.
Every type of wood is different and it’s important to use the right one when carving.
You don’t want to deal with wood that has too many knots or is too hard if you are a beginner.
In my opinion, the best wood for carving is basswood which you can easily buy on Amazon by clicking here. Want to know why? Then keep reading.
Soft wood for carving
According to the Janka Hardness test, common hardwoods like balsa, basswood and butternut are the softest woods you can find. This also means that these three are the easiest types of wood to carve.
All three of them are great for beginning carvers. So let’s take a closer look at them.
Balsa an extremely porous type of wood. As a result it is very lightweight and the softest wood that can be used for carving. When soaked in water, you can even flex and shape the wood.
These features make it a good carving wood and it is often used for making model airplanes and bridges.
A clear downside is that the density of balsa can change a lot, even within the same piece of wood. So some part might be pretty hard while other part will be very soft.
Also, because of the high porosity the wood might absorb water from the air and start to warp over time.
Basswood is great for carving. It is pretty soft and has almost no grains.
This makes basswood very easy to use, especially for whittling relief carving.
Not surprisingly, some people even call basswood the king amongst all types of carving wood.
Basswood is a little heavier than balsa though. But for most projects (that are not airplanes), it doesn’t make a big difference.
I recommend beginners to start working with basswood.
Finally, there is butternut. Compared to balsa and basswood, butternut has a very different look due to the grain and color.
It is a little harder than the other two woods but it can still be considered to be a good wood for beginners.
The biggest problem with butternut is that it’s very prone to insects. So you will often find wormholes in the wood.
However, if you can find a piece of high-quality butternut, it’s definitely worth trying.
Types of wood used for carving
Although basswood is great to start with, you might want to try your hands on some other types of wood as well. Here is a short list of other good wood carving woods, both softwoods, and hardwoods.
- Aspen: similar softness to basswood and easy to work with.
- Cherry: known for its pinkish brown color and contains a fine grain that often has a wavy pattern, which makes it difficult to work with.
- Cottonwood: a rather white looking wood that contains soft bark which can easily be carved as well.
- Mahogany: although classified as a hardwood, mahogany can still be carved both along and across the grain. Its reddish color makes it a great option for many different projects.
- Oak: a pretty sturdy and strong kind of wood with a very defined grain.
- Sugar Maple: a very light color wood that is very hard and difficult to work with.
- Walnut: it’s dark and rich color makes walnut a popular choice for carvers. However, it’s pretty hard and difficult to carve. You will have to use extra sharp tools and a mallet for the best results.
- White Oak: this wood has a faint yellowish color and a medium to coarse grain.
- White Pine: this wood is similar to basswood in that it is pretty soft, easy to carve, and has creamy color.
Difference between hard wood and soft wood
Wood can be classified as either softwood or hardwood. Hardwood comes from angiosperm (flowering) trees and soft wood comes from gymnosperm (evergreen conifers) trees.
Very generally speaking softwood has a lower density and is therefore softer than hardwoods.
But be careful because there are many exceptions to this rule.
So you should check something called the Janka Hardness Test if you want to know how soft or hard a wood really is.
How to choose?
That’s quite a long list to choose from right? Finding your favorite type of wood to work with can take some trial and error. But here are a few things to keep in mind to speed up the process:
- Your skill level: as mentioned above, it becomes increasingly more challenging to carve wood the harder it gets. So choose a softer wood if you are just starting out.
- Your carving tools: you will need some carving tools that are specifically made for working with hardwood and you will have to frequently sharpen them.
- Your carving project: depending on what you are carving you might want to change the type of wood you are using. For example, kitchen utensils are normally best made out of hardwood because it absorbs less water than softwoods. On the flip side, some hardwoods such as Oak and Ash resist water but readily absorb oil.
- Safety: some people might have allergies for certain types of wood, which results in your skin turning red. Whereas some other types of wood may emit bad odors that can sometimes lead to headaches. If you want to play it safe, you can try to stick to the most common types of wood such as basswood, oak, etc.
- Quality: if you have the opportunity to hold the wood in your own hands before buying it, then make sure to check it for any defects. Some types of wood are prone to insect holes which can ruin the finish. Also, try to avoid any wood with knots as they are pretty much impossible to work with.