Wood carving has been around for centuries. Dating back to prehistoric times, wood carving began as a way to create wooden objects with ritualistic function.
It has evolved since then to carving useful objects such as boats and beautiful wooden art sculptures. Handmade wood carvings are incredibly special gifts, made through hours of hard labor.
Wood carving doesn’t have to be difficult, though. With the right kind of wood, carving can be much easier and reduce the strain on your body. A softer wood is the ideal choice.
So, what are the best soft woods to carve? The best soft woods to carve are balsa, basswood, butternut, white pine, and cedar. These woods are all soft and easy to carve with the right tools and a respect for the natural grain pattern.
In this article, we’ll review each of these types of wood to give you information on how they can work for you in your wood carving. Some softwoods are so soft, they break apart easily. Some require special attention to the grain.
By the end of this article, you’ll know which is which and be able to choose the best type of wood for your next wood carving.
What Is The Difference Between Softwood And Hardwood?
The first thing you need to know when it comes to wood types is the difference between softwood and hardwood.
Although the names may indicate one is inherently softer than the other, there are some hardwoods that are soft and some softwoods that are hard. The name doesn’t describe the density, but rather the type of tree.
Hardwood trees are the type of trees that have large, broad leaves. This would include trees such as oak, mahogany, and maple to name a few.
Softwood trees are the type of trees that have cones or needles instead of large, recognizable leaves. Some of these trees would be spruce, cedar, and pine.
What Is The Softest Wood?
When discussing the softest wood, it’s important to understand the way the softness or hardness of wood is rated. Wood hardness is rated on the Janka scale, which gets its scores based on the Janka hardness test.
The Janka hardness test measures the amount of force it takes to push a ball halfway into a piece of wood.
The scale runs from 0-4000, which seems like a massive scale. Some of the hardest woods you might recognize are blackwood, ebony, and Brazilian cherry. These all measure at around 2500-3500 in Janka hardness.
The softest wood with a rating of 70 on the Janka hardness scale is balsa wood. Balsa wood is so soft, in fact, that you can carve it using other objects aside from traditional, sharpened carving knives.
There are other soft woods that make for great carving wood, but if you’re looking for the softest, balsa is it.
The Best Soft Woods To Carve
Below is a list of the best soft woods to carve. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a quick reference of our top recommended types of wood that work best for carving.
Read through each type below and see which wood is the best fit for your next wood carving project.
By far the softest wood you can carve is balsa wood. With a Janka scale rating of 70, this wood is so soft it practically carves itself.
Part of the softness comes from how porous balsa wood is. This quality of the wood means that it absorbs liquids incredibly easily. Balsa wood can absorb water just from the air humidity!
Because balsa wood is so porous and soft, it can be difficult to work with. You won’t get a high level of durability or stability out of balsa wood. It nearly falls apart in your hands if you hold it too tightly.
Although balsa wood isn’t ideal for wood carving projects that you want to last long-term, it’s a great wood to start out with if you’re just learning the ropes of wood carving.
You can get a feel for how your tools work, how the wood shaves away from the block, how it feels as you carve. You can practice with different tools to achieve different carved looks on a wood that will easily show you how it’s done.
If you want to paint a balsa wood carving, beware that you will probably need multiple coats. Since balsa is so porous, it will just soak up all the paint.
When it comes to the optimal wood for carving, basswood is it. This wood has a Janka hardness rating of 410, giving it enough stability to be a firm structure but plenty of softness for carving.
Basswood has a closed-grain pattern with fine details. Looking at basswood from a distance, you may not know there’s even a grain pattern at all because it’s so fine and light. The wood simply looks like a smooth sheet of pale brown.
There are no knots and hardly any imperfections in this wood. This makes it easier to carve, because you’re not having to chisel away at a big knot or defect.
It has a very lightweight feel that makes it perfect for carving in the hand. This is one of many reasons that basswood is ideal for a beginner. You can simply grab a block and get started.
In comparison to balsa, basswood does not splinter or break apart easily. This added stability helps a new wood carver to have more control over their carving without the wood falling apart in their hands.
Basswood also has no strong odor, so it’s easy to work on for those sensitive to distinct smells. Many wood carving beginner kits come with basswood because it’s so nice to work with.
In contrast to the pale plainness of basswood, butternut wood has a beautiful grain pattern sure to catch your eye. This natural grain, combined with the Janka hardness rating of 490, makes butternut a perfect wood for carving.
Since it has a similar hardness rating to basswood, butternut is just as easy to work with. When using properly sharpened carving tools, the butternut wood should give way to your carving with ease.
The one major drawback about using butternut wood for carving is that this tree is susceptible to insects. There are often wormholes left throughout butternut wood blocks.
To avoid these pesky insect defects, simply look over your wood and search for any visible wormholes. If you don’t see any, you’re probably in the clear to use it with ease.
One of the great things about butternut for wood carving is the striking natural grain pattern along with the beautiful light-yellow color of the wood. This gives butternut wood a great advantaged for wood carving projects that are intended to be works of art or focal points around the home.
If you want to start small or focus more on whittling than intricate wood carving, butternut wood is also great for whittling. Overall, it’s a top choice for wood carving right along with basswood. If you choose either of these two, you can’t go wrong.
4. White Pine
If you’ve been wood carving for a while, you’ll know that there are different types of wood carving. You can whittle, carve in the round, or practice relief carving or chip carving.
White pine is a great softwood for doing everything except chip carving. This is because it has a soft and straight-grain texture that prevents it from working well with this kind of wood carving.
However, white pine is still a great choice. It has a Janka hardness rating of 380, which gives you a good indication of how soft this wood is. Eastern white pine is probably the pine you’ll be able to get your hands on most readily as it’s harvested in the eastern region of North America.
Pine is used often for furniture building because it has a great stability even with its natural softness. This means it’ll be great for carving without falling apart in your hands.
One drawback is that pine tends to have a lot of knots, so keep an eye out for these as you’re carving. Knots are dense, hard areas of the wood that are not easy to carve, even with the sharpest tool you have.
There are many kinds of cedar, so depending on what you get, it may have a Janka hardness rating of anywhere between 350-720. But don’t let this big fluctuation stop you.
Cedar is a great wood for carving because it’s so smooth. It works great with the carving tools and creates gorgeous sculptures or kitchen accessories.
Many types of cedar also have that wonderful fragrance, so you get to enjoy the scent of cedar as you’re working on your carving.
The only drawback to working with cedar is the price. Because it’s such a nice, smooth, and fragrant wood, it can be a little more expensive compared to the others on this list.
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