Basswood is no longer the low-key kind of wood overshadowed by other trendy hardwood species. While it is not a top choice for exquisite furniture, it is famous for different applications.
It is commonly used as an accessory wood rather than the primary wood in furniture, and cabinetry. It also makes small utility items and carvings which isn’t what most hardwoods would typically be used for. But some people aren’t familiar with this versatile wood type.
So, what is basswood? Basswood is classified as hardwood. Interestingly, it is a very soft, low-strength hardwood, which explains its uses. It is low-density wood, tight-grained, and easy to cut. It is also plentiful and inexpensive.
If you are considering basswood as an option and want to learn more about it, then read on. This article provides an overview of basswood and everything you need to know about it; how it compares to other woods, its characteristics, pros, cons, and best uses.
Introduction To Basswood
Basswood goes by a couple of other names that you might not be familiar with. Scientifically, it is commonly known as Tilia, with 25+ species of trees from Eastern North America.
It is also referred to by different names geographically. Under the European genus, it’s called Linden, and we in America refer to it as Basswood for the North American genus.
It may be referred to as lime tree in other places. But it is not the typical lime tree, nor does it produce limes. Because it is among the tree species that grow naturally, there’s a greater chance of new hybrids evolving and spreading rapidly.
Basswood has a high growth density and does well in rich, reasonably moist soil. It can potentially grow in the sun and shade. However, it flourishes more in full or partial sunlight.
The trees can reach a remarkable size of 40-130 feet in height and as broad as 4-5 feet.
The origin of the Tilia genus is still a mystery, but some discoveries have led to a closer solution to the origins of the wood.
Scientists that have studied the trees for decades believe that basswood is a common ancestor of limewood found in Europe and North America. Although there’s no profound evidence of this, Tilia species continue growing in these topographies.
There are three most common varieties of basswood: American basswood, white basswood, and Carolina basswood.
Key Characteristics Of Basswood
Basswood makes a finely grained, light, and soft wood that continues to rise in popularity due to its low density, high workability, and availability.
Being a member of the deciduous tree family, you’ll find it classified with hardwoods. When you think of hardwoods, you imagine the likes of rugged woods like mahogany, oak, and black walnut.
Unfortunately, basswood does not match up to most hardwoods in hardness and strength. It is a delicate kind of hardwood.
Yet, woodworkers and crafters find it interesting to work with this type of wood as it doesn’t demand so much in terms of advancement of tools. It cuts effortlessly and is lightweight too.
The tree has recently penetrated further into the commercial market, with a broader range of applications than before. So if it has been one of the woods on your mind, you should familiarize yourself with its properties.
Here are the typical characteristics of basswood:
Basswood is typically pale white in color. The tone may range from cream, light brown, and sometimes reddish-brown hue and usually is uniform. It is also known for its flat look due to subtle straight grains and is rarely flawed with knots.
Wood odor is most times unpleasant for some woodworkers or end-users though other individuals find it appealing. Luckily, Basswood is odorless wood, making it easy and exciting to use for woodworking. Whatever you produce won’t need any treatment to eliminate natural odor.
This wood has a straight grain and is knotless, which yields a nice even texture. It also has a moderate natural luster that adds a touchy feel to any wooden components.
Basswood is naturally soft. This is one of the inherent traits that make Basswood a favorite among new woodworkers. With a Janka hardness rating of only 420 lbf, it is very easy to cut, shape, and manipulate using both hand and power tools.
Basswood is a fast-drying wood. It tends to shrink significantly during the process but becomes very stable once completely dry. It has a radial, volumetric and tangential shrinkage of 6%, 16%, and 9%, respectively.
Basswood is relatively durable in indoor settings under minimal stress and abuse. The finished products, however, have to be sealed to enhance longevity.
Unfortunately, basswood won’t last in the outdoor environment. It is too soft for exterior conditions, highly porous, and prone to rotting.
Maintenance requirements for basswood are very minimal. The wood needs little polishing and coating to remain pristine.
Basswood is an abundant wood that mushrooms naturally and with human cultivation. It is readily available, and prices are fairly low, thus accessible by the average woodworker. The finished products are relatively cheap too.
On a large scale, basswood is a naturally growing wood that spreads densely in North America and Europe. It doesn’t need human intervention to thrive.
Basswood has a moderate to rapid growth rate. Furthermore, it has never made it to the Red List of threatened species by the IUCN. Therefore, availability is almost guaranteed.
Pros And Cons Of Basswood
From its properties, we can draw out the pros and cons of basswood.
- Soft and smooth textured with no odor, thus a pleasure to work with.
- Dries very quickly.
- It has excellent workability making the production process from lumber to finished goods easy.
- Basswood has excellent bendability.
- It looks great without knots and flaws, and the light color can be stained to mimic prestigious woods.
- A smooth surface can easily be attained by sanding, pre-treatment, and polishing.
- Basswood is abundant, readily available, and low priced at wood and craft stores.
- It’s a sustainable wood
- Basswood is low strength in properties and can’t handle hefty weights.
- Holds nails poorly due to its soft core.
- It is soft and thus easy to break with stress or impact.
- It’s not rot-resistant when exposed to soil and moisture and will decay, ruling out outdoor use.
How Does Basswood Compare To Other Woods?
There’s no debate about the better wood between basswood and most hardwoods. It wouldn’t be a fair comparison as basswood is exceptionally soft.
Unlike mahogany, oak, and walnut, which sit higher in the hardness ranks and are incredibly strong and durable, Basswood hangs on the lower end. Basswood is commonly compared with wood species with a near likeness in softness like pine, poplar, birch, soft maple, and balsa.
These have a low-density grain that enables the wood to be carved like basswood. Notwithstanding, some of them are much stronger than basswood.
Soft maple, poplar, and birch have a higher hardness ranking at 950 lbf, 540 lbf, and 910 lbf, respectively. They are better options for furniture than basswood.
Is basswood softer than pine? Yes, basswood is softer than most pine varieties but not all. Red pine is the strongest, rated at 1630 lbf, followed by true pine at 1570.
Yellow pine and white pine stand at 870 and 420, respectively, against basswood’s 410 lbf rating. Therefore, pine is preferred over basswood for furniture and anything that demands more strength.
Only eastern white pine is softer than basswood, with a rating of 380 lbf. What about balsa? Is basswood stronger than Balsa? Basswood is indeed stronger than balsa.
Balsa is among the wood species that resemble basswood in weight density and even applications and is a top choice for wood crafts and carving.
The two share a couple of similar properties. They are both lightweight and soft. Basswood is, however, harder than Balsa which has a Janka scale rating of below 100 lbf.
Balsa, on the other hand, displays a better strength to weight ratio. It has better bendability and less likely to break compared to basswood. It is also lighter than Basswood, more abundant, readily available, and cheaper.
On the flip side, balsa has larger open pores which tend to draw moisture from its surroundings. Consequently, it is inclined to warp.
Uses Of Basswood
The Native Americans traditionally used the bark of basswood for various small creations. Centuries later, basswood is fully commercialized and available in lumber and blocks.
Basswood is utilized in large-scale production of various wood items. However, its use must be solely for interior applications and not outdoor purposes.
This is because it is susceptible to decaying too quickly, especially when exposed to moisture. It is also soft and can’t withstand harsh outdoor conditions.
In construction, cabinetry, and furniture making, basswood has taken its place as the material for roofing and flooring panels,
It has found new uses in home interior products, such as window shutters, Venetian blinds, frame moldings, and trim work, as it takes decorative details well. It is also used to mass-produce wood pulp, particleboard, and plywood.
Intricate models, statues, prototypes, toys, art and crafts, and marionette puppets are also curved out of this wood as it is soft and easy to mold. Home wood crafters and whittlers have a breeze working with it.
In addition, due to its excellent acoustic qualities, basswood is used in the production of recorders, bass guitar bodies, wind musical instruments, and the shell for drums.
It also makes household utility items such as bowls, spoons, storage boxes for fruits and vegetables, barrels, crates, and beekeepers’ hives.
Speaking of beekeepers’ hives, here is a fun fact: did you know that basswood tree flowers are bees’ favorite and used to make sweet basswood honey?
Away from the use of basswood lumber and blocks, the bark of the basswood tree never goes to waste. It can be peeled and soaked to obtain fibers usable for weaving baskets and mats.
The flowers also play an important role in ayurvedic medicine. Ever heard of linden tea? Well, it is used to treat and alleviate symptoms of tons of illnesses.
Can Basswood Be Used For Making Furniture?
You can use basswood for making furniture; after all, it is available in lumber. Notwithstanding, it is not ideal wood for furniture and is not recommended for that purpose.
There are better, stronger, durable options out there. And by all means, you can use it to accessorize furniture made from stronger wood as veneer, handles, or trims since basswood can be curved, molded, stained, and detailed beautifully.
If you must use it for furniture, it must be small furniture that is indoors and doesn’t support a lot of weight.
Working With Basswood
Like any other wood species, there are rules for working with basswood for the best outcome. Due to its soft nature, Basswood can be carved and cut seamlessly by hand and with simple tools.
It is not fussy either when it comes to gluing parts together. Its high porosity enables adhesive to be absorbed readily. But you should know, however, that it has weak nail holding capacity.
It cuts cleanly but gets woolly when sanded, so applying a sanding sealer is necessary to tame the fuzz and maintain smoothness. Basswood has tiny grains, is light in color, and sort of bare aesthetically. So staining is naturally a preference for many to give it a bit of character.
However, basswood is somewhat challenging to stain and finish as it is highly porous and absorbent. The whiteness and sinking contribute to a splotchy appearance of color.
Pretreating and prior sealing are imperative for successful staining. Once you sand and smooth the surface nice and even, seal it for protection. A sealer will create a barrier that serves a dual purpose.
First, it protects the basswood from harsh elements such as water and UV degradation. The layer of sealant also prevents the tannins (natural chemical compounds in wood) from migrating and deteriorating the stain over time.
Also, when the sealer is applied, the paint won’t be sucked into your wood, preventing wastage (you use less paint) and giving it an even appearance.
Here’s an easy tutorial by Fred Zavadil Wood Carving and Sculpting on staining and finishing basswood.
So what is Basswood? Basswood is a tree species also known as Tillia Americana or the American Linden. It is admired for its soft and fine-grained profile that gives it superior whittling properties.
Basswood is lightweight, smooth, even in texture, knotless, odorless, and has excellent workability. It is also fast-drying and stable once dry.
The porosity of basswood, however, makes it challenging to stain evenly without pretreatment and sealing. It is also low strength and doesn’t hold nails and screws very well.
Furthermore, basswood readily absorbs moisture and is likely to decay with exposure, so it’s best reserved for interior uses. Therefore, it is wise to consider these factors to allocate it to ideal projects and also have desirable results.
Pine, birch, and soft maple are all great alternatives to basswood. However, the softness, lower and tighter grain content of basswood sets it apart as the best wood for carving.
The rest rival basswood in strength and will be the better options for construction, furniture, and cabinet making, but not intricate carving. Basswood contributes to these projects as a secondary wood in trims, shutters, frames, and veneer.
It is also a go-to wood for the making of musical instruments due to its acoustic properties.
Basswood is a reliable, accessible, and affordable wood alternative for various woodworking projects. It is especially fantastic for beginners due to its excellent workability. You should try it!