If you’re a part of the wood carving community, then you definitely know that basswood is the most popular and well rounded timber for most wood-carving projects. But there are times when you have to find an alternative for it when you can’t get your hands on some or need to work on a woodcarving project that requires wood with particular properties.
When it comes to wood carving, there are alternatives to using basswood. Pine, soft maple, and birch wood all have similar features to basswood, especially the density of the grain that determines the difficulty of the carving project.
This article will explain these 3 kinds of wood that are similar to basswood, with their additional benefits and unique characteristics. Working with these timber varieties can significantly improve your woodcarving experience, so trying them out is highly encouraged, and we will explain exactly why.
Let’s start off with pine, the most common alternative of basswood that is easy to get your hands on.
Pine is a type of soft lumber that can be primarily found in the forests and woods of eastern, central, and northern Europe. There are more than 100 categorized varieties of pinewood that come with variations in texture, durability, and other properties. The most commonly used and available variety of pine is black pine.
The average height of a fully-grown pine trees range from 25 to 40 metres depending on location and variety. Pine trees can survive for a very long time, with the average life span ranging between 150-200 years. It takes a long time for pine wood to mature enough for woodworking purposes and are usually fell around the 100 year mark.
Pine trees usually have a straight trunk and can have two distinct types of barks- either dark and furrowed or rectangular and plated. The heartwood and sapwood are easily distinguishable, with the sapwood having a whitish tint and the heartwood having a dark reddish tint. The only drawback of pine wood is the high moisture content which can often react with the environment to create a blueish tint.
Pine is a good timber of choice for beginners because of its durability and flexibility in carving patterns. Despite being a softwood, the strength and elasticity of the timber is excellent. The pattern of the grain can be straight or wavy depending on the way the wood is cut, giving pine flexibility that can easily rival basswood. It can be easily worked with both hands and machines.
Common use of pinewood in woodworking projects includes building and construction, furniture making, and making of composite wooden parts.
2. Soft Maple
While maple is generally more known as hardwood by most woodworkers, it also has a lesser-known softwood variety aptly named soft maple. There are many variants of soft maple that grow quicker than hard maple. Mostly found in Asia, Europe, and North America, especially Canada where it’s a national symbol.
The versatility and flexibility of soft maple is what makes it popular among furniture makers. The most common variant of soft maple, silver maple, usually stand at a height ranging between 15 to 25 meters height. Soft maple has an optimal wood density that is easy to work with. It also has fantastic stability and strength that makes it a good fit for rookie woodcarvers.
The outward physical characteristics of soft maple are very similar to hard maple, which might make it difficult to distinguish them at a passing glance. The primary difference comes in colors- the common variety silver maple has a grayish-white hue while other varieties have a darker hue. The heartwood of soft maple has a dark reddish-brown hue.
Soft maple wood has a straight grain that is also finely textured. The pattern of the grain is similar to American cherry, and is the reason soft maple is also considered a great alternative to American cherry. The wood is very flexible and can withhold high levels of stress when bent. Due to the low shock resistance it’s not used for flooring purposes.
Soft maple is most popular in furniture making, but it’s also used for a wide variety of purposes as well such as making posts, fences, and more. The flexibility and strong durability of the timber makes it easy to work with both hands and machines. It’s also highly resistant to natural decay.
Birch is arguably the third most popular alternative to basswood. It’s mostly found in Europe, but also fairly common in Asia, especially Japan. There are 40 classified varieties of birch with the most common ones being common birch, weeping birch, red birch, and silver birch. Due to the low variety count, the color variation of birch is also low but has more depth and lighting effects when exposed to sunlight.
The average height of birch trees usually ranges between 20 to 25 meters and has an average lifespan of 120 years. The wood has a fine porous structure, with the grain having a wavy pattern. The surface of the wood has a satin-like shine that adds to the luster.
Birch wood has a pleasant appearance, with the color variations of the different species ranging from white, red, and brown hues tinted with white. The bark is flaky and can be separated into thin papery plates. The trunk of the trees are fairly thick, but the thickness doesn’t affect the softness and flexibility of the wood.
Birch is a highly dependable and durable softwood that can be used for a wide array of heavy-duty tasks starting from roofing, flooring, furniture making to the construction of canoes. This versatility mainly stems from the flexibility and shock resistance of the wood that allows it to be molded into any conceivable shape and size without sacrificing functionality.
Considering everything, birch can be an excellent entry point for beginners who want to take off their training wheels and work on a timber variety that is slightly different from basswood.
Carving Features Similar To Basswood
Now that you know the best alternatives to basswood for wood carving, it’s time to understand the features that make these alternatives so viable. All of these alternatives have carving features that are very similar to basswood, making them ideal to work with. These features will be detailed below in a simplified manner so that if you feel like the options above are restrictive, you can choose your own.
Softness and low grain content:
The softness and low grain content of basswood is what set’s it apart from other types of soft timber. These two traits make the carving process easier as your tools can cut into the wood more effectively. A higher grain count makes it difficult to cut through the wood. Birch, pine and soft maple all share this common trait with basswood.
In general softwood, varieties grow much quicker compared to hardwood varieties of trees. This makes softwood more sustainable and cost efficient since the increased availability of softwood ensures that the price point is always low.
Fire and Weather resistance:
Two of the best features of basswood is that it is fire and environment resistant. These two important traits are also shared by pine, birch and soft maple. The presence of these two features ensure the commercial utility and viability of any products made from these softwoods
Tensile and Sheer Strength:
The flexibility of pine, birch, and soft maple might not be as good as basswood but they come pretty close. The most common uses of basswood is making furniture and heavy-duty panels for roofs and floors. The basswood alternatives mentioned in this article also are very flexible and have considerable strength and durability. This makes these wood varieties easy to work with.
Lesser number of shoots and branches
One of the most commonly ignored attributes of basswood is the low number of shoots and branches of the timber. Usually, the more shoots and branches grow out of a tree’s trunk the more difficult it is to work with.
If you feel like you have had enough practice with basswood, then you should consider one or all of the alternatives mentioned in this article. Doing so will increase your wood carving experience and possibly provide you with new insights.