Carving soft woods is always a pleasant experience, some of the more well known soft woods such as basswood and cedar have proven that to be true. However, you may not have known what the softest kinds of wood are, so in this article, this is exactly what we will be talking about.
The softest wood for carving is the Ochroma Pyramidale, also known as balsa. Balsa wood is by far the softest wood for carving, resisting a force of only 400 Newtons. For comparison, the second softest wood for carving, Paulownia, can resist up to 1156 newtons.
Softest wood does not necessarily mean the best wood, many softwoods have issues such as fluff, cracks, and a short lifespan. Below in the article, you will find everything that you must be aware of about the softest woods for carving including the softest wood, balsa.
Best Of The Softest Woods To Carve
While balsa is by far the softest wood that you can carve, but it does not mean it is the best wood. Soft woods can be very different in color, durability, smell, price, availability, grain, and much more. Although they do share the same characteristic that they are all easier to carve and almost don’t damage your tools, you should still pick your favorite softwood based on other factors as well.
So here is the list of our top 5 favorite softest woods out there:
Of course, the first and favorite of all the softest woods to carve is the softest wood used for carving; the balsa wood. This wood has many unique features, both good and bad, so let’s get right into it.
Balsa wood is perfect for beginners or any other carvers that are looking to try and carve a very soft wood. Balsa carvings are also very light which makes carvings made from balsa wood stand out when picked up. The pale white color also makes balsa wood very distinguishable from all other woods that may look even somewhat similar.
Balsa wood is so soft it does not even need carving knives to be carved. Of course, we highly encourage you to only carve with very sharp carving knives, but, for general information, you now know that even a paper knife will be enough to complete a small carving out of balsa wood.
One very important downside you should keep in mind is that balsa wood is very fragile and can snap if you hold it too firmly and will break if you drop it.
Balsa wood is about twice as expensive as basswood usually sold for $12 per/ply sheet while basswood can be $4 to $6. Usually, you will also have a hard time finding plywood from whole stores or wood suppliers, so you may have to contact local crafts/hobby stores that may have an even higher markup.
With that said, trying to carve balsa wood is a must. the unique feeling of holding wood that feels hollow inside and carving through it with a cracking crisp finding out it is very much densely filled with wood is something I wish every woodcarver experiences.
There are a lot of different kinds of cedar and they all have about the same density ranging from about 1300 newtons to 1600 newtons. Although it may sound like a very large difference when compared to balsa wood, cedar wood is in the top 10 softest kinds of wood on our planet, and is very pleasant to carve.
The most common types of cedar wood are the red cedar, white cedar, and yellow cedar (Yellow cedar is our favorite just because of how great it smells). If you would like to know more about each kind individually you can read our article All About Cedar Wood.
If you are looking to carve Cedar, you should be aware that the luxury of having a pleasant time carving this wood comes at a cost. Cedar wood is not unaffordably expensive, but when compared to other kinds of wood that are similar, you can conclude that you are slightly overpaying for what cedar truly is worth.
The average price of cedar will range from 8$ to 20$ per linear foot.
Just like with most woods on this list, you should keep in mind that water does not mix too well with cedar. Although cedar is more waterproof than other kinds of wood with the same density because of its grain, if you don’t seal and varnish it, water will damage the wood.
To conclude our opinion on cedar wood, this is a go-to wood that has a lot of variety to it and is very pleasant to carve, while it does not have the best price perhaps you will find that its benefits may be somewhat worth it.
3. Paulownia (kiri wood)
Paulownia is not a very popular wood to carve. Still, it is the second softest wood after balsa, so if you found our article by searching the softest woods to carve, you probably will be interested in paulownia.
What you will notice straight away about paulownia wood is the unusual contrast in grain. Once again, you probably have not seen many carvings made out of this wood because it is not very well known, therefore, the grain will look pretty unique to most carvers as it stands out from the usual basswood/butternut pattern.
if you’ve never carved paulownia before, check out a short 2-minute video below that will serve as a great introduction to what the wood looks like and how you can expect the carvings to look.
A very important tip to remember is to have your tools very sharp when carving paulownia. This is not another “obvious tip” because of course, you should always have your tools sharp, but especially so with paulownia as the wood tends to crumble if the wood is forced out rather than cut.
You may have guessed that paulownia is not the cheapest of woods, it is actually the most expensive wood that grows in the Eastern forest, which makes it rather pricy. A board foot of paulownia is between $12 to $17 but sometimes goes higher than that if there is a small supply for it in the region that you are in.
The overall verdict on paulownia wood is that you will either love it or hate it. If you are looking for a very soft wood but don’t want to get balsa again, paulownia is your second choice, however, for everyday carvers, this will not be a popular pick.
If you have been carving for at least a few months you most definitely came across basswood as it is by far the most popular wood there is that woodcarvers use for their works.
Basswood is a little odd to appear in this list as it does not even enter the top 10 softest woods in the world. Its hardness is very different depending on the specie, but you can expect basswood to be around 1800 Newtons.
The reason we had to include basswood is that although it is not the softest woods to carve, basswood it is still one of the easiest woods to carve. The grain pattern on basswood is almost non-existent which makes it extremely easy to carve regardless of it being slightly denser than some of the other softwoods.
In addition to that basswood is very easily accessible and the cheapest wood on this list, you can even find practice basswood blocks on Amazon to be delivered to you if you want to compare basswood with another wood that you are considering using, very often basswood just happens to be the ultimate wood for wood carving.
Are you tired of using Basswood? Do you want to find a replacement? Read our article: 3 Woods That Are Similar to Basswood and you will be amazed by the similarities of these woods you definitely heard about before.
Basswood is the kind of wood that has the whole package. It is fairly durable, perfect for you regardless if you are a beginner, intermediate, or expert carver, has a beautiful color, and takes seal/stain/varnish very well.
To conclude, while basswood is not the softest wood there is, if you are looking for an easy wood to carve.
5. Silver Fir
The abies alba more commonly known as the silver fir is the softest softwood used for wood carving being only 1420 newtons. This may sound confusing as we have previously mention balsa and paulownia being the two softest woods available, but the catch is that both of them are hardwoods, while silver fir is a softwood.
Even though it is in the top 5 softest woods in the world, once again we see that the silver fir also is not a very common wood. There is no particular reason for that as it is not disliked nor does it have any major disadvantages apart from maybe being a little pricey and not extremely durable. Most likely there are just better alternatives than this wood when it comes to the overall experience with carving.
With that said silver fir wood is very soft and has a straight grain, it is easy to carve and it looks good when finished. It has a brown-red color that looks rather common.
Silver fir is also very easily found, any supplier that you buy wood from most likely either already has or can get you silver fir (also referred to as European silver fir) in little time. This is because this wood is often used for other forms of woodworking, and construction works.
To conclude, silver fir is not our favorite wood to carve, but neither is it a bad wood to carve. The main reason you may want to get it is for its softness as it is one of the softest woods in the world.
How To Soften Wood
If you are looking to carve softer wood sometimes the best choice is to soften the wood you already have instead of experimenting with a new unfamiliar kind of wood.
Softening the wood will not do a large enough effect to make basswood feel like balsa, however, softening any kind of wood still makes it significantly easier to carve especially if you are familiar with the wood.
There are multiple ways to soften wood for wood carving. If you want to know more than just the one method we share in this article be sure to read out article 6 Best Ways To Soften Wood For Carving.
One of the most common ways to soften wood for wood carving is by spraying a 1:1 ratio alcohol-water solution. Preferably the alcohol strength should be anywhere from 70%-91%. If you don’t have that you can also use 60% alcohol mixing it with a little less water than alcohol. If you do have the choice, however, keep in mind that the optimal alcohol percentage is 70% alcohol proportionally mixed with water at a 1:1 ratio.
After mixing the solution, apply it to the wood by spraying the solution onto the wood. Do not spray the wood too much, otherwise, it may crack from the alcohol, spray the wood just enough to have all of the wood’s surface in contact with the solution.
The water will enter the wood through the cracks and the alcohol will serve as a kind of a sealer to keep the water from evaporating. This will make the grain of the wood easier to carve and hence make the wood feel softer.
Of course, the solution will eventually evaporate from the wood, so 1-2 hours after spraying the wood, it is a good time to start carving. This method makes the wood feel a little more “green” therefore it is important that your knives are
Tips For Carving Soft Woods
The very first tip that everyone who wants to work with softwood has to know is that before you buy any softwood make sure to check the wood for knots, insect holes, or any other kind of damage in the wood. This is very important because the softness of the wood makes it more fragile and likely to be attacked by intruders such as insects. Soft wood is also prone to deformations due to factors like weather.
After you bought a good piece of wood, you want to make sure you have a good time carving it by following tip number 2: Make sure your knives are razor sharp. This is more than just a convenience and safety tip, it also is important to keep the purpose of carving a soft wood there. With a blunt carving knife, any soft wood will feel very hard to carve, and also it of course is dangerous.
It is a good idea to keep a leather strop wherever you are working. If you have not used leather strops before consider reading our article The Guide To Leather Sharpening Knives and Wood Carving Tools that will change your perspective on sharpening knives forever.
Our next tip for you is to take smaller cuts of the wood when carving a soft wood. This is a good idea for many reasons. Softer kinds of wood are more likely to have knots in them, hitting one when taking large strokes will unevenly distribute the power and most likely leave your carving piece damaged.
Soft wood also has a tendency to be difficult to carve very accurately. Usually, especially with beginner carvers, little bits of wood get accidentally cut off. The loss in precise detail is not such a large problem as it sounds, however, if you are looking to carve something very detailed (such as the persons’ face) consider switching to a harder wood.
Finally, when carving softer woods you don’t always have to follow the grain. The wood is soft enough to carve in a preferred direction from the beginning and following the grain is not a must. Also, there is more of a chance to tear the wood when hitting a bad patch, this will cause an unwanted piece of wood to get knocked off as you slice through it. Carving at a 15° angle to the grain will make such an impact much less damaging.
Cons Of Carving a Soft Wood
No matter what the reason is for your decision to carve a softer wood, we think it is very important that you are aware of the disadvantages that come with carving soft wood.
To start with soft woods are less waterproof than harder woods. Fruit woods such as apple, cherry, or pear are very waterproof, but nobody would consider them soft. On the other side, every single wood from this list does not deal well being under water or wet in general.
With that said, this is nothing that a good sealer can’t fix. By sealing the wood, most outside factors including water are no longer a problem of the wood you have used and now depend on the quality of the sealer. So if you are planning to leave your soft wood outside in snowy weather make sure you have a very good sealer prepared.
The softer the grain of the wood the worse it takes stain. This is another thing to keep in mind when carving softer woods. The change in color will also be more visible and unfortunately a little less even as stain will take better in harder denser areas and worse in softer areas.
Another inconvenience of carving soft woods arises when you are carving something very detailed. As we mentioned before, if you are carving a human face while you will certainly be able to make it “human-like” some tiny details will be lost as at times carving soft wood you will end up clipping off larger pieces of wood than intended. This is not such a big deal as it sounds but it is important to keep it in mind.
In general, the only disadvantages related to softwood are related to its durability. If you drop a carving made of a softer wood it is more likely to break, if you leave it outside in the rain without a very good sealer it will get ruined, the wood may have some damage before you even buy it because of how fragile it is. Apart soft wood being prone to damage, as long as you take good care of it, you will be happy with using softer woods.
To conclude the softest wood that you can carve is balsa wood. It is a very unique experience and while it is not a go-to wood for most wood carvers we would recommend everybody tries it at least once. Other soft woods can be more suitable for carving, you should know some characteristics of soft wood before you approach it.
Thank you for reading this article. We hope that you learned something new and that you find the perfect soft wood to carve for your next project. If you liked the article, be sure to surf the website for a little longer and see what other interesting articles you can find.