What is Basswood? Characteristics & Uses
Are you looking for a new type of wood for your next project? Maybe you’re considering basswood but can’t decide whether it’s the right pick or not? If the answer is yes, then this guide is for you! Basswood is a lightweight, flexible, and highly stable hardwood that woodworkers love working with. Not very hard or dense, it is mostly used for hand carving and building musical instruments.
How hard is it, though? Is this a long-lasting wood type, or not? Just how resistant to humidity, decay, and rot is it? What’s the average lifespan of basswood? Are there any alternatives? These are just some of the questions that you’ll find answers to in this detailed guide. So, let’s jump right in!
Is it Softwood or Hardwood?
It’s easy to get this confused, but basswood belongs to the family of hardwoods. Yet, it’s very soft, which is exactly why it’s regularly mistaken for softwood. Native to North America, basswood comes from the Tilia genus and is a deciduous tree that mostly grows in the eastern part of the country. Commonly known as Tilia americana, it was highly regarded by the native tribes.
They were using its inner bark to craft ropes, thongs, and even bandages. Compared to other hardwood species found in the US, basswood grows almost twice as fast as, say, the local beech and birch. While low in strength, basswood doesn’t split easily; it doesn’t crack when you put a nail or a screw through it. So, yes, while it is a soft hardwood, it’s still split-resistant and can handle a certain degree of abuse.
Hardness and Density
But wait—what about its physical characteristics? How hard and dense is basswood, exactly? Commercially, basswood is often considered softwood. And on the Janka list, it has a very low hardness rating of 410 pounds. Compared to the likes of ash, oak, walnut, and even cherry, it’s not at all hard. On the bright side, it is lightweight, soft, and easy to shape to your liking.
On top of that, it boasts above-average stability. As we just mentioned, basswood easily withstands impact and penetration (like with a nail or screw). It is easy to glue, too—another big pro for any wood carving project. Basswood isn’t particularly strong, though (4,730 psi comprehensive/8,700 psi bending strength) and has a below-average density (.32 g/cm3 (20 pounds per cubic foot) and stiffness of 1.46 Mpsi.
What About Resistance to Elements?
This wood species is weak against natural elements and is not at all durable against rot/decay. This comes from poor natural resistance to humidity. When exposed to water, it will quickly rot, deform, and deteriorate rather quickly. Furthermore, basswood is rather vulnerable to insect attacks.
But you can treat it to make it more resistant. Besides, if you bought a guitar, cello, or a toy for your kid that’s crafted from basswood, most likely, it won’t be exposed to pests. As for moisture, if you live in an area with average humidity levels, that shouldn’t be much of a problem, either.
The Visual Aspects
As for the colors, basswood doesn’t have a wide range of hues and tones to pick from. Mostly, it is creamy white or pale brown—that’s the sapwood. The heartwood is much darker, with a reddish tone. Again, there’s always the option of staining and even painting it to give it the color that you like. This is a very common practice among woodworkers. Natural basswood isn’t that attractive and is usually covered in an opaque color.
That’s because it has a uniform, “boring” straight grain. To preserve basswood, we recommend treating it with a finishing coat against humidity and UV rays. It won’t cost much but will greatly increase the lifespan. This is an odorless wood species, by the way, which makes it perfect for building carriages, furniture, and, of course, carving. Last, but not least, basswood doesn’t include any toxic chemicals.
The Most Common Uses
Softness is basswood’s biggest selling point. It makes carving easy while the small grain gives it a noble, pristine look. The below-average grain density and the sturdiness of the timber turn basswood into an ideal carving wood for a beginner. It will require sleight of hands, but basswood is still an excellent starting point. That’s exactly why most miniature models and practice decoys are made from it.
Experienced woodworkers build musical instruments from basswood. We’re talking about crafting guitars, cellos, and pianos. But why is it a go-to choice for instruments? That’s because basswood is a tonewood. Without getting into techy details, let’s just say that tonewoods have their own—yep, you guessed it—tone, or, rather, acoustic properties. They absorb certain frequencies and that affects how the instrument sounds.
You’ll also see lots of toys, furniture, boxes, shutters, blinds, and specialty products crafted from this wood. And let’s not forget about cooperage, veneer, and pulp. What about flooring, though? Basswood can be used for that. However, due to the low hardness, you should avoid high-traffic rooms like the kitchen, bedroom, or living room.
Is it in Large Demand?
The answer is yes, it most certainly is. While basswood isn’t nearly as popular as oak, maple, or pine, it is, indeed, in large demand. In fact, this is one of the least accessible hardwoods in the US, even though it is native to the States. That’s why it’s not very cheap (but not unreasonably expensive, either) and you might have to wait for a while before you can make an order.
Basswood makes up for 5–8% of the total volume of timber production; the percentage is slowly, yet steadily going up. Back in the day, it used to be quite a challenge to finish/paint basswood, which is partially the reason for its lack of popularity. Fortunately, modern-day sanding technology handles the rough edges easily, making it a user-friendly choice for amateurs.
How Long Does Basswood Last?
The tree usually lives for 150–200 years but can survive for up to 1,000 years. That’s given it grows in a near-perfect environment, of course. So, does that mean an instrument, furniture, or any other wooden product will last for this long? Well, that entirely depends on how well you take care of the wood. Again, basswood isn’t very strong against rot and decay. But, if you keep it in a dry spot, it will serve for many decades.
More than that, an instrument crafted from premium basswood will last for a lifetime and never lose its sonic properties. We have to also say that cheaper instruments lose their properties and wear/tear in 20–30 years. And, unfortunately, many cheap guitars out there are crafted from thick, low-quality basswood and don’t sound that great. This is why there’s so much controversy about its characteristics.
What are the Alternatives to Basswood?
Basswood is primarily used for wood carving, we already covered that. The question here is—are there any alternatives that you might want to consider? Yes, there are, and the list includes birch, maple (the soft kind), and pine. These three wood species are very similar to basswood in terms of density and behave roughly the same. Do make sure that it’s the white pine, though, because the true or red pines aren’t at all soft.
Ash is another decent choice. It’s also very similar to basswood in its features. Or, you can go with the western red cedar. It’s not very cheap but will be well worth it. Yes, the idea is to pick a low hardness and density wood species so that you can create intricate designs with it. That doesn’t mean no carving is possible with harder wood, but for the most part, this rule does apply, especially if you’re just getting into woodworking.
Basswood isn’t your everyday woodworking material. It’s soft, light, and is mostly used for making sophisticated yet refined wood products. It’s easy to handle, yet requires finesse and lots of experience, especially if you’re working on something as complex as a musical instrument. Although a hardwood tree, it isn’t very hard or strong. On top of that, basswood is rather weak against humidity/other natural elements.
Still, if you’re a fan of making exquisite products and are in the market for just the right wood type, basswood will be an excellent choice. Native to North America, it’s (relatively) affordable, has a beautiful texture, and is equally praised by professional carpenters and DIY enthusiasts.
Featured Image Credit: ClubhouseArts, Shutterstock