Wood of the Month:
Basswood - A Carver's Wood and More

By Jo-Ann Kaiser


FAMILY NAMES
Tilia americana of the family Tiliaceae

COMMON NAMES
Basswood, linden, American whitewood, American lime, American linn, limetree, beetree, wickup, yellow basswood

HEIGHT/WEIGHT
Average height is 65 feet, but trees can grow as tall as 140 feet with diameters of 2 to 2.5 feet. Average weight is 27 pounds per cubic foot, seasoned.

PROPERTIES
Wood dries fairly rapidly with some shrinkage though little distortion or degrade. Very little movement in service. Basswood is easy to work with using hand or machine tools and has little resistance to cutting, although it does have a slight dulling effect on cutting edges. Experts recommend keeping tools sharp. Basswood glues satisfactorily and nails and screws well. Although it finishes easily and well, it is non-durable. Basswood also has a poor steam-bending classification and low strength properties. It is fine-grained with little or no grain pattern.

Basswood is the most common commercial name for the tree Tilia americana. Other names of note include bass, American linden, American lime, linn, whitewood, and beetree.

Linden and lime are the names various species of Tilia go by in Europe. Whitewood alludes to the pale color of both the heartwood and sapwood.

Basswood is called beetree in some areas because the flowers of Tilia trees draw bees in droves. Basswood is often used to make bee hives and honeycomb frames.

Basswood's natural range is the Northern United States and Canada. The trees yield a creamy white wood without odor or taste, making it a popular choice for use in wooden food containers.

The lightweight and soft hardwood also has exceptional stability in use, so it is a good choice for patternmaking and for keyboard pieces and musical instruments. Basswood is also used for matches, blind slats, woodenware and novelty items.

The Carver's Choice
Basswood is a natural choice for carving and turnery because it cuts easily with and across the grain. In fact, basswood and lime are often called the carver's choice.

Grinling Gibbons, born in the Netherlands in 1648, was regarded by many as a premier woodcarver. He reportedly preferred using lime over all other woods when carving because of its soft nature and creamy white color.

Basswood and lime do have a drawback as a carving wood: neither is very durable and both are susceptible to woodworm. In the book "Wood," author Jane Struthers writes that Gibbons was ordered to use oak instead of lime for his carvings for St. Paul's Cathedral in London because "Sir Christopher Wren and Charles II feared that lime would not last as long as oak."

Donald Culross Peattie, in "A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America," maintains that as a timber tree, "basswood belongs to a special class of woods, which without a beautiful figure, and soft and very light and weak in the position of a beam, have their own sort of value." Peattie said the wood's lightness makes it especially suited for use in crates and boxes, and also as a core in the manufacture of chairs, which are covered with fine cabinet wood veneers. It is also used for toys and drawer sides, window sashes, picture frames, and yardsticks.

Long ago, Native Americans used the inner bark fibers to make rope, thread and a crude fabric, said to be more durable than hemp. The bark was used by Native Americans to make a type of bandage. Peattie writes that Indians also valued the tree for carving. "Some of the Iroquois' masks were carved in the sapwood on a living tree, and then split off from the trunk and hollowed out from behind."

Both basswood and lime, the European relative of basswood, make excellent woodwool or excelsior, which is used for packing. Many species of Tilia here and in Europe have long been planted for landscape trees - basswoods and lime trees are also called boulevard trees and are used for decorative purposes, although there is a downside to their use. Leaves from the trees tend to attract aphids and the flowers of the trees drip a sticky mess of sugar, wax and oils that also attracts insects. However, basswood grows fairly quickly and has exceptional longevity.

A Multitude of Species
While Tilia americana is the most commercially important and abundant of the native basswood species in the United States and Canada, there are others.

The next most common basswood species is Tilia heterophylla or white basswood. Other species include Tilia venulosa of the southern Appalachians, Tilia neglecta and Tilia alabamensis - but these trees grow in much smaller quantities. The less common species are rarely separated commercially but usually sold as white basswood. In some markets the heartwood is sold as basswood and the sapwood as white basswood.

European lime, primarily from species Tilia vulgaris and Tilia europaea, is known commercially as lime, linden and tilleul. While basswood has an average weight of 27 pounds per cubic foot, European lime's average weight is 34 pounds per cubic foot. European lime is used for many of the same uses as basswood although carving is still considered its most important use.

It is also used for making cutting boards used in leather work because of its resistance to splitting. It is also used for hat blocks, piano keys, harps, toys, artificial limbs, clogs and shoe soles. A small amount of European lime is also sliced into decorative veneers.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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