Basswood: The Carvers' Hook

Known by many as a “soft” hardwood, basswood has long been a favorite with woodcarvers and music instrument makers.

Tilia americana is a “soft” hardwood that
is ideal for carving and making acoustic
instruments. Of the Family Tiliaceae, the
wood is known for its tight grain. Basswood
grows to about 65 feet tall and has an average
weight of 26 pounds per cubic foot.

Family Name:
Tilia americana of the Family
Common Names: Basswood, white basswood,
American lime, American whitewood, bee tree
Height/Weight: Trees grow to average heights
of 65 feet tall, with an average weight of 26
pounds per cubic foot and a specific gravity
of 0.41
Properties: Basswood is extremely easy to
work with both hand and machine tools,
although it has a slight blunting effect on
cutting surfaces. Experts recommend that
cutting tools be kept sharp.
Basswood is a soft, lightweight hardwood
that is non toxic and has a mild, clean
smell when freshly cut.
Its heartwood ranges from a creamy white
to a creamy brown, with a sapwood that is
nearly white. The wood has a fine and
uniform texture.
Because basswood is not durable, it should
not be used outdoors.

“The wood is lightweight, stable after seasoning, firm but soft in texture and resists splitting,” said Doug Newhouse, owner, of Newhouse Wood & Veneer in West Hartford, CT. “It has very little grain or no open pore making it widely accepted for elaborate carving.”

According to Newhouse, basswood’s popularity grew throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, when it became the traditional wood of choice for sculptures. Artisans such as Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider used basswood in their altarpieces, he said.

Chipping at the Details
Even today, whether doing relief, chip, figure, woodburning or whittling, basswood’s properties surpass a host of many other woods. Basswood works especially well with the fine detail work typically found in wildlife carving.

Allen F. Weidhaas, a woodcarver and sculptor from Stuart, VA, uses basswood, along with bronze, in his art pieces, which range in price from $650 to $15,000. “The wood itself is plain, without the figure you find with walnut, cherry or other woods. In the carving world, basswood, linden and lime have historically been appreciated for their very close grain and the fact that the wood won’t splinter or chip.”

Weidhaas lives in Virginia, but said he prefers using basswood from northern sawmills. “My experience is that basswood from the South tends to be slightly harder than the northern grown material. Basswood has a close grain and when you cut across the end grain it will slice as smooth as silk. With this wood, you can’t see pores the way you do with so many others. When you see the pores with other woods, it creates something like a pocket and you have the additional work of filling them with putty.”

Weidhaas added that basswood is especially good to use when carving small and highly detailed work, like mini acorns, flowers and animals. “For tiny elements, basswood is the best. Most of the carvers I know who do decorative work like wild fowls use basswood. Keep your knife really sharp and it is a joy to work. Basswood is a tiny bit harder than pine but it won’t splinter. With basswood, you can put your knife in at an angle and pop out a chip. The tolerance is there, while a wood like pine would splinter off if you tried that. Basswood’s grain is stable and it sands beautifully.”

Although Weidhaas does all types of carving, he also uses wood burning for its light touch. “Basswood burns well and is especially effective when defining minute details or giving the effect of fur on an animal.”

Harmonic Species
The wood is light in color — creamy white to pale brown — and weighs 26 pounds per cubic foot. Basswood, also known as American whitewood, (Tilia americana and related species Tilia nigra and Tilia latifolia) grows along the east coast of Canada and throughout the eastern United States.

Watch this video of a hotdog carving with basswood.

It has good acoustic properties, making it popular for electric guitar bodies, pianos, percussion drum shells, and some wind instruments. It also is used for keyboards and piano keys, as well as drawing boards, picture frames, toys, high-end joinery, interior trim-doors, sashes, luggage and interior shutters.

Basswood takes stain and polish well. “Carvers sand, prime and re-sand the wood to ensure that the grain won’t raise. They get an excellent result when painting the wood,” said Weidhaas. “Basswood is one of those woods that lends itself to painting, unlike walnut or cherry, which you would select for the figure and color of the wood. Basswood has been a favorite wood for the craft industry, too.”

Because it is free of noxious odors or taste, the wood also has long been used for food containers. Native Indians also used the fibrous inner bark to make rope, mats and thongs. Trivia buffs will recall that the trees are nicknamed “bee trees” because they attract bees, plus the wood can be used to make bee hives.

“This is an interesting species as it is closely related to the linden or lime trees in Europe (Tilia vulgaris and related species),” said Newhouse. “I have one of these trees growing in my front yard, and it is a huge and wonderful shade tree in the summer. In late June the tree flowers and it has a uniquely sweet aroma — the tree is also full of bees at that time of the year,” Newhouse added.

“My grandmother, who lived to the age of 96, drank linden tea, made from the dried flowers. She said it was very calming. Interesting now to find out that the flowers contain flavonoids (an antioxidant), the same stuff that is found in green tea, red wine, and dark chocolate,” he said.

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