November 4, 2021

Carving Balsa Wood | Techniques, Tips & Video

Are you thinking of trying your hand at carving balsa wood? Balsa wood is a favorite among people who want to learn how to carve. It can be used in a variety of projects, from kids’ projects to building toys. Balsa wood is a soft, lightweight alternative to many other softwoods, such as pine and fir. Balsa wood can be carved into a variety of shapes, from simple to complex.

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Characteristics of balsa wood

Balsa is a hardwood that is difficult to treat. It has a fine, wood texture that comes at an affordable price. It comes in white, creamy color. Balsa is very light and soft for commercial purposes.  It comes with a high degree of insulation against heat and sound. 

Better balsa wood is white with an open and straight grain. It varies in weight,  but woodcut for export weighs from 128 kg/m³ to 224 kg/m³  and 160 kg/m³ when dried. Balsa is difficult to air-dry from the greenwood. 

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Kiln drying balsa wood requires great care to avoid warping, splitting, case-hardening, and toasting the wood. The wood becomes stable for use once it gets dry. Changes in atmospheric conditions cause a bit of shrinkage or swelling. 

Green balsa wood contains from 200 to 400 percent moisture. Water-proofing treatments remove the tendency of soaking up moisture using paraffin wax, water-repellents, water-repellent preservatives, varnish, or paint.

Balsa is a strong timber, but not as strong as European redwood. It has about half the strength in bending and stiffness and about 70 percent in compression parallel to the grain. The heartwood of balsa has only half the sapwood.

Balsa wood is easy to work with both thin-edged power and hand tools. It has no dulling effect on cutting edges. However, make sure the tools stay sharp for precision. 

It does not hold nails and screws well due to its softness. It glues better when fastening or holding the wood in use. Stain and polish the material, although it absorbs much material used in the process.

Carving with balsa wood

Balsa wood is easy to work with. Its softness makes it reliable for carving wood models and structures. The X-Acto knife is one of the tools used for wood carving balsa. For better results, keep it sharp. 

Steps

  1. Sketch a design you plan to carve onto the balsa wood using a permanent pencil.
  2. Cut the design out of the balsa wood using an X-Acto knife. Make sure you cut against a straightedge for all the straight sections being cut.
  3. Hold your X-Acto knife at a slight angle, and curve around the edges of the cut-out design. That curves the edges and makes the design real.
  4. Turn the cut-out structure over and make sure it is on a flat surface. Lean the handle of the X-Acto knife against the center of the object as you cut around the edges. Repeat the step when working on any curved edge.
  5. Insert the tip of the knife into a design element and carve a thin line around each design element. Avoid passing the blade through the balsa wood.
  6. Carve a line from edge to edge of each design element in the structure. Pull the edges gently from the line. It helps when carving eyes into a balsa wood face.
  7. Shape the edges of the design using 120-grit sandpaper. Rub around gently the edges to curve the carving into a flowing design. Since Balsa wood is soft, use smoother sandpaper. That prevents tearing and wearing the wood. There is no need to be aggressive.
  8. Sand around the structure and be gentle to avoid pressing through the wood. That causes a break in the design.

Is balsa wood good for carving?

Yes, it is if only you know the tools to use and items to make. Bear in mind that you are using fragile wood. What makes it fragile is its softness. Avoid using rough sandpaper so that it will not break or tear. 

Is balsa wood easy to carve?

As much as Balsa wood does not belong to the hardwood family, it remains soft enough to be easily used for carving. What makes Balsa wood a long-standing favorite choice for carvers, is the weight, durability, flexibility, and stainability.

Is balsa wood good for whittling?

Balsa wood can be your best choice for making scale models, such as replica miniature buildings. It is easy to cut through, and that makes it ideal for wood carving beginners. Although it is lightweight, Balsa wood is a high-strength type of wood. 

Even if you carve easily into the wood, you can still get more intricate detailed designs. However, they are a little bit tricky. Any decent whittling tool makes whittling easier when working with Balsa wood. 

The process does not take time when cutting into the grain. Above all, do not be fooled by Balsa’s low density.  It may be an easy carving wood, but you still need to make sure you use a sharp carving tool.

Balsa wood vs Basswood

Basswood and balsa wood share some features in common, although they have their differences. They are lightweight and have workability. They are both affordable and easy to carve. That makes them ideal for beginners. However, basswood is more durable than balsa wood. 

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It is less likely to experience warping. It also has smaller poles than balsa wood. Basswood is heavier than balsa wood, although both are lightweight. Balsa is more porous, and that makes it absorb moisture more resulting in increased weight. 

Balsa wood has a high strength-to-weight ratio, making it ideal for structures such as homemade gliders, planes, and even racing yachts. It is a good receptor for glue. It is also more available than basswood and more affordable.

Where to buy balsa wood for carving

You have a wide range of online shops to buy balsa Wood from. These include Amazon, Etsy(Source) and Woodcraft. 

Can you stain balsa wood?

Yes, you can stain Balsa wood. The only shortcoming is the loose fiber texture of this hardwood that makes your material look blotchy. When planning to stain your balsa wood project, prepare the wood first by applying a pre-staining finish of the Wood Conditioner. The wood Conditioner prevents uneven patchy staining on soft porous.

Apply a coat of wood conditioner and allow it to soak into the wood for a good 15 minutes, and then wipe off any excess liquid. When done, your Balsa wood project will be ready for the application of any oil-based stain.

How does balsa wood compare to other types of wood for carving?

Balsa is a very soft and porous wood. It is easy to carve due to its softness. Although it falls under hardwood, it is the softest amongst other wood types in that category. According to  Janka Hardness, it is 90. 

David D. Hughes
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