The 10 Softest Wood Types for Carving
Understanding Softest Wood for Carving
As a woodcarver, it’s important to understand the different types of wood available for carving. Soft woods are one of the most popular choices for wood carvers because they are easier to carve and manipulate.
Harder woods often have a more unique grain pattern, coloring and/or texture, but as the name suggests they are harder and more dense make them more challenging to carve – especially with hand tools.
It’s also important to understand the technical difference between softwoods and hardwoods. A softwood is that wood that comes from an coniferous tree, or evergreen. Generally speaking, these woods are, in fact, softer.
A hardwood is wood that comes from a deciduous tree, or a tree that drops its leaves each year. Hardwoods are usually harder and more dense than softwoods. Usually, but not always! A perfect example is basswood, you’ll see it on the list below of softest woods….yet it’s a hardwood.
Characteristics of Soft Woods
Soft woods have several characteristics that make them ideal for carving. These softer woods are typically lightweight, easy to carve, and have a straight grain pattern. They are also often less expensive than harder woods, making them a popular choice for beginners.
Many of the soft woods on the list below are also relatively easy to find at either your local woodworking store, crafting store or sawmill. I’ve even found basswood carving blocks at a big-box home improvement store.
Top 10 Softest Woods for Carving
As a woodcarver, choosing the right wood is essential for creating your best design. While harder woods like oak and mahogany are great for intricate details, softer woods are perfect for beginners or those who want to carve easily with hand tools.
Here are the top 10 softest woods for carving – we’ll start with #10 first and work our way toward the #1 softest wood.
#10 – Western Juniper
Western Juniper is a softwood that is native to North America. It is a great wood for carving because it is easy to work with and has a fine texture. It is also resistant to decay and insects, making it a durable choice for outdoor carvings.
Western Juniper has a Janka Hardness Rating of 626 lbf.
#9 – Alder
Alder is a softwood that is commonly used for carving. It has a light color and a fine texture, making it easy to carve. It is also a stable wood, which means it won’t warp or twist over time.
Alder has a Janka Hardness Rating of 590 lbf.
#8 – Larch (American Tamarack)
Larch, also known as American Tamarack, is a softwood that is native to North America. It has a light color and a straight grain, making it easy to carve. It is also a durable wood, which means it can withstand outdoor conditions. Larch is a unique “evergreen” that actually has needles that change color and drop off in the autumn.
Larch has a Janka Hardness Rating of 590 lbf.
#7 – Chestnut
Chestnut is a softwood that is native to Europe and Asia, but also common in the United States – known as the American Chestnut tree. It has a light color and a straight grain, making it easy to carve. It is also a durable wood, which means it can withstand outdoor conditions.
Chestnut has a Janka Hardness Rating of 540 lbf.
#6 – Poplar
Poplar is a soft hardwood that is commonly used for carving and other woodworking projects. It has a light yellowish color and a fine texture, making it easy to carve. It is also a stable wood, which means it won’t warp or twist over time. Poplar can be found at many of the big-box home improvement stores and is usually pretty reasonably priced.
Poplar has a Janka Hardness Rating of 540 lbf.
#5 – Cottonwood
This is another new article I recently published, carving cottonwood and it’s bark. Cottonwood is a fun wood to work with and is nice and easy to carve. It’s bark is also very course and interesting, it works really well for carving large scale wood spirits!
Cottonwood has a Janka Hardness of 430 lbf.
#4 – Basswood (Lime Wood)
Basswood (also known as lime wood in the United Kingdom) is a hardwood, yet rather soft in nature, that is one of the most popular woods used for carving. It has a light color and a fine texture, making it an excellent choice for an easy to carve wood. It is also a stable wood, which means it won’t warp or twist over time. Basswood is an easy wood to find too, usually available at your local craft store, woodworking store or online.
Basswood has a Janka Hardness Rating of 410 lbf.
#3 – White Pine
White Pine is a softwood that is native to North America. Pine wood has a light color and a straight grain, making it easy to carve. It is also contains a lot of sap, which means it can withstand outdoor conditions.
Yellow pine on the other hand is harder and more challenging to carve. Yellow pine has a Janka Hardness Rating of 690-870 lbf, depending on the species.
White pine has a Janka Hardness of 380 lbf.
#2 – Western Red Cedar
Western Red Cedar is a softwood that is native to North America. It has a light color and a straight grain, making it easy to carve. It is also well suited for outdoor conditions due to its great rot and insect resistance. Red cedar is fun to carve and has a nice aroma to the wood. It will split and splinter easily, so remember to take shallow cuts and don’t rush your project.
Western Red Cedar has a Janka Hardness Rating of 350 lbf.
#1 – Balsa Wood
Balsa Wood is the softest wood used for carving. It has a light color and a fine texture, making it the easiest wood to carve. It is also a stable wood, which means it won’t warp or twist over time. However, as a very soft wood it is not as durable as other woods and is good choice for indoor carvings, fishing floats, and airplanes or gliders.
With a Janka Hardness Rating of just 70 lbf, Balsa wood makes a great wood for kids and beginners to learn whittling with.
When it comes to woodcarving, choosing the right wood is crucial. The softest woods like Western Juniper, Alder, Larch, Chestnut, Poplar, Hemlock, Basswood, White Pine, Western Red Cedar, and Balsa Wood are great choices for beginners or those who want to carve with ease.
Other Good Soft Woods – Honorable Mention
There are several types of soft woods that are commonly used for carving and although they are still relatively soft, they are not the softest options. I mention them because they are a joy to work with and carve. They may be slightly harder, but that also equates to a good wood for durability and holding finer carving detail.
- Douglas Fir – Douglas Fir is a softwood, or evergreen tree, with a Janka Hardness Rating of 660 lbf. It’s relatively easy to find, depending on what part of the country you live in. I can find it in 4x4s and 6x6s at my local Home Depot.
- Soft Maple – Also known as Silver Maple, this is a hardwood with a Janka Hardness of 700 lbf. Soft maple wood can often be found at your local woodworking store or sawmill. Don’t confuse it with Hard Maple, though. Hard maple is very challenging to carve, especially with hand tools.
- Butternut – I recently finished a deep dive article about carving butternut. Butternut, or White Walnut, is a really great wood to carve, with a Janka Hardness of 490 lbf. I didn’t include it in the top-10 list above since it can be harder to find.
- Sycamore – A Janka Hardness Rating of 770 lbf makes sycamore one of the harder woods in this article, but it’s really fun and unique coloring and a uniform and smooth texture help with carving.
- Hemlock – Hemlock is a softwood that is native to North America. It has a light color and a straight grain, making it easy to carve. It is also a durable evergreen wood, which means it can withstand outdoor conditions.
Carving Wood Characteristics
When it comes to carving, the characteristics of the wood are essential. The grain of the wood, the color, and the texture all play a role in how easy or difficult it is to carve. Here are some of the characteristics to consider when selecting a wood for carving:
- Grain of the wood: The grain of the wood refers to the pattern of the fibers in the wood. The grain can be straight, wavy, or even curly. Straight-grained wood is easier to carve than wood with a wavy or curly grain.
- Fine grain: A fine-grained wood is one with small, tightly packed fibers. This type of wood is easier to carve because it doesn’t have large voids or open grain that can be difficult to work with.
- Tight grain: A tight-grained wood is one where the fibers are closely packed together. This type of wood is also easier to carve because it doesn’t have large voids or open grain.
- Beautiful grain: Some woods have a beautiful grain pattern that can add to the aesthetic appeal of a carving. Examples of woods with beautiful grain include cherry, walnut, and mahogany.
- Open grain: An open-grained wood is one with large voids or pores in the wood. This type of wood can be more difficult to carve because the carving tools can get caught in the open grain.
- Rich color: Some woods have a rich, deep color that can add to the beauty of a carving. Examples of woods with rich color include cherry, black walnut, and mahogany.
- Brown color: Brown is a common color for many types of wood. Some hard wood, like walnut and mahogany, have a rich, dark brown color that can add to the beauty of a carving.
Considering these characteristics can help you select the best wood for your carving project. Keep in mind that some harder wood may be more difficult to carve than others, so it’s important to choose a wood that matches your skill level and consider using power tools instead of hand carving.
Choosing the Right Wood
When it comes to wood carving, choosing the right type of wood is crucial to your success. Not all woods are created equal, and some are better suited for carving than others. Here are some factors to consider when choosing the right wood for your project:
The density of the wood is an important factor to consider when choosing a wood for carving. Softwoods are less dense than hardwoods, making them easier to carve. However, harder woods can be more durable and less prone to damage. Often times your project will dictate what type of wood is most appropriate.
The grain of the wood can affect how it carves. Woods with straight grains are easier to carve than those with irregular grains. Additionally, the direction of the grain can affect the carving process, as carving against the grain can cause the wood to split.
The texture of the wood can also affect how it carves. Woods with a smooth texture are easier to carve than those with a rough texture. Additionally, woods with a consistent texture can be easier to carve than those with an inconsistent texture.
The availability of the wood is also an important factor to consider. Some woods may be difficult to find or expensive, making them less practical for carving. It’s important to choose a wood that is readily available and affordable.
Based on these factors, some good choices for soft woods to carve include balsa, basswood, butternut, white pine, and cedar. These woods are all relatively easy to carve and have a consistent texture and straight grain. However, there are many other types of woods that can be suitable for carving, depending on your needs and preferences. It’s important to do your research and choose the right wood for your project.
Considerations for Wood Carving
When selecting wood for carving, there are several considerations to keep in mind that can affect the ease and quality of your carving. Here are some important factors to consider:
Density and Hardness
The density and hardness of the wood will affect how easy it is to carve and how much detail you can achieve. Generally, softer woods like balsa and basswood are easier to carve, while dense wood like oak and walnut are more difficult. However, harder woods can also be more durable and sturdy, which may be desirable for certain projects.
The texture of the wood can also impact your carving. Woods with a very soft texture, like balsa, can be prone to splitting and tearing, while woods with a harder texture will be more resistant to carving. It’s important to choose a wood with a texture that is suitable for your project.
Dry Wood vs Green Wood
Green wood is typically easier to carve than dry wood, which can be more difficult to work with. However, green wood can also be more prone to cracking and warping as it dries. My preference is to season green wood, if it isn’t dry already, before beginning my project.
Natural Grain Patterns
The natural grain pattern of the wood can also impact your carving. Some woods, like cedar, have a beautiful variation of grain and pattern throughout the wood, while others may have a more uniform texture. It’s important to choose a wood with a grain pattern that complements your project.
Finally, it’s important to have the right tools for the job. Different woods may require different types of tools, and having the right tools can make a big difference in the quality of your carving. Be sure to choose tools that are appropriate for the type of wood you are working with.
Choosing a soft wood for carving is a must if you’re a beginner or you want something easy to carve. Soft wood makes a great medium for learning, while also offering many qualities that will still result in a beautiful and long-lasting end product.
Trying to decide what to carve? We have a list of great carving ideas for beginners…check it out!