The secret of Carving butternut wood

carving butternut wood

Butternut wood is a member of the walnut family but is remarkably soft though not as soft as basswood. This wood has a more beautiful figure than basswood.

If you are reading this you probably want to know if butternut is worth your blade, Well the short answer is yes butternut is a good wood for carving but not all butternuts are created equal. Here are some tips for carving butternut wood.

Butternut wood

  • Botanical Name: Juglans cinerea
  • Other Names: White walnut, oil nut.
  • Sources: Canada, U.S.A.
  • Characteristics: Straight grain; soft but coarse texture; medium light brown.
  • Weight: 28 Ib./cu. ft.
  • Price: Moderate.
  • Uses: Furniture, Interior trim on boats, Interior pinery, carving, veneers.
  • Workability: Generally good; because wood is soft, it is Important to keep cutters sharp; it will fuzz up when sanded; poor bending properties.
  • Finishing: Accepts finishes very well.

A member of the walnut family, butternut has assumed a place of honor as the wood often chosen for the church altars. The tree is treasured for more than its wood; it possesses a rich, delicious nut and produces a sap that is used to make a sweet syrup similar to maple syrup.

Carving Butternut wood

Hand carved Butternut wood pelican on driftwood. by Murray Watson
Hand-carved Butternut wood pelican on driftwood. by Murray Watson

Butternut is quite brittle and this has to be factored in. Butternut is also not as compact as walnut and therefore will not take as much detail. the direction of the grain is not as forgiving as that of basswood. To navigate butternut one needs to be a patient carver.

Now that we have all the bad out of the way let’s look at some of the good pacs this wood has to offer.

Butternut has a beautiful grain and figure. This means you don’t have to cover the carving with paint. The carving can be beautifully finished with a clear coat of poly.

Butternut is soft and therefore ideal for whittling and carving in the round with hand tools.

Tips for carving Butternut Wood

Tips for carving Butternut Wood

Safety first

Butternut has fine dust that can irritate your lungs, especially for carvers with underlying related health issues. As such it is good practice to mask up when working with butternut, especially in activities like sanding.

Keep your blade sharp

The secret to effortless carving the kind of carving you see pro carvers such as Doug Linker do is sharp tools. Sharp tools will not only reduce the force but also reduce the chance of the wood splitting. For wood-like butternut that splits easily having a sharp knife will reduce that risk plus the frustrations that follow. It is always good to use sharp tools while carving butternut wood.

Avoid frail details

Don’t get me wrong you can achieve details with butternut but don’t expect the hairline frail detail you get with top hardwoods like cherry and walnut. With butternut responding quickly to how it accepts the carving you can easily tell how many details it can take without splintering.

Insect Boring in Butternut wood

Butternut wood is heavily attacked by insects and the wood may have warm holes as some carvers have reported. Regardless this can still be used as a feat either taking advantage with a finish like epoxy or just leaving it bare.

Insect Boring in Butternut wood

Wood that is Kiln dried is safer when it comes to walnuts, hickory, and butternut woods as they are prone to attacks by beetles.

Finishing Butternut wood

Butternut accommodates all stains without needing to be filled first (you can even dye it to look like black walnut). But a more natural clear finish could look best with the rich tan wood.

Although butternut carvings frequently use oil finishes, you can enhance the wood’s natural brilliance by first pressing it hard with the back of a glass bottle, gouge, or spoon to compress the wood fibers and produce more sheen).

Carving butternut wood: A Summary

Butternut is an excellent choice for carvers and whittlers alike. It is a better wood to carve than basswood in that it holds details better. In addition, butternut has a better grain figure than basswood. Basswood is still softer than butternut wood and hence easier to carve. You may have to embrace and expect the warm holes as part of the character of butternut, But all in all, you are going to enjoy carving butternut wood.

Hadwin Fisher

I'm basically a "Hobby Whittler." Everything I make is for Personal use, gifts for others, or other Items for charity auctions or other "Causes" i.e. "Local Hospital" Etc. Some health issues are interfering with me doing any large-scale projects in my workshop at this Present Time. That said I can't stay idle, whittling, and writing about whittling with my Friend ken Read keeps me sane and happy!

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