carving butternut wood

The Secret of Carving Butternut Wood

Butternut trees are a member of the walnut family but, contrary to black walnut wood, butternut wood is remarkably soft. The wood of butternut trees is nearly as soft as basswood but, in my opinion, has more beautiful grain and coloring than basswood. 

Butternut is a hardwood by definition yet a great wood for carving, whether you’re are a beginner or refining your carving skills, due to it’s soft nature and easy to carve straight grain.

Butternut Wood Characteristics

  • Botanical Name: Juglans cinerea
  • Other Names: White walnut, oil nut.
  • Sources: North America – Southeast Canada, Eastern U.S.A.
  • Characteristics: Straight grain; soft but coarse texture; medium light brown coloring.
  • Density:  Janka Hardness Rating of 490 lbf (for comparison basswood is 410 lbf)
  • Price: Moderate.
  • Uses: Interior trim on boats, interior pinery, woodcarving, veneers.
  • Workability: Generally good; because butternut wood is soft, it is Important to keep tools sharp; it will fuzz up when sanded or worked with dull tools; 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.

carving butternut wood

Carving Butternut Wood

Selecting the right type of wood can make all the difference in bringing your carving vision to life.  If you’re looking for an excellent carving wood for a new carving project, consider the advantages that carving butternut wood can offer.

Advantages of Carving Butternut Wood

Lightweight Material – Butternut wood, also known as white walnut, has great low density and lightweight characteristic that sets it apart from its hardwood counterparts. This inherent quality makes it an ideal choice for both beginners and seasoned woodcarvers. Working with butternut wood means less strain on your hands, allowing you to focus on refining your carving technique rather than wrestling with a dense hardwood.

Canvas for Intricate Details – The fine and even grain of butternut wood creates a smooth surface that readily accepts intricate carving. Its softness allows for clean cuts and precise shaping, enabling you to achieve even the most intricate designs with ease.  Butternut wood is really fun to work with for relief carving as it holds smaller details well, but remember due to it’s softness these fine details can be easily damaged too.

Warm Color and Grain – One of the lesser-known features of butternut wood is its warm, inviting hue that ranges from pale, creamy tones to slightly darker shades. This natural color variation adds a touch of elegance to your carvings, allowing the wood’s beauty to shine through. The final result is a piece that exudes charm, making it an ideal choice for decorative carvings or artisanal projects.

Smooth as Butter – True to its name, butternut wood is smooth to the touch and a smooth carving medium.  The wood’s soft texture also lends itself well to sanding, ensuring that your carved masterpiece achieves a refined finish. Whether you’re creating a functional piece or a decorative carving, the smoothness of butternut wood definitely contributes to its overall appeal.

Friendliness to Tools – Carving butternut wood is a pleasure for your hand tools as well. As a softer hardwood your hand tools encounter less resistance, resulting in prolonged tool lifespan and decreased wear and tear. This advantage not only saves you money on replacements but makes butternut wood one of the easier to carve woods for hand carving.

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

Disadvantages of Carving Butternut Wood

While butternut wood undoubtedly offers a range of benefits for woodcarving enthusiasts, it’s important to have a well-rounded understanding of its characteristics before embarking on a project. Just as every wood has its strengths, there are certain disadvantages associated with carving butternut wood that are worth considering. 

Softness of Butternut Wood – The characteristic that makes butternut wood a good choice for intricate detailing can also present a challenge. Its softness, while nice for achieving clean deep cuts, can lead to issues with durability, especially in functional items that might experience regular wear and tear like furniture, spoons or kitchen utensils. Carvings made from butternut wood are more susceptible to denting, scratching, and other forms of damage over time.

Insects and Decay – Another drawback of butternut wood is its susceptibility to insects and decay. Due to its softer composition, it’s more prone to wood-boring insects and fungal attacks; however, this is more of a concern while the tree is actually growing or your project is for outdoor use. Proper protection and maintenance are essential to ensure the longevity of your carved pieces. If your project is for outdoor use; regular sealing, finishing, and proper storage become even more critical to prevent these potential issues.

Limited Availability – Unlike some more common hardwoods, butternut wood might not be as readily available in certain regions. Its limited supply can sometimes make it challenging to source, especially if you’re working on a larger project or require consistent access to the wood.

Staining and Discoloration – Butternut wood’s beautiful warm tones can also be a disadvantage in certain situations. While its coloration can add elegance to your creations, it’s important to note that the wood can be more susceptible to staining and discoloration when exposed to sunlight and moisture. If you’re crafting items that will be placed in direct sunlight or environments with high humidity, careful finishing and protective measures are important.

Limited Strength for Structural Pieces – The lightweight nature of butternut wood, while good for carving, might not be suitable for all projects. Butternut is not the best wood for large structural pieces or items that need to withstand heavy loads, the relative lack of strength in butternut wood could pose a challenge. In such cases, it’s worth considering alternative woods with higher density and structural integrity.

Tips for Carving Butternut Wood

Carving butternut wood can be a rewarding experience, allowing you to create intricate pieces that showcase your carving talent. Here are some valuable tips to guide you on your journey of carving butternut wood with finesse and confidence.

Choose the Right Tools – Selecting the appropriate tools is important when working with butternut wood. Its softness calls for sharp, finely-tuned tools that can glide through the wood effortlessly. Use high-quality chisels, gouges, and knives that maintain a sharp edge. Keep your hand tools well-maintained and sharpen them regularly to achieve clean cuts and precise detailing.  Dull blades, while dangerous, will also tear the wood fibers and create a rougher looking, and feeling, end product.

Know the Grain Direction – Understanding the grain direction of butternut wood is crucial for a smooth carving process. Carving against the grain can result in tear-outs and splintering, so always work in the direction of the grain to achieve clean cuts. Take your time to study the wood’s grain pattern before you start carving.

Tips for carving Butternut Wood

Insect Damage in Butternut Wood – Insect damage, when not excessive, can actually enhance the charm of your carving by adding a touch of history and uniqueness. Rather than viewing it as a flaw, consider incorporating the damaged areas into your design. For instance, a small hole could become an eye for an animal figurine, or a tunnel-like crevice might be a textured element in a decorative piece.  If the insect damage is limited to certain parts of the wood, you can strategically plan your carving to work around these areas as well.

Insect Boring in Butternut wood

Plan for Finishing – The natural warmth and color of butternut wood will shine through when properly finished. Test different finishing products on a scrap piece to determine the best app

Finishing Butternut Wood

Whether you’re aiming for a natural, rustic look or a glossy, refined appearance, the right finish can elevate your carving to a whole new level. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you achieve the best results when finishing your butternut wood carving.

Preparation is Key – Before you start applying finishes, make sure your carving is clean and free from any dust or debris. Wipe down the surface gently with a clean tack cloth and allow it to dry completely. This will create a clean surface for the finish to adhere to and ensure a smooth, even application.

Choose Your Finish – The first decision to make is what type of finish you’d like to apply. There are several options available, each offering a different level of protection and visual appeal:

  • Natural Oil Finishes: These finishes, such as linseed oil or tung oil, penetrate the wood, enhancing its natural beauty while providing a moderate level of protection. They create a warm, matte appearance that’s perfect for showcasing the wood’s texture.
  • Polyurethane and Varnish: These finishes offer a durable, protective outer layer that can withstand wear and moisture. They often provide a glossy or satin sheen, giving your carving a polished look.
  • Wax Finishes: Wax finishes, like beeswax or carnauba wax, offer a soft, natural sheen and a smooth feel. They provide moderate protection and are easy to apply.

Test on Scrap Wood – Before applying any finish to your main carving, it’s a good idea to test it on a scrap piece of butternut wood. All finishes will bring out the grain and color tones differently, so plan on sampling on several pieces of scrap wood and be patient to allow proper drying time and reapplication of multiple coats.

Apply the Finish – When you’re ready to apply the finish to your carving, follow these steps:

  • Stir Thoroughly: If your chosen finish requires stirring, make sure to do so thoroughly to ensure even distribution of any additives.
  • Apply Evenly: Use a clean, soft brush, cloth, or foam applicator to apply the finish evenly. Work with the grain of the wood to prevent streaks.
  • Let It Dry: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for drying time. This can range from a few hours to a day or more, depending on the finish and environmental conditions.
  • Sand Between Coats: If you’re applying multiple coats, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper (I like to use 220 grit or 240 grit) between coats. This helps to smooth out any imperfections and allows the subsequent coats to adhere better.

Consider the Number of Coats – The number of coats you apply depends on the level of protection and sheen you desire. For a more natural look, a couple of coats might suffice. If you’re aiming for higher durability and a glossier appearance, consider applying three or more coats.

Once the final coat is dry, buff the surface gently with a clean, soft cloth to bring out the desired sheen. Your butternut wood carving is now ready to enjoy, whether it’s a decorative piece for your home or a gift for a loved one.

What’s Next?

Butternut is an excellent choice for carvers and whittlers alike. It’s softness is comparable to basswood, but it has a more unique color and grain pattern.  Butternut makes an excellent wood for beginning carvers as well.  It can be hard to find, depending on where you live, but if you can get your hands on it I highly recommend giving it a try.

We go into detail on many different wood species for carving, check out our articles – I really think you’ll learn something new!

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