Basswood is a popular hobby wood, but what else is basswood used for? Where does it grow? And where do you buy it?
If, like me, you’ve been buying basswood at hobby shops for years but have never seen a basswood tree, there’s a reason for it. The tree that basswood comes from goes by many other names, including Tilia, Linden, and Lime.
Basswood is a common name in North America for Tilia Americana, a genus of about 30 species of medium to large trees or bushes. The tree that basswood comes from is also known as linden in North American and much of Europe. The British and Irish often call them lime trees, although they are not related to the tree that produces the citrus fruit lime. The basswood name originates from the inner fibrous bark of the tree.
Tilia species of trees are mostly large, deciduous trees. They typically reach 65 to 130 feet (20 to 40 meters) tall and have heart-shaped leaves 2 1/4 to 7 3/4 inches (6 to 20 cm) across. Tilia interbreed about as readily as canines, both in the wild and when cultivated. This makes the exact number of species uncertain. They are hermaphroditic, having perfect flowers with both male and female parts, pollinated by insects. American linden trees make good decorative or shade trees, but can struggle in city conditions.
American basswood is technically a hardwood species, but it is softer and easier to work with than most hardwoods. It has a tight, subtle grain pattern that works well in hobbies and miniatures, as the grain doesn’t betray its scale. It takes stain and paint more readily than many softwoods and takes glue readily, especially PVA-type wood glues like Titebond. In addition to being easier to paint, stain, or glue, it is also more durable than balsa.
Where does basswood grow?
Basswood is native to most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere. It grows in Europe and eastern North America, but the greatest species diversity occurs in Asia. The tree can reach considerable age, with some documented European examples living 700-2,000 years.
You can recognize it in the wild by its heart-shaped, mostly asymmetrical leaves.
Where do you buy it?
Craft, hobby, and art supply stores sell basswood, frequently in thin strips and sheets cut to precise lengths and widths. Frequently it is possible to buy both plain sheets and scribed sheets, which have grooves in them to resemble planks or siding. The widths of individual strips or the distance between scribed lines frequently correspond with common scale dimensions, to accommodate model railroading, dollhouse making, dioramas, and other miniature modeling.
Stores that sell basswood typically sell it right next to balsa, and sometimes intermix the two. To distinguish the two types of wood, check the color and the softness. Balsa is noticeably lighter in color and weight, and you can easily dent balsa with a fingernail with light pressure. Basswood is harder to dent.
If you accidentally dent either type of wood while working it, you can steam dents out. Place a damp cloth over the dent, then briefly touch the affected area with a soldering iron. Repeat as necessary until the dent disappears.
Basswood in the lumber industry
Basswood represents only about 5-8% of the total volume of timber in lumber production today, partly because it develops a fuzzy texture on the edges after you sand it, and because it doesn’t take screws as readily as some other types of wood. This is why you don’t typically see basswood dimensional lumber at large home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s. Instead, those types of stores mostly sell what they call whitewood.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have uses. Unlike many other trees, it has little distinction between the heartwood and sapwood. This gives it good dimensional stability and uniformity. It makes a suitable alternative to white poplar or aspen.
Sometimes it is used in plywood, which plays well to its dimensional stability and minimizes its weaknesses.
Although you probably won’t find it at a big-box store, a lumberyard or hardwood lumber supplier may be able to get basswood for you.
Basswood is easy to work with and has good acoustic properties. This makes it popular for electric and bass guitar bodies. Percussion manufacturers sometimes use Tilia in drum shells, because it sounds and looks good. It also works well for wind instruments such as recorders.
Basswood plays an unheralded role in furniture making. The glory in finished wood furniture usually goes to darker woods with a more visible grain pattern like oak, cherry, or walnut. But the frame of upholstered furniture is often basswood. Furniture makers also frequently use basswood for interior components that hide from view, or to make drawers. So your household furniture may have a lot of basswood in it, even if you don’t realize it. It works well for furniture because it is easy to work with, has good dimensional stability, and is relatively inexpensive.
Crates and containers
Basswood is popular in the container industry, and the US Department of Agriculture has even recommended it by name for that use. It works well for crates and containers because of its relatively low cost, propensity to not split readily when nailed, moderate nail-holding power, moderate strength as a beam, and moderate shock-resisting capacity. Being lightweight, it doesn’t add as much to shipping cost as harder hardwoods, and is easy to work and holds its shape well after manufacture.
Basswood is ideal for wooden toys because it is easy to carve, easy to glue, and holds its shape well once finished. It also gives lots of choices of finish, because it takes both stain and paint readily.
Wooden toys are less common than they once were, but basswood takes to toy manufacturing rather well, for the same reason it takes to furniture and crate manufacturing. It is also a good choice for wood carvers and woodworking hobbyists to use when making wooden toys by hand, since it is easy to work with whether you have a workshop full of tools, or just a few simple hand tools.
Bows and arrows
While not necessarily the most common choice for archery, basswood’s light weight and stability makes for a good arrow shaft. However, it is not ideal for a bow, because it does not have as much elasticity as many other woods. While it can make a strong arrow, it tends to make a brittle bow.
Basswood in the making of model airplanes
Although people tend to associate balsa wood with model airplanes because of its extremely lightweight, basswood is very useful for many parts of a model airplane. It is almost as easy to cut as balsa, easier to sand, and stronger while still being relatively lightweight. Basswood is ideal for reinforcing blocks, ribs or spars in wings, and other parts where strength is more important than weight.
Decades ago, when control line model airplanes were the most common type, basswood was perhaps the most popular choice for model airplanes. Today, with radio control being the most popular type of model airplane, balsa is more popular because it allows for longer flights, especially if the plane is powered by an electric motor. But even in an R/C plane, basswood makes sense for some of the components for improved durability.
Model railroading and dollhouses
Basswood takes well to making boxes. That means it takes well to making things like model buildings and railroad cars. You can carve, stain, and paint it to look like whatever you want, and it glues easily and remains dimensionally stable for decades. Structures and railroad cars made of basswood decades ago frequently turn up in good condition today. Typically they just need cleanup and minor repairs, if any, before being ready to go back into service. Thanks to these properties, white basswood has ready availability at craft and hobby stores, and basswood has long been among hobbyists’ favorite woods.
Building structures and rolling stock from scratch is something of a lost art today. But if you wish to pursue oldschool model railroading using paper and wood, basswood is an excellent choice for it. In model railroading, the role of balsa and basswood is the reverse of model airplanes. Balsa becomes the interior bracing, with basswood on the outside, since strength, dimensional stability, and versatility in finishing is more important and weight isn’t critical.
And if you want handlaid track with real wooden ties, basswood would be an excellent choice. You won’t have much trouble finding square dowels of the appropriate width for your preferred scale. And it will look like real wood. That’s because it is real wood, but with a subtle grain pattern that won’t betray its origin in the 1:1 scale world.
Basswood in the making of cabinets
Basswood also has applications in cabinet making. For carved areas, basswood is ideal because it has very little grain and low density. This easily accommodates detailed carving work. A cabinetmaker can mix it with other woods to give a combination of intricate carving and a visibly interesting grain pattern. It is also useful for interior parts, because of its strength to weight ratio, and relatively low cost.
Basswood in the making of tool handles
For large tools such as an axe, basswood is not ideal, because it can be a bit brittle. Ash or hickory will be stronger. But for smaller tools, basswood can be ideal, because it is easy to carve and dimensionally stable. Basswood is a reasonable choice for things like knife handles, screwdriver handles, and other similar tools. It would also be a suitable choice for tools made entirely of wood. The woolenware industry is something of a lost art today, thanks to the arrival of plastics, but basswood certainly had its place in it.