How to Cut Balsa Wood

Even though balsa is technically a hardwood -- it has broad leaves instead of needles like conifers -- it remains famous for it's reputation as the softest wood available. Balsa is a native to Mexico, Brazil and Bolivia, and is readily available domestically. It's not considered strong, but it's easy to cut and work with.

The Janka Scale

Balsa is the softest commercially available wood. It ranks only 90 to 100 on the Janka hardness scale, which is the go-to scale for wood density worldwide. Red oak, for example, one of the most common domestic hardwoods on the Janka scale, ranks 1,290.

Common Applications

The softness of balsa lends itself to crafting, models, lightweight cases, fishing lures and, because of it's exceptional tonal qualities, musical instrument bodies. The techniques used to cut balsa include cutting larger pieces with power equipment, and thinner pieces by hand with sharp knives.

Sharp Blades Only

Because of it's softness, use only the sharpest tools to cut balsa thicker than about 1/4 inch. Hardened steel blades are acceptable if they're new, or have recently been sharpened. Carbide-tipped blades are best, simply because they hold a sharp edge longer than hardened or high-speed steel.

Saw Blade Type

Use hollow-ground, or cabinetmaker's blades for the best cuts on balsa. Never use rip blades. This type of blade is too aggressive and results in chipping and splintering. Recognize hollow-ground or cabinetmaker's blades by square, flat teeth. Recognize rip blades by jagged, pointed teeth that tip back and forth in an alternating fashion.

Band and Scroll Saw Blades

Thin Balsa

Band saw and scroll saw blades are defined by tooth count, the higher the tooth count, the cleaner the cut. The thickness of the balsa also comes into play. Cut 1/4-inch balsa with blades that have at least 12 to 14 teeth per inch.

Thick Balsa

It's typically necessary to use lower tooth counts of about 10 for balsa thicker than 1/2 inch. If the balsa begins to burn, smoke or resist your efforts to cut it, it may be necessary to switch to a lower tooth count.

Crafting Thin Balsa

One of the most common cuts on 1/4-inch or thinner balsa is done by hand with a utility or craft knife. But the way you use it makes a difference.

Step 1 Establish Your Lines

Use a template, or draw a pattern freehand on 1/8 or 1/4-inch-thick balsa.

Step 2 Proper Knife Position

Hold the tip of the knife at 45 degrees to the wood. Apply light pressure to the knife. Make the first cut perpendicular to the grain only. When the pattern begins to turn parallel with the grain, stop cutting.

Step 3 Work Across the Grain

Move the knife on the pattern, making all other initial cuts perpendicular to the grain.

Step 4 Join the Lines

Cut the remaining parallel lines, to join up with the perpendicular cuts, to finish the first cut or outline of the pattern. The initial cut should be no deeper than about 1/32 inch.

Step 5 Repeat the Process

Repeat the cutting process as many times as needed until the knife passes through the pattern and releases it.

Wade Shaddy

Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.