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I planned on writing a tutorial about how to cut balsa wood. I’m still going to do that. But, spoiler alert, I don’t have a good answer. In fact, after conducting my experiment, I’ve got more questions than answers.
After much plotting and planning, I decided to do a “front entrance hallway” on the first floor of the Keeper’s House and create a bathroom space on the second floor. The bathroom and front halls are getting tile floors. Or vinyl. The point is, they aren’t getting wood floors.
But the other areas are getting hardwood floors. So, if you remember, I laid out the balsa wood and figured out that I would need to cut some random lengths to make it look “real.” I also want to cut the balsa wood into the random lengths before I dye it because I don’t want undyed edges. That would look weird.
I remember using it all the time in elementary school for projects, and I don’t remember cutting balsa wood being particularly hard. Well, either balsa wood has changed, or I am misremembering because working with balsa wood was harder than I anticipated. Turns out that even though I used this stuff long ago (in school no less), I have a lot to learn about how to cut balsa wood.
How to Cut Balsa Wood: The Experiment
So, I laid out the balsa wood with the room dividers in place.
This was to give me an idea of how many balsa wood sticks I was going to need. I have three bags of 75 sticks each (so, 225 sticks total). Once I finished the layout, I figured I would need about 200 sticks total.
I didn’t want to practice on the sticks. Not that the bags were expensive, but I don’t want to waste money or materials. Fortunately, each bag had a couple of lemons.
That gives me practice material. Score.
I tested most of the methods I list below for cutting balsa wood myself. I have a “best” but not a favorite. You’ll see why. But, mostly what I’ve learned is that cutting balsa wood is a pain. And, now I’m rethinking my approach to hardwood floors for this dollhouse.
A Hardwood That’s Soft
As always, I started with research. I learned that balsa wood is a hardwood — apparently, that’s because it has leaves and not needles. That said, it’s the softest of the hardwoods you can buy commercially.
All the pros said that no matter what I used for cutting, I should always use the sharpest blade possible to cut balsa wood. Apparently, it can be hard to cut softwood. I guess my thought is, “I’m cutting wood. Of course, I’m using a sharp knife.”
I may be a miniature newbie, but I cook a lot, so I know that knives tend to work better when they’re sharp. That’s just how they work.
That said, I used sharp blades for my cutting balsa wood attempts. And, let’s just say my sharp blades were not sharp enough.
Hold It Steady
Other advice included clamping the balsa wood before cutting it. That is good advice. I was working with tiny sticks so I didn’t drag out the C-clamps (because that would have been overkill. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how I would use the C-clamps with the tiny balsa wood sticks).
So, I used my hand as a clamp on one end of the stick, since I really only need to hold one side steady. My hand holding the blade rested on the other end of the stick, so that was more other “clamp.”
However, no matter what cutting method I used, my hands got tired. Like, painfully tired. I cannot picture cutting 200 sticks using my hands as clamps. I’m going to have to look into MacGyvering a tiny c-clamp system suitable for balsa wood sticks.
My research revealed three ways to cut balsa wood. I only have the supplies for two of the three, so I tested those two out. However, I did have another method at my disposal, so I also tried that, and I’ll tell you what happened.
When I said I used this stuff in school, this is what I was talking about. I distinctly remember cutting balsa wood sheets into smaller pieces with scissors. I swear.
That said, I guess times have changed because everyone on the Internet said: “don’t.” And, they were right (so, thank you Internet).
Mostly, everyone said that no matter what you think, your scissors are not as sharp as they need to be to cut balsa wood successfully. Dull blades will split or crack the wood every single time.
Here are the scissors I used:
They are ancient but not used very often. I figured they wouldn’t be that sharp, but it’s not like they’re that dull. Plus, I’m sure I’ve done this before. So, I gave it a shot.
I put the scissors up to the balsa wood and started to cut. I got a lot of resistance. Here’s what happened after I pressed hard but didn’t feel like I would cut through:
Yeah. So. Yeah. As you can see, I made a mark but didn’t get through the balsa wood. It’s more like I scratched the wood than cut it.
Here’s what happened when I tried to cut another piece with the same pair of scissors. I was determined to make the scissors method work!
As you can see, one side came off pretty clean. The other side… not so much.
I need both sides of the balsa wood strip to have even cuts. Not clean is OK. It’s wood. I expect rough edges. But unevenness like that is not what I want. It’s a waste of wood strips. And, if I use them on the floor, I suspect I’ll end up with an uneven floor.
So, pass on this method.
Up next, an X-ACTO knife. I honestly figured this would be the winner. It’s literally a knife for cutting and shaping things.
It worked. Kind of.
All the X-ACTO enthusiasts said not to cut deep on the first pass. In fact, they said I’d have to make several passes over the wood in the same spot (like I’m scoring it) to make this work.
There were also instructions about cutting at 45 degrees and going across the grain. I’m not sure that I went at 45 degrees because, well, I just held the X-ACTO knife. There wasn’t much else I could do. And, as for across the grain. It’s a small stick, so, yeah.
After a couple of passes with the knife, here’s what I had:
I used a fresh blade, but clearly, this was never going to work. Eventually, it would, but I need something more efficient. So, I abandoned the X-ACTO knife and went to a method I hoped would work best of all.
I’ve got this paper cutter.
For the record, nowhere in my research did I come up with “cut balsa wood with a paper cutter.” And, as I learned, with good reason.
My thought was that the paper cutter has a sharp blade and, because of the setup, I could anchor the wood and draw the blade across the wood without killing my hands. In case it’s not clear in the picture, this is not the kind of paper cutter that the teachers at school use. The blade doesn’t move up and down. This is a safety blade that moves (technically) side to side. You’re not pulling the blade down onto the paper to cut it, as much as you are moving the blade across the paper to cut it.
I slid the stick under the guide. It fit!
Then, I pulled the blade and nothing.
It would. Not. Budge. It was like, oh, I don’t know, a huge branch had fallen across the roadway, and only a lumberjack could clear it.
You can’t cut balsa wood with a paper cutter. At least, not this paper cutter.
Fortunately, I’ve got a utility knife, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I saw a lot of advice that said this is the best method. I assumed using a utility knife would be the same as an X-ACTO knife so, I wasn’t planning on testing this at first. But, once I realized everything else had failed, I figured I should give it a shot.
The instructions for how to cut balsa wood with a utility knife are the same as the X-acto knife instructions.
I made a few passes on the wood and ended up with this:
The top line is the scoring with the utility knife. The bottom line is from the original scissors experiment.
Looked good, so I scored a little more. I found it best to make a back and forth sawing motion. I have no idea if that’s good for the blade or not, but it was an effective way to score into the wood.
That said, I had to use a lot of force to get it to score. I suppose I could have used a lighter touch, but I didn’t. As a result, my hands tired quickly. So, I figured, let me snap the wood on this line and see what happens. Here’s what happened:
Yup. Looks just like the scissors.
I have to cut all the way through the balsa wood, I guess.
I tried again with another piece, this time scoring it on the side, too.
Then, I broke it off again and got, you guessed it, another rough edge that splintered.
Man. I really do have to go all the way through.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It probably is best. But it was really hurting my hands. Again, maybe I was using too much pressure, but I don’t think a lighter touch would have accomplished as much.
I don’t own one of these, but I apparently, you can cut balsa wood with a Cricut machine. Apparently, it’s got certain blades that work for balsa wood, but not a specific balsa wood setting.
I guess, if you’ve got one, give it a whirl! And, let me know what happens, please.
Best Is OK, but I Need Better
So, it turns out that the utility knife is my best bet. I have to hold down the balsa wood strips with my hand though, and press like crazy with the other. Doing even the one stick like this really tired my hands out. I suppose it’s possible I was at a bad angle (table too high or low, whatever). But, I can’t picture cutting about 200 of these one by one by one by one and not wanting to die.
I checked into cutting balsa wood with a table saw, and it is possible. So, I might look into that. I don’t have a table saw, I’d need to rent one.
My other option is to go another route. I could buy a sheet of dollhouse hardwood flooring (that’s a thing) and cut it to fit. There’d still be cutting involved, but I don’t think it would kill my hands.
I could also use vinyl flooring. One long sheet of vinyl flooring (that looks like hardwood) is 99 cents, give or take. It might be easier to cut vinyl. But, then I have to shape each individual board.
The thought of that makes me laugh and cringe at the same time.
I’m going to see what I can do about a table saw. In the meantime, any advice? I know people do this all the time, but if I’ve got to cut 200 pieces, I want to know how to cut balsa wood without killing my hands. There’s got to be a better way than one by one. Can I batch cut balsa wood? I don’t know. But, I’m going to try and find out.