Is Willow Good For Wood Turning? (6 Important Facts To Know)

Willow wood is another source of wood that is abundantly available, however, is it a great wood for turning? In this article, we explore the good and bad of using the popular willow wood for woodturning.

Here’s a Summary on whether Willow is Good for Turning

Willow wood is a very wet, stringy, and unevenly grained wood. These characteristics of willow wood can be problematic for the novice woodturner. If you turn this wood, be sure to handle it with care and always use freshly sharpened tools as this will assist greatly in your woodturning project.

What is Willow?

The willow tree consists of around 400 different species, all with similar physical attributes. Most possess slim, flexible branches with slim light green almost silvery colored leaves. These trees are native to China, however, they have since been transplanted primarily over the Northern Hemisphere.

There are shrub-like varieties of these trees that grow in freezing temperatures in order to bear the heavy frosts. Although most of the varieties grow to be quite large. The average height of the popular varieties gets to be around 45 feet tall, with some getting over 70 feet tall. 

Willows grow best in moist, swampy soil near lakes or streams. The tree has rather shallow roots, which can pose a hazard if they are grown too close to a house since they can fall down easily in strong winds. 

Is Willow a Hardwood or Softwood?

Willows are an angiosperm tree, which means they have seeds encased in an outer coating (usually a fruit or shell). Some examples of angiosperm are apple trees, peach trees, and almond trees. Willow also produces its seed with an angiosperm, or outer coating, which means they are classified as a hardwood tree.

That being said, it is not actually a hardwood physically. It is a very moist wood (this is not surprising due to its growing conditions) and it takes a rather long time to dry. Although, many claim despite this fact it is a very good wood for working with. 

The short answer is that willow is a hardwood if you are seeking the botanical definition. Although, for woodworking purposes, it should be treated as a softwood.

What are the Appealing Characteristics of Willow for Turning?

Willow is a soft and wet wood, which can take some time to dry if that is what you desire. Some recommend you let it dry out before turning to avoid it from warping after you finish the product. 

Willow has some positives for woodturning because the softwood can make the turning easier for certain projects in which hardwoods would be hard to cut. This makes turning projects such as bowls a bit easier than if the wood was very hard, but the grain in the wood sometimes tears while turning it.

Also, a lot of reviews noted that Willow does not have nice patterns in the wood, so the decorative look is a little lacking. Last, the smell of the wood isn’t great and some people had some complaints about it. Although, most said the smell was not terrible, and really only lasted while you turn it, and doesn’t persist after you finish it. 

Are there Different Types of Willow?

Willow is part of the Salicaceae family in the genus Salix. There are over 400 species of willow trees in this family. Most grow in colder temperate climates with adequate water (either a decent amount of rain or swamps and lakes). Some grow in freezing temperatures and grow as a shrub or a vine-like creeping willow. 

The most popular willow (and the one most people think of when you say “willow”) is the white willow tree. These grow very large and develop a draping canopy of leaves and branches which hang down around them. Another variety with very similar characteristics is the Black Willow, which tends to have long arrow-shaped leaves. 

The Persian willow is another popular variety, which is the species you usually see growing beside the water (sometimes almost in the water). This variety is rather small, growing maybe 15 feet tall, and usually growing at an angle hanging over the water. 

Is Willow Easy to Turn?

White willow, although very common in much of the northwest and growing very large, is not an ideal wood for turning. White willow is very wet, soft, and has an uneven grain which causes all sorts of issues when trying to turn it well. 

Additionally, this tree is prone to many funguses which cause imperfections in the wood which looks unappealing and weakens the wood. The wood is not durable either and tends to be infected with rot and infestation a lot.  The Cricket bat willow, which is a hybrid of the white willow, is the recommended white willow variety you should turn. 

Black willow is the better variety to turn with, however, as it is more firm and is the sturdier of the two. Although, usually people recommend it for small projects such as turning bowls. The wood is very porous and these pores can result in tears as you’re turning. 

Black willow, although somewhat harder than White Willow, is still not a hardwood. It is susceptible to infestation and rot, but it does have a better grain and gives a more decorative look after it is complete.

Can you Turn Green Willow?

The short answer is you can try. Turning green willow will prove very difficult for a couple of reasons. The first is, green wood is untreated, undried wood, and green willow is no exception. Some woods are actually easier to turn when they are “green” because the moisture actually makes it smoother when you’re turning it.

Willow, however, is not one of these woods. Willow is very wet by nature. It grows in swamps and lakes and it requires a great deal of moisture and cool weather in order to flourish. This leads to a very wet wood, which isn’t even easy to burn in a fire, let alone turn on a lathe. 

Another issue associated with green willow wood is it is a stringy wood and tends to fall apart when turning. This tends to get caught in the saw when you’re cutting it if you’re using something like a tabletop saw. It can jam up your saw and make for a very frustrating experience. 

Does Willow give you a Good Finish After Turning?

Sadly, both white and black willow is said to be very fuzzy when finished. I was not able to find out exactly what causes this issue, but some seem to believe that it is the moisture buildup in the wood. 

Willow is very porous and does not have the finest grain, so it doesn’t have the nicest finish. White willow does not really have much design throughout due to the rings and patterns being ill-defined. Black willow has a decent pattern throughout, so it does finish better than white willow.

Another aspect people find difficult is that it is hard to sand smooth and therefore is uneven a lot of the time. The best advice I found was to use very sharp, even tools. This will avoid tears and enable the machine to give clean finishes rather than tears. 

Does Willow Check or Crack when Woodturning?

Due to the moisture in this wood, the drying process is rather difficult. The wood has a tendency to crack when it is drying and this can make turning it very difficult. Cracking can lead to further damages from tears since the lathe can potentially get caught and rip the wood. 

It also has a tendency to check and warp during the drying process. This is why there seems to be a lot of controversy over whether you should allow the wood to dry out before working with it, or after. 

Those who say you should dry it first, argue that the wood shrinks and checks a lot after drying so it can deform your product. If you choose to let it dry first, however, many claim it takes far too long to dry and you don’t know if the wait is worth it. 

Is Willow an Expensive Wood?

The average price for willow these days is around $7-8 for a “slab”. Just how much is included in a slab is debatable, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any further information. 

However, most woodworkers consider this a good wood to use when you find a good source in nature (fallen tree, cut down tree, etc). 

Despite the fact that there certainly are many enthusiasts for this wood for woodworking, many find it too complicated to use for much. Especially products such as furniture and other larger, utility-based projects. Definitely keep your eyes out for a good source out and about. 

Do you need to Prepare or Treat your Willow for Turning?

There’s a lot of disagreement over whether you should dry willow wood, but the only way I found that was recommended for drying willow wood is with a kiln. When dried, willow is a very light wood which many find to be its most appealing aspect. 

This lightweight nature coupled with the shock resistance of this wood is one of the reasons people use it for cricket bats. 

Turning willow requires patience and very sharp tools. Although, once you’ve accomplished this, it can get a nice finish if you are patient. You need to be persistent when handling this wood, to avoid it getting caught and tearing.

What Finishes can you use on Willow after Turning?

Depending on whether you wish your product to be indoors or outdoors, you will use a different varnish. There is a marine varnish that ensures a waterproofing coat on your willow wood. This is very important if you wish your product to last outside in the elements because the wood is not hard and is very susceptible to rot and bugs.

Many people recommend using willow wood inside, and if this is the case, a Danish varnish looks very lovely on this wood. This particular varnish acts as a slight stain and brings out the natural colors of the wood and accents it well. 

Polyurethane is a good option as well if you want to protect it from wear and tear. Beeswax is also very nice, but needs to be applied regularly and should be handled a little more carefully than if you used polyurethane. 

What can you Make with Willow Wood?

Willow Wood is prized for its softness and flexibility. It bends easily and is very moist by nature. One of the finest products you can create with this wood is baskets. The naturally spindly and flexible branches weave together to make a lovely basket. 

Willow wood boxes are also spoken of very highly, especially if they are to be kept indoors. These are usually made into keepsake boxes or heirloom boxes for storage. You can also do some carving with the outer designs.

Last, willow bowls are recommended by most as the best option for willow wood for turning projects. Use well sharpened tools, and make sure you go with the grain to the best of your ability to prevent it from tearing.