The Most Important Step: Choosing Wood For Crankbaits!
One of the great things about custom crankbait making is that you get to play with one of the planets awesome raw materials……. wood!
There are hundreds of different timbers out there that can be used to make first class custom lures. I’ve taught lure makers who live in some of the most obscure places on the planet and they’ve always been able to source a good quality, cost effective timber for their lures.
But there are definitely some timbers that work better than others. Some are difficult to carve, some don’t give a good action in the finished lure and still others aren’t tough enough, don’t paint well or have nasty, toxic dust.
So today I’m going to give you some tips about how to choose the perfect wood for your crankbaits. And I’ll tell you about the two timbers from which I make 80-90% of my lures, and why I choose them.
What Makes A Good Lure Making Wood?
There are a number of factors to consider when you are deciding what wood to buy or whether a timber you already have in your workshop is suitable for making wooden crankbaits. The weight (density), ease of carving, grain, moisture content, ability to hold hardware, durability, paintability and cost are all considerations.
One of the most important considerations for successful crankbait making is the density of the wood you use. As a general rule, the lighter (less dense) the wood, the stronger and more stable the action of your finished crankbait will be. Low density also tends to mean that the wood is relatively easy to carve, which is a huge advantage if you will mostly be using hand tools. On the other hand, low density usually also means that the wood is soft and easy to damage.[cryout-pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”30%”]”Weight and ease or carving are important, but there are other important factors too…”[/cryout-pullquote]
Balsa is a great example. It’s the most lightweight timber anywhere and it’s incredibly popular as a lure making wood because lures that are made with it have a super crisp, awesome action. But you need to treat it to toughen it up and make it more durable or your crankbaits get dented and damaged easily.
One of the reasons that low density wood makes such great lures is that you have greater flexibility about where you can place weights, rattles, hooks and other hardware. Placing them low in the lure body creates a kind of internal keel, keeping the lure upright and giving it a wider range of working speeds.
The table to the right shows the density of some of the more popular and useful lure making timbers around the world, including my two favorites, western red cedar and balsa.
In my experience, wood that has a density of around 35 pounds per cubic foot or less works best for most lures – even for sinking lures, and especially for suspending ones.
If you can’t yet your hands on any of the timbers listed in the table then just Google the names of whatever timbers are available to you and the word “density”. You’re sure to find at least one!
The nature of the grain can be a big factor in your choice of wood. Timbers with a wavy, interlocking grain, lots of knots or mixtures of heart and sap material can cause a few headaches, especially for the beginner.
If you are using edge tools like chisels, carving knives and so on then a straight grained wood will always make the job a lot easier. It’s less of a consideration if you will be using a sanding drum, Dremel tool or other power tool to shape your lures, but it’s still a consideration.
Knots are hard, dense areas that take a fair bit more effort to shape. They tend to throw the weight balance of the lure off too, so they really are best avoided in lure making wood. Likewise, if the piece of wood you are about to carve has a distinct longitudinal color change then you might have some sapwood and heartwood together. The heartwood is usually denser, which again can throw out the balance of the lure.
Open grained timbers have lots of large pores, and while they aren’t necessarily a bad choice, they usually necessitate a bit more work prepare them for paint.
If you want your crankbaits to perform well and to keep performing well, it’s really important that the wood you choose is well seasoned. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s air dried or kiln dried, just as long as it is good and dry.
Poorly seasoned wood has a higher density, which tends to spoil the action of your lures. More importantly, the moisture in the wood gets trapped beneath the clear coat when your lure gets finished. The problem with this is that when the lure gets warmed up the moisture tries to escape and pushes up beneath the clear coat, eventually causing the paint and clear coat to fail. This can happen very quickly if your lures are left in a tacklebox, vehicle or boat on a warm day. Or it can take a few months if they aren’t exposed to extreme temperatures. But if there is moisture there, this heartbreaking event is going to happen sooner or later!
My preference is to use kiln dried timber, because I know that it has been dried in a very precise and controlled way.
One question I am often asked is about picking up branches or small logs that have fallen from trees and making lures from them. I know that some people do this, and that some are successful. But I normally advise against it because this wood is rarely seasoned properly, and because wood from branches is a lot more prone to distortion and splitting than wood milled from a trunk.
Cost and availability are two other big factors. I always suggest using cheap, easy to get wood for making lures. The truth is, lure making doesn’t use a heap of wood, so cost isn’t usually a huge factor. But on the other hand, most lure makers tend to paint their lures, so the rain isn’t usually visible. So why pay for expensive, attractive timbers when something a lot cheaper will work at least as well?
Some timbers have a greasy, waxy feel. These should be avoided because adhesives and paints often don’t stick to them very well. Other timbers contain a lot of silicone or other minerals and can blunt your tools very quickly. I’d rather be making lures than sharpening chisels, so I leave those timbers in the timber yard.
And finally, some timbers are prone to splitting or don’t hold screws very well. Once again, these are not your best choice!
My Favorite Lure Making Timbers……
Over the years I have used dozens of different timbers to make wooden crankbaits. Some are superb lure making woods, others not so great. Sometimes if I’m making a “nude” lure (one where the wood is clear coated but not painted) I’ll use an unusual or exotic timber like zebra wood or silky oak. The idea of course is to have some interesting grain to bring the lure to life. But 90% of the time I get by using one of just 2 timbers: Balsa and Western Red Cedar.
Balsa is popular because it’s readily available, cost effective, easy to carve with hand tools, super buoyant for a crisp action and it’s a sustainable timber product. It’s a great timber for lure making newbies and for kids because it can be quickly and easily shaped using sandpaper without the need for sharp blades. It’s also wonderful for lures that have lots of weighty internal hardware because the buoyancy ensures the action isn’t deadened by the weight of the fittings.
I like to use balsa when I’m making lures for freshwater and lures that will be used for light to medium duty saltwater use. If I’m making lures that are likely to come into contact with toothy critters like wahoo and mackerel, or tough species like GT then I prefer cedar for a little extra durability.
I treat my lure bodies with wood hardeners and epoxies to waterproof and seal the lure before the paint goes on, and this also goes a fair way towards toughening balsa to take some harder knocks.
There are a couple of downsides to balsa lures that you need to be aware of. Being a fairly soft wood I always use a through wire because I just don’t trust the fine threads of screws eyes to hold strongly enough. There could be nothing worse than to lose a trophy fish because your home made lure fails! Making and fitting a through wire is not that much slower or difficult than using screw eyes, so it’s not a big deal. But if you prefer to use screw eyes then I’d suggest using cedar, basswood or some other timber instead.
When you are working with balsa you need to make sure your tools are sharp, or it will tend to tear instead of cut. This applies to drill bits, saws, chisels and knives etc. And when you sand balsa be sure to use a fresh piece of sandpaper and not press too hard, or the wood will dent and compress rather than sand.
Western red cedar is relatively easy to get where I live and is an excellent lure making wood. In other parts of the globe you’ll find eastern red cedar and Alaskan yellow cedar are more available. Which one you use doesn’t matter too much – they are all great for lure making.
Cedar has some fine properties. It’s a little heavier than balsa, but still very light – and it has more strength and greater resistance to denting and teeth. It works easily and has a nice even, closed grain that takes adhesives and paints very nicely. It holds screw eyes more securely than balsa, although I still tend to use a through wire more often than not. I just like the comfort of knowing my lures are extra tough.
The action of a well made cedar lure can be exhilarating – and fish think so too!
Here’s the first important thing to know about making cedar lures: cedar dust is more toxic and more of a respiratory irritant than most other wood dusts. So wear a mask, especially if you are power sanding.
Cedar causes many metals to rust, so make sure to only use marine grade stainless components (you should be doing this anyway). I know folks who have used nickel plated screw eyes or galvanized wire for cedar lures and it’s rusted inside the lure body, leaving the tow point and hook hangers very weak.
Cedar also contains a little tannin. There’s not as much as you’ll find in some other timbers, but enough that if the wood isn’t properly prepared you can get ugly brown spots appearing in your painted finishes. Using the right sealer overcomes this and leaves you with a great surface over which to spray your colors.
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