How to Embroider Balsa Wood + Cute Christmas Ornament Idea

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It’s Christmas time, which means everyone I know gets gifts made with my Cricut Maker or embroidery machine. This is especially a goal this year while we are limiting our shopping due to coronavirus. My uncle loves woodworking, and he’s also a vintage Ford fanatic. Thus, when I came across a great 1968 Ford Mustang redwork design, I knew I had to embroider a balsa wood ornament for him!

I’d embroidered balsa wood a couple of times before with decent success using very simple designs, but this was my first intricate design. With some trial and error (and about 4 failed ornaments), I came up with the perfect method and supplies for my embroidery machine. I’ll walk you through some tips for embroidery on balsa wood in terms of selecting designs and stabilizers, and then I’ll show you step-by-step with pictures how to embroider balsa wood so you can get started on your own projects! This is a fun, off-the-wall embroidery project, and I love how versatile embroidery machines are!

how to machine embroider on balsa wood

Supplies to Embroider Balsa Wood

Here’s the list of supplies I used for this project.

A Note About Selecting an Appropriate Design

Because balsa wood is soft, choosing a dense embroidery design is not going to give you the best results. One thing I also found was designs with lines of stitching that went parallel to the grain of the wood tended to sink it, even with a top layer of water-soluble stabilizer. This is why I ended up turning my wood to a 45-degree angle and stitching that direction; the lines were clearer. I reduced the needle tension a bit, and this made things slightly better, too. 

Stitching right on the wood grain = _(

If the design has a basting box, make sure not to stitch it. Any holes put in balsa wood are permanent! Also, make sure your design doesn’t have any random stitches in it. I’ve downloaded some designs where the needle will start or end on a random part of the design. Just beware of this when embroidering on balsa wood.

My design is from Creative Fabrica and digitized by Redwork101. Here’s a direct link to the design!

What thickness of balsa wood works best?

I’ve embroidered up to 1/8″ thick balsa wood boldly, but I’m not willing to try any thicker on my expensive machine. 1/32″ wood was too thin with the finished project, so I recommend against that. Based on my trials, 3/32″ was my favorite thickness, but I had success with 1/16″ and 1/8″, too. With very dense running stitch designs along the wood grain, the thinner woods had more tendency to show stress and small cracks around the needle holes. The 1/8″ just seemed so thick underneath my presser foot that it made me nervous while stitching!

As an aside, I tried embroidering basswood, but it shatters along the grain when stitched parallel to the grain. What a bummer, because I like the feel of basswood better for ornaments! Luckily, my Cricut Maker will cut basswood, and I can also use it to cut vinyl for the ornaments. 

Choosing the Best Stabilizer for Balsa Wood

Because balsa wood is soft and unstable by nature, you almost have to use a layer of cutaway stabilizer somewhere in the mix. My favorite combination, through a lot of failure and experimentation, was hooping a layer of cutaway on the bottom of a layer of sticky, self-adhesive tear-away. If you don’t have any sticky stabilizer in your collection, I dare you not to add it and love it! It’s my go-to for embroidering baseball caps and many other awesome embroidery projects. What’s great about sticky stabilizer is it holds the balsa wood in place better than temporary adhesive spray or masking tape!

It’s also important to put a layer of water-soluble topping on top of the balsa wood. This keeps the stitches from sinking into the soft wood. Water-soluble topping is also necessary when embroidering on towels, blankets, and other fabrics with fluff to them. When picking a topping, it needs to be the plastic-feeling topping, not the paper-feeling wash-away stabilizer that you’d use when embroidering tulle or free-standing lace.

Not sure what stabilizers are and how to differentiate them? Check out my guide to choosing the best embroidery stabilizers for each project!

How to Embroider on Balsa Wood

Now, here’s the step-by-step tutorial for embroidering on balsa wood complete with pictures!

Testing Before Starting

While I had absolutely no issues embroidering on balsa wood with my embroidery machine, before starting, I’d recommend putting the piece of the wood underneath your machine’s presser foot and doing a few test stitches by advancing the handwheel towards you. If you’re met with ridiculous resistance or the needle won’t puncture the wood, try thinner wood or change needles. DON’T press start until you know your machine will be able to stitch through the wood with no issues!

Cutting the Balsa Wood

cutting the balsa wood with an exacto knife first

If you have a Cricut Maker, you can use your knife blade to cut thin balsa wood into fun, intricate shapes. Since my wood was already 4″ wide, it was just easier for me to cut it by hand into a square. I used an Exacto knife on top of a small self-healing mat to make the shape. I ended up sanding the edges after finishing the project.

Centering and Marking the Design on the Wood

We’ve been having major network issues lately (oh, AT&T, how I wish you weren’t the only network we could have at our house!), so I can’t get my printer to connect to my computer wirelessly to print a design. And, I have no idea where the cord is to fix that issue.

While I recommend printing a template from your embroidery software and using it to center your design, sometimes you just have to MacGyver it. I tested light pencil markings on a scrap piece of balsa wood, and they erased fine without leaving marks. So, this is how I marked the center of my design on the balsa wood.

How to Stabilize and Float Balsa Wood

Now, it’s time to start setting up the hoop!

First, hoop two pieces of stabilizer: medium-weight cut-away on the bottom and a layer of sticky, self-adhesive tear-away on the top. If you’d like, put a layer of temporary fabric adhesive like Odif 505 between the tear-away and cut-away stabilizer to help you hoop it more easily. (Read: tips and tricks for machine embroidery hooping for help!) Make sure the grainy, papery side of the sticky tear-away is facing down and the shiny, sticker backing is facing up.

If you prefer, you can also just hoop the adhesive stabilizer and then later float the piece of cutaway underneath the hoop when you start to embroider. Too often, I plan to float another piece of stabilizer underneath the hoop and then completely forget by the time I get ready to embroider. Hooping both pieces together at one time is the easiest way for me to make sure I remember!

hoop 2 pieces of stabilizer

Then, using the tip of a sewing pin, score the top layer of the tear-away stabilizer around the perimeter of the hoop. This takes a little skill and practice to make sure you don’t puncture the tear-away layer, too! Remove the paper backing from the stabilizer to reveal the sticky surface.

score the top layer of the sticky stabilizer

If you want to mark the center of the tear-away with a pencil, you can do this now.

Then, press the balsa wood onto the tear-away stabilizer, making sure you’re lining things up. If you feel that the balsa wood isn’t secured well enough, you can use painter’s tape to hold the sides even more strongly to the stabilizer.

press balsa wood down onto the stabilizer

Now, float a layer of water-soluble topping onto the top of your hoop. The awesome thing about sticky, self-adhesive stabilizer is all you have to do is press the topping on, and it’s secured around the balsa wood!

add later of water-soluble topping before embroidering balsa wood

Machine Embroidering on Balsa Wood

embroidering on balsa wood

Load your hoop into your machine, and line up your design with the center of the marked balsa wood. Double-check that you have the right needle, right upper and bobbin threads, and the right orientation of your design.

Lower the presser foot, and press start! Babysit the design at first to make sure everything is working well (no moving around, no difficulty puncturing the balsa wood, etc).

embroidering on balsa wood

Cleaning Up After

First, remove the water-soluble topping by gently tearing it off. Trim any jump stitches on the front of the project.

tear off topping

Remove the stabilizer and floated balsa wood from your hoop, and trim close to the back of the design. If you want to painstakingly pull off the tear-away, you can. However, I just left mine underneath the cut-away, and it looked pretty good! I’m considering gluing a piece of felt or something more decorative on the back, but I haven’t gotten that far yet!

remove stabilizer

If you have any water-soluble topping left over, remove it by dabbing with a wet sponge or towel. Balsa wood can warp when drenched (something I learned during this project!), so make sure to use water sparingly and pat dry after removing the topping.

sponge away water-soluble topping

If you used a pencil and the marks are still visible after your sponge bath, erase them gently with a clean eraser.

My husband sanded the edges and also added the small hole in the center of the top. This is where I threaded the ribbon through to make it an ornament! I can’t wait to gift it for Christmas.

Here it is in its glory below:

how to embroider balsa wood

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on how to make balsa wood ornaments using an embroidery machine! Happy stitching!

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