After deciding you want to try your hand at carving, what’s the best way to begin?
In this article, we’ll discuss how to get started with hand carving, from the types of wood to choose from and what hand tools to purchase. This guide will show you how to be safe as you carve, what techniques you’ll want to master, and some of the projects you can try your hand at. After you’ve finished reading, you’ll soon be on your way to becoming a hand carving pro!
If you’ve always wanted to try your own hand at carving, this is your ultimate guide to tips, tricks, and techniques to get started. Let’s start with the materials you’ll need to succeed as a hand carver.
Hand Carving Materials
Yes, the first thing you’ll need to hand carve is wood. You’ll also want to invest in a few specialty tools that are relatively easy to find. Finally, purchasing a sealant will help your projects last. Many wood carvers have increased their inventories as they learned new techniques and came across unique tools, but you don’t need all those to start out.
Hand carving can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Most people might run over to their local hobby supply store for wood, but if you live in a wooded area, practice sticks are only a few steps away. For less than $10, you could be carving wood right now.
If you’re going to spend a bit more time on hand carving, keep reading. We’ve got a lot more ground to cover—and wood to carve.
Selecting the Proper Wood
Hand carving requires wood soft enough to be worked with little to no pressure. You’ll also want to consider woods that contain very little grain. Finally, the best wood for hand carving has a uniform composition. No knots, wormholes, or other deformities.
Grain describes the way in which the fibers of the wood grow, from root to leaf tip. You can carve with the grain, parallel to it, and diagonally across it, but carving against the grain is like pushing your fingernails in the wrong direction. You will damage your carving and potentially even yourself.
Basswood is one of the best woods to start with. Soft and pliable, it has hardly any grain. The other great thing about basswood is that it is odorless and non-toxic. You can also paint it. Without much grain, it can look like a natural equivalent of a blank piece of paper. However, experts recommend that if you want to protect it from wear and damage, you can apply a blend of mineral spirits and boiled linseed oil.
Butternut is another great wood to start with. Sometimes called “white walnut,” butternut is soft and white in color. Some heartwoods of butternut can also be light brown or pink. The intermediate carver might find they can work these tones into their carving. Overall butternut is great for detail work and beginners.
If you’d like to find out more about what woods to invest in, check out this post for more information. Hand carving is more affordable than most people realize. Wood is relatively easy to come by, and the tools you’ll need are all out there. The fun part is figuring out which tools fit your needs and what you can do with those tools to create one-of-a-kind hand carvings to show off.
6 Basic Tools to Invest in
Now that you’ve purchased some wood to begin carving with, let’s take a closer look at the types of tools you’ll want to invest in. There are varying opinions out there as to what you should buy and when, but like most new things you try, consider how much time you’re willing to invest in hand carving, and put your dollars where your time compounds. If you’re just looking to try your hand at carving to see what you can do, you probably won’t want to spend a fortune on tools.
Some wood carvers recommend checking out the second-hand tool market. You can pick up a number of unique tools, often for a great price. Most of these tools only need a bit of TLC, and they’ll be back to carving amazingly in no time.
All the same, if you are serious about learning techniques and tricks, keep your eye out for specialty tools. And always keep a block of wood with you. There’s no greater test for what a tool can do than using it exactly how you would if you owned it.
Something near to your typical pocket knife, carving knives measure less than 3 inches in length and fold up to a convenient size. There are some carvers who make their living just by using these knives. The best carving knife is one that fits in your hand comfortably. Knives like this are made of various kinds of metal, but choosing the best one means purchasing a knife you’ll end up sharpening a lot. You’ll take off as much metal as the sweat and blood you put into the blade and handle.
Investing in a chisel, sometimes called a straight gouge, can be trickier than it might seem at face value. Which chisel do you choose? How do you know what all those numbers mean?
Measured in millimeters, chisels come in various sizes, each with their own particular use. Purchasing the right chisel is all about understanding the cuts you’ll make on your work. If you’re carving on a smaller scale, invest in a shorter-bladed chisel. That way you can work into small spaces without taking off huge chunks of wood. Larger chisels are the best for this type of work.
Chisels are one of the tools you’ll find yourself collecting as you continue on your wood carving journey. Invest in a chisel that reflects the scale of carving you’re working on, and branch out if you find yourself needing another size. As you advance in your techniques, you’ll inevitably pick up more tools.
Most of the time you’ll see wood carvers using a mallet with their chisel, or perhaps hitting the end with a hammer. We’ll talk more about the techniques you can use while handling a chisel in later sections, but a wood carver’s mallet is the next tool on our list.
A wood carving mallet differs from your typical mallet in a few key ways. Like your specialty tools, a carving mallet is small and easy to strike. Wood carving, especially when done by hand, often requires small, measured movements that favor precision. Mallets used in wood carving should be just strong enough to give your chisel or tool the push it needs, without damaging your work. For instance, you wouldn’t want to purchase a mallet you might use to work on a car, because they’re designed to hit stronger, metal surfaces, rather than soft, wooden surfaces.
Gloves and/or Thumb Guard
Safety is key in any pastime you pursue, and especially in the case of woodworking. Think about it. What cuts through wood probably won’t have much trouble cutting through you. That’s why most wood carvers, at least when they’re starting out, will invest in gloves and/or a leather thumb guard.
Wood carving gloves are worn on the hand holding the wood. While this may seem obvious, the idea of a leather thumb guard is to protect the opposite hand. Most people, when carving, will grip the knife with their dominant hand and place their thumb along the length of the blade for stability. This is not always the best idea. If you don’t want to invest in a leather thumb guard, you can also use duct tape. Simply wrap it around your thumb for added padding.
Whereas your chisel might be your precision tool, a V-gouge roughs out your approximate carving shape. The unique shape of the gouge is measured from one of the top edges to the other, coupled with the angel of the V. The larger the angle, the farther away the tips will be, meaning you can remove more material at a time.
V-gouges, along with U-gouges, are often referred to as “veiners.” U-gouges are similar to V-gouges, except that their shape is more U-like than it is pointed. U-gouges are measured by the sweep of the edge, which is designated as the distance between one tip of the U to the other.
With these 5 tools, you have established a wood carving tool set. What you add to this collection moving forward depends on the types of projects you’re working on and the degree of commitment you’re willing to give. At the same time, if you’re serious about carving, you’ll probably pick up a few specialty tools each time you visit the hardware store.
Remember that bit about carrying a piece of wood with you wherever you go? This is where that bit of behavior pays off—even if it might seem odd at first.
If you find yourself in a store or shop that sells woodworking tools, and you’re looking to add to your set, having a block of wood handy can prove invaluable. It’s always a good idea to ask permission first, but test out the tools you’re interested in on the wood piece and see what shapes you prefer. Some tools may look like they’ll create a certain pattern, but what they end up doing to the wood may be completely different. Experiment with the types of tools you see and pick up those that you find inspiration in.
Beyond these basic tools, your wood carving set can grow as much as you’re willing to invest in it. Some experts advise that you find a pattern you like first, and then purchase the tools you’ll need to create that work. This is a great way for beginners to practice. In the event you want to continue carving, you’ve already got some tools, but if you’re not sure carving is for you, you’ve only spent a few dollars.
If you do decide carving is for you, keep reading. We’ve got more tips and information on hand carving, beginning with how to properly store your tools.
Storing your Hand Carving Tools
Taking care of your tools is as important as practicing the various techniques that makeup hand carving. We’ll discuss how to maintain the sharpness of your tools in a moment, but knowing how to properly store them is key to keeping them in tip-top shape and protecting that sharpened edge.
The first thing you’ll want to think about when storing your tools is finding a spot where you can keep them out of the way. Toolbox drawers work great for storing hand-held tools such as chisels and gouges. If you are going to devote the whole toolbox to hand carving instruments, you can place each tool a few inches apart from the others to keep them intact. Otherwise, you’ll want to invest in thick material that will protect the tools and their edges.
Some ingenious hand carvers also make specialty racks that hold tools by their handles, with the blades or tips pointed down. These types of holders can even help you practice your woodwork as you build them. Try out a few different styles and purchase the storage solution that works best for you.
Sharpening Hand Carving Tools
Keeping your hand carving tools sharp is key to maintaining smooth, measured cuts. The duller your blade becomes, the harder it is to carve wood, no matter how soft it may be. Some carvers recommend that for each hour of use, you should sharpen your tools once. Others say that whenever it feels hard to carve the wood that’s been easy to carve until that point, it’s time to sharpen.
The Art of Manliness suggests sharpening your tools to a 17-20-degree angle. A wider angle is typically used on tools such as machetes and axes, while smaller angles can be found on knives where precision is of utmost importance.
Sharpening your blade is relatively straight-forward. Simply purchase a flat stone or a strop and strop abrasive. Using a flat stone, you can hone the bevels of the blade. Stropping the blade will keep the edges sharp and allow you to cut into the wood with increased precision.
Types of Hand Carvings
Like most sculptors, hand carvers work “in the round,” removing wood to reveal the shapes they see within the material. Whatever forms appear out of the wood tend to match the style of the hand carver themselves. These forms can be realistic, caricature, or primitive in nature, or a mix of all 3.
Realistic forms mimic the natural world. Caricatures are stylized and often dramatized natural forms that emphasize specific parts of the carving. Angular shapes and broad cuts characterize primitive carvings.
All the same, hand carving isn’t just about evoking life around you. Many of the most famous hand carvings are signs and plaques that commemorate a number of things. Letter carving can either be relief or engraving. The difference depends on where the wood is removed.
Relief carving creates 3-dimensional shapes that evoke a variety of objects, animals, foliage, etc. Engraving removes wood instead, capitalizing upon the negative space left by the absence of material.
No matter what tools you use, from hand to electric, each type of carving will most likely fit into one of the above categories. You might find that you’re better at a certain style. It’s all part of the hand carving process.
Before we begin talking about hand carving techniques, here are a few safety tips to keep in mind. Remember, you are working with razor-sharp tools on material right next to your hands.
Safety During Carving
As you’re practicing and become more proficient in wood carving, it’s essential to stay safe. In truth, the wood will probably claim more blood and skin than is ideal, but being smart about carving goes a long way in keeping all your body parts intact.
The first thing to know about safe hand carving is to understand the blades you’re working with are sharp. They have to be. That’s why most wood carvers, when they begin and even throughout their career, will invest in gloves or thumb guards. These protective layers will stop the majority of the blade’s edge from doing too much damage.
The second part of respecting the blade is understanding how to properly handle it. Some tools require the full force of your biceps, back, and shoulder muscles. Not in the case of hand carving. These knives must be directed with precise, measured movements, so having a handle on where the knife is going is key. Utilize your wrist and finger muscles more than you use your elbow.
Practice these safety measures as you carve and you’ll enjoy it that much more!
Carving Cuts to Master
Before you even begin carving, it’s always a good idea to sketch out your design. You can either sketch the finished carving on paper, or you can make pencil marks on the wood to know where to remove material. Some carvers prefer to let the shape reveal itself as they carve. Others might want to know what they’re aiming for. It’s all about your style and what you want to do with the wood itself.
Mother Earth News names a handful of hand carving cuts. The running cut is a long, measured motion that removes a strip of wood, ideally in a straight or controlled line. Mostly used for details, stabbing cuts require precise indentations into the wood for visual effect. The stop cut is used to mark where carving should cease. A sweep or rocking cut is very similar to a slicing cut. All 3 seek to emphasize the motion of the carving itself to finish off curves and small details. These cuts are used instead of sandpaper.
You can also think of the cuts as The Art of Manliness does. Writers there characterize straightaway rough cutting akin to peeling a potato or zucchini. Long, measured cuts with consistent pressure are key. In pull strokes or pare cuts, you pull the blade towards you through the material. Push strokes and thumb pushing describes the motion of moving the blade away from you.
Simply put, there are only so many ways you can cut wood with the various tools available. However, mastering these cuts can take many years, if not a lifetime. Practice these cuts as you learn how to carve, and improve your woodcraft!
Hand Carving Tips and Tricks
Here are a few hints from the experts on the various processes involved in wood carving. If you find yourself stuck and don’t know what to do, check here before doing anything too drastic.
When cutting with chisels, practice what Wood and Shop’s Bill Anderson calls the “yin and yang hold.” Your dominant hand should be pushing the chisel against the wood and cutting into it. The other hand should be pushing against that movement, to control it. If you’re not a fan of this type of carving, you can simply use a mallet to strike the chisel’s handle.
Wood carving gouges are ranked from No. 1 to No. 11, increasing in curvature. A No. 1 blade is completely flat, while a No. 11 blade is curved like a “U.” Did you know that there is an English system of numbering gouges, versus the European system?
The biggest mistake a rookie hand carver makes is not taking off enough wood at a time. It can be overwhelming to know that what you take off you can’t always put back on. But sometimes it can, and we all learn by mistakes. Establish larger shapes first, and then don’t be shy about mowing down what you don’t need.
Sandpaper is not a hand carving tool. While it can be useful for certain wood-based projects, sandpaper can actually take away from the unique marks hand carving leaves. If you’re painting your work, that’s a different story, but there’s no need to pick up sandpaper if you want to hand carve.
While it might be tempting to just pick up a nearby stick of wood off the ground and begin carving, most woods need to dry out before they can be properly carved. Dry the wood out too fast and it will crack. Allow the wood to dry naturally, and when you feel confident it has dried enough to withstand a blade, begin carving. You will quickly find out if the wood has had enough time to dry.
If you find yourself working with wood that is too hard or too soft to carve, White Eagle Studios recommends using a half-and-half mixture of rubbing alcohol and water. Allow it to absorb into the wood and dry before carving.
Best Letter-Carving Practices
A great way to keep your letters uniform and evenly spaced is to print out a template from your favorite word processor. Simply tape or glue it onto your desired piece of wood and begin carving. The bold letters and straight lines will help you achieve a more professional-looking result.
Finishing your Carving
Keeping your final product clean can be a challenge. As you handle the wood, it will inevitably get dirty from the oil on your hands to the blood you may or may not shed while carving it. Washing your hands throughout the carving process is always a good idea. You can also wash your carving with a bit of laundry detergent if you want to. Just make sure the wood is completely dry before you begin carving again.
It’s a great idea to wash your carving before you seal it as well. In fact, you don’t necessarily need to do any staining or painting if you like how the carving looks already. Carver’s Companion recommends applying a coat of linseed oil to the carving. This will give your work a finished, natural look. Tinted linseed oil gives a unique look. Finally, you can use paste wax to complete the carving.
Next Steps in Hand Carving
If you want to take your carving to the next level, consider graduating from a knife to any number of power tools, such as band saws, drill presses, and chainsaws. You’ll certainly get the job done faster with more power. You can also carve wood that you’ve glued together. As long as the glue has set and the pieces are joined without any gaps, you can carve as if it were a whole piece of wood, to begin with.
Take a trip to your local hobby supply store and check out the books they offer on woodcraft. You can also find these types of books in the library. Better yet, if you find a project you want to carve, copy the instructions and/or picture. Keep them for inspiration.
Practice Projects to Consider
If you’re searching for used tools, you might find some without handles. This is a great way to practice your skills. Make new handles for your tools, and give them new life and new meaning. You can also try your hand at custom moldings. The repeatable shapes will help you control your movements. It might be unreasonable to expect yourself to kit out the entire house, but it’s a good way to practice certain shapes over and over again.
Letter carving is a great way to start out. Hand carving letters allow you to work with established shapes that you can stylize as you develop your skills. You’ll quickly learn how much wood to take off and when to slow down and focus on the fine details. If you’re interested in learning more about letter carving, check out this instructional video.
Check out this resource if you’re wanting to learn how to carve your own bowls. If you want to learn how to carve and teach your children, invest in some soap. Expert carver Leo Lambert recommends using soap because it mimics wood but is easy for small hands to carve. When he teaches students of all ages how to carve, he pushes them to pick a project, even if they don’t think they can achieve it. Hand carving isn’t so much about replicating results as it is about having fun and putting your own style into the carvings you create.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to hand carving, and wish you luck in your future projects. Make sure to check out the links we’ve included if you’re ever feeling stuck, and browse our website for more great informative articles on all things woodworking.