You’ve decided to take up wood carving, but before you begin, what’s the best wood to practice with?
The best woods for beginner wood carvers are soft, inexpensive, and have little to no grain. Basswood, pine, balsa, walnut, and mahogany are all readily available and affordable. However, you can always pick up stray twigs and branches and practice on those, too.
Curious to learn more about what woods to use? Keep reading! We’ll also discuss what types of hand tools you’ll need and what techniques you should aim to master. If you’re looking for a few projects to try out, we’ve got those too. Wood carving has been around for quite some time, and many make their living carving wood. Maybe you can too!
What Makes a Wood Easy to Carve?
Take a step back from wood carving and think about the last time you peeled an apple or a potato. Really, any kind of fruit will do—except for maybe a banana. As you’re peeling the skin away from the main fruit itself, you’re using precise cuts. Those cuts are usually made with a sharp knife or cutting edge that require only a steady hand. Each movement is measured to only take off the outer layer of the fruit.
Wood carving is very similar to this process. Instead of fruit skin, you’re removing “excess” wood, but the techniques mirror one another. Fruit is easy to carve because you can move the blade from one end of the fruit to the other without having to vary the applied amount of pressure. Simple strokes get the job done.
Wood that is easy to carve behaves in a similar fashion. Fruits typically have no grain. That is, the material of the fruit is smooth in both directions. However, wood fibers, depending on the type of wood, will grow in various directions. The more variety you have, the more grain there is in that type of wood. Grain is a distinguishing factor among woods in terms of physical appearance, but it can be hard for beginner wood carvers to maneuver. For that reason, wood that has little to no grain is best for beginners to practice with.
On a similar note, woods that have little in terms of holes and/or imperfections are ideal as well. Master wood carvers will know what types of woods have these features and are adept at bringing these out naturally. Beginners won’t have the experience to know how to best deal with knots, so avoid those woods if possible.
Why Choose the Woods Mentioned Above?
Basswood is ideal for beginners because it is soft, white, and has little to no grain present. Many people like to paint basswood. A mixture of minerals spirits and boiled linseed oil makes a great basswood stain as well. Non-toxic and scent-free, basswood holds fine details well. You can find basswood almost anywhere, at an affordable price. Basswood can be used for chainsaw carving as well.
Pine is also a soft, white, easily-carved wood. It’s also inexpensive, but some think it doesn’t hold detail well. If you find pine out in the field, make sure to remove any sap. You don’t want to gum up your blade before you’ve even started carving.
Balsa is a very cheap, lightweight wood ideal for practicing new techniques. Between basswood and balsa, basswood is more consistent in terms of grain and strength. Balsa, however, can be a great wood to work with if you’re looking to train your eye and hands to the minute changes in wood.
If you still haven’t mastered the use of hand tools, give walnut a try. You’ll want to use power tools to carve walnut because it is harder than basswood, pine, and balsa. All the same, walnut does have a bit of grain. If you’re carving a sculpture that would benefit from variation, walnut could be a good wood to work with. Just watch out for those wormholes.
Mahogany wood’s reddish tones make it a great choice for artistic designs. The relatively straight grain is best for beginners, along with the fact that is easily workable with hand tools. Mahogany, however, does have a tendency to split.
Other Woods to Consider
Butternut, cottonwood, black walnut, aspen, and oak are also great woods to carve with. Each has their own pros and cons. Some can be carved with ease, while others tend to require a bit more finesse. Black walnut polishes up very nicely, while cottonwood and aspen are light and soft like basswood and pine. Butternut is prone to wormholes but contains a wonderful color and grain pattern.
If you’re serious about wood carving, pick up a small stock of each and experiment. Each wood will react differently based on your own approach to carving. To really find a wood you prefer, use the same tool and pattern on each. Pay attention to how the wood feels in your hands and how much pressure you needed to create the desired effect. Find the wood that works best in your hands.
Most of us might consider a simple knife to be a sharp enough tool to carve wood. However, there are a few other utensils you may find handy. Let’s explore some of the hand tools you’ll want to invest in before you start carving.
Basic Hand Tools to Purchase
The first tool you’ll want to invest in is a sketchbook. Draw out your ideas and visualize what you want the final product to look like. Every carver knows that what they envision and what they end up with may not always be the same, but you have to start somewhere.
You’ll want to invest in the following hand tools:
- Bench knife
- Round gouge
- V-Gouge Chisel
- Straight Chisel
- Specialty Knives
Hand Tools and their Uses
Bench knives have thin blades 1 to 3 inches long. Many pocket knives can double as bench knives, provided they are sharp enough to cut the wood you’re working with. It is entirely possible to carve an entire project with only a bench knife.
If you’re looking to remove large amounts of wood at a time, invest in round gouges of varying sizes. These gouges can be great to smooth out curves in the wood. Use round gouges to approximate, and finer tools to evoke and accentuate finer details.
The V-gouge chisel is simply a flat chisel formed in the shape of a “V.” Each V-gouge chisel not only varies in terms of degrees but also in terms of the thickness of the blade as well. V-gouge chisels are often used to create texture for items like hair or beards.
Chisels can vary in size and angle as well. Angled chisels are called “skews” because the blade is skewed, or longer, on one side. Chisels are a handy tool to have when you’re looking to sharpen an edge or simply want to finish off a piece and smooth down any rough edges.
Finally, there are a number of specialty knives out there. It’s always a great idea to carry a piece of wood with you. That way, when you find yourself at a parts store or in a woodworking shop, you can test out any specialty tools you find. Once you know what the tool can do, you can decide if it could be useful to you.
Now that you’ve got your hand tools purchased and primed, it’s time to take your first cut!
Beginner Carving Techniques
Grab a piece of wood and lay out your hand tools. Try out the following techniques to build a foundation in wood carving.
The running cut technique shares the same principals as cutting with a chisel. Your dominant hand provides the force behind the tool, while your other hand directs the motion. In contrast to the chisel, however, the running cut is a smooth, extended cut that results in a long furrow. You don’t necessarily have to cut in a straight line, but precise, measured cuts are key.
Stab cuts sound much more violent than they really are. In truth, you are only running the tool into the wood a certain amount before removing it. Cuts like this can be used to make holes in the wood as a pattern or for decorative use.
If you are working on a piece that requires you to remove a large amount of material, use the stop cut to mark for yourself where to stop as you’re cutting. It sounds redundant, but the stop cut is a great way to measure where you start and stop carving.
Sweep cuts require the use of a gouge. As the gouge enters the wood, maintain or add pressure depending on the depth of the cut you’re looking for. Before exiting the wood, press down a bit harder to make sure the cut is clean and smooth.
The slicing cut is used to finish off your project instead of using sandpaper. It is one of the harder cuts to master as you aren’t moving the tool as you would with a sweeping cut, but there is still precision within the movement.
Practice the techniques you’ve learned by creating small projects of your own. You can also experiment with some of the easy patterns available below.
Easy Carving Projects and Tutorials
LSIrish offers a variety of projects to choose from. Check out the Celtic Dragon pattern to practice relief carving, where removing each scrap of wood requires deliberate intent. Each tutorial provides you with a photo of the finished project, a supplies list, and step-by-step directions to guide you along. Your carving might look nothing like the one pictured, but that’s okay! As you spend more time with different woods and your hand tools, you’ll become better and better.
These 15 small do-it-yourself carving projects are great if you’re brand-new to wood carving. To create these tiny figurines, you won’t need too much wood, so they’re inexpensive as much as they are easy to follow. There’s always going to be a certain amount of creative license in each instance, but follow your gut and let your fingers do what they want with the wood. Each pattern is meant to be a guide, not a set of instructions to follow to the letter.
Looking for the ultimate test of your beginner skills? Check out this Tiki Chess Set pattern! It’s certainly not a project for the faint of heart or those who have little time to devote to wood carving. All the same, to say you whittled your own chess set is a great accomplishment, for beginner wood carvers and in general!
Finishing Your Project: Seals and Coatings
After you’ve finished your wood carving project, you want to make sure all the time and effort you spent is protected. The best way to do that is to invest in seals and coatings that will protect the wood from degrading. Staining a carving can also seal the wood.
Shellac is a popular sealant that acts as a clear coating over the wood. This is a great solution if you don’t want to bring out the features of the wood, but simply want to protect them. Hingst’s Sign Post recommends using a polyurethane varnish. This varnish will accent the shadows of the carving to highlight the shapes you’ve created.
Applying a polyurethane varnish is as simple as preparing your carving and applying a few thin coats. You want to make sure the carving is smooth and free of any rough edges. Remove any remaining dust or lint. Apply the finish in a thin coat and wait 24-48 hours for it to dry. After applying a second coat, you can then stain the carving if you’d like. Further coats are not necessary unless you feel they would be useful to your project.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Wood carving, like any skill, takes countless hours of practice and experience to hone. Stock up on cheap woods like basswood, balsa, and pine, and spend an afternoon or two carving away. Share your projects with friends and family, and most of all, have fun!