To understand how to carve wood, you have to understand the obvious... it grows
While many factors affect how it grows (and therefore how it carves), all woods will exhibit certain
characteristics which will make it especially suited for carving, or not.
Soft woods tend to be easier to carve as do woods with a fine, straight grain
pattern. Harder woods and woods with large or uneven grain patterns are
more difficult to work with. Basswood is probably the most popular wood
for beginners. Also among the more user friendly North American
woods are Butternut, Sugar Pine and Red and Yellow Cedars.
Walnut and fruit woods like Cherry carve beautifully but are much harder woods
for hand carving with knife alone.
Basswood (Tilia Americana)
is sometimes called American lime or Linden. It is a light creamy
brown colour with a straight grain, even texture and no distinctive
smell. Basswood is very soft and easy to work. It holds carving
detail well and seldom warps after seasoning, making it close to ideal
for beginners carvings and for use in larger projects.
cinerea) is also called white walnut. Though it is much softer than
black walnut, it is related, and figure and grain patterns are very
much alike. The narrow sapwood is almost dead white, but the heartwood
is a very light brown, possibly with some pink tones and the
occasional dark brown streak…the streaks can make for very effective
carvings if handled well. The wood is lightweight, and the texture is
coarse. It works easily and holds detail well. It is a fine carving
moderately difficult to carve, but the reddish brown colour and gentle
figures make it very attractive. Cherry shrinks a lot in
drying, but is stable afterwards. Power tools can burn cherry,
but hand carving tools won't. It holds detail well and looks great,
but is one of the highest priced American woods
because of its popularity for general woodworking. Cherry also darkens
as it ages, with colour becoming almost as dark as black
walnut over the years (which, oddly enough, lightens as it gets older).
Lime (Tilia vulgaris) a cousin of Basswood, is also an excellent starter wood for carvers
because it is so small grained and easy to carve that it is very
forgiving of many mistakes that might ruin carvings in other woods.
The grain is tiny and not particularly distinctive. The wood is straw
coloured, or lighter. Sharp tools give the best finish (but when isn't this true?).
macrophylla) is also known as Honduras mahogany, with most now coming
out of Central America. Heartwood colour varies from light to a dark
reddish-brown, right on to a deep, rich red. Grain is usually
straight, but may be interlocked. Texture is medium to coarse.
Mahogany has a low stiffness, but dries
nicely, without distortion, and is stable in use. It works easily with
sharp tools, and has been for a long time one of the premier furniture
and decorative woods of the world.
(Acer saccharum [Sugar or hard Maple] and Acer rubrum and others [soft
Maple]) are carving
woods that present some challenges. The grain patterns are not as
straight as in many other woods, especially hard maple, and it's varying
density is problematic in carving the wood and creates a tendency to
blotch when finishing. More careful planning of cuts
may be needed here. There are numerous interesting grain patterns in maple,
including birdseye, curly, fiddleback and tiger, which can create
beautiful effects in your carving (but makes you work for every
compliment received because the wilder the grain the harder the carving).
detail well and finishes to a high shine.
Pear (Pyrus avium) is difficult to work, close-grained and very
hard, but works nicely in small carvings. Strong and tough, but may
distort, and has a tendency to split. It is very stable once dried,
and is widely used for fancy turnings, as well as carving. A challenge
to work, but again a rewarding wood that holds detail exceptionally
Pine is a relatively soft resinous wood, appreciated for its
yellowish tint and often pronounced grain. However, it can be brittle
and have knots that are very hard to carve. Pine is ideal for beginner
projects because it is inexpensive and readily available. Compared to
linden and grey ash, pine will resist rotting and is therefore an
excellent choice for outdoor projects.
Red Oak (Quercus
rubra, et al) is a group of oaks that are all porous (open pores run
long distances, so that it is possible to use a 5-6" long piece of red
oak to blow bubbles in water like a straw). Quarter sawn red oak has many attractive rays. Grain is sometimes
difficult for carvers, but it takes decent detail (not as good at
really fine detail as basswood, cherry, and some others, but pretty
good - and it lasts nicely, as evidenced by the many red oak newel
posts carved in the early 1900's). Keep the tools
super sharp for this one.
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is an oft-forgotten wood that
is useful for a ton of things. It is best used quarter sawn and displays a
really lovely lacey ray pattern when cut that way (but it's not
particularly stable in its flat sawn form). The wood is a silvery white to
reddish brown and is moderately heavy,
moderately strong, moderately stiff, and moderately hard. It holds detail quite well, probably a little better
than red oak, and finishes nicely. Carving can be fairly difficult,
but it rewards the work.
also known as black gum, an odd name for a wood having a pale brownish
heartwood and lighter sapwood. Tupelo resists splitting, is uniform in
texture and has interlocked grain. The grain makes it hard to work,
but it is rewarding for power carvers. Tupelo stains nicely, and can
be finished well, is heavy and moderately strong, and holds detail
American Black (Juglans nigra) has heartwood that varies in colour from
very light brown to almost purple. It is usually straight-grained and
easily worked, as well as being heavy, hard and stiff. It is a moderately open pored wood that takes natural
finishes well (and needs a filler to reach a really high sheen). It is
difficult to say enough about the good qualities of this wood, but it
is a very, very good carver's wood as well as being a very, very good,
and attractive, general use wood. Demand has recently been down a bit,
as the lighter coloured woods are currently more popular, but the price
is still fairly high.
in "Found" Wood
is not unusual to find bugs in wood taken from the wild. An effective
way of eliminating them is to place the wood in a large plastic
garbage bag along with an uncapped can of Raid. Once the bag is tied
tightly closed, locate the Raid inside the bag and discharge a little
of it’s contents. Leave the bag closed for at least 3 full days to
ensure that all bugs are dead. When opening, be careful not breath in
the fumes and allow the air to vent well before removing the wood.