Woods for Carving

To understand how to carve wood, you have to understand the obvious... it grows on trees!
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.

50w80.jpgButternut (Juglans 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 wood.

127313.jpgCherry (Prunus serotina) is 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?).

127311.jpgMahogany (Swietenia 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.

127326.jpgMaple (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). Maple holds 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 well.

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.

50Y32.jpgRed 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.

tupelo.jpgTupelo is 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 very nicely.

127339.jpgWalnut, 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.

Insects in "Found" Wood

It 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.