How to Carve Wood: The Ultimate Guide

Wood carving is an excellent hobby for anyone who enjoys working with their hands. In this article, we discuss everything you need to know to carve wood. This includes information about the material you need, tools, and a guide on how to carve wood.

Father and son carve wood

Table of Contents

What Is Wood Carving?

Wood carving is a type of woodworking that involves using a cutting tool, such as a knife, chisel, and a mallet, to create wooden figures, sculptures, or other functional objects such as wooden spoons. This term can also refer to a finished sculpture. The carving of wood to create finished products is not a new concept. It was practiced among many cultural groups over time. Unfortunately, wood carvings do not survive the test of time as well as other materials, like stone and bronze, because wood is susceptible to degradation in several ways.

How Long Has This Woodworking Technique Been Around?

Wood carving has probably been around for thousands of years. The Shigir Idol, the oldest known carved wooden sculpture, was discovered in Russia in 1894. This carved sculpture is assumed to be over 11,500 years old, based on recent scientific dating, which indicates that it was carved towards the end of the final Ice Age. An early written account describing the carving of wood can be found in the Bible. It appears in the book of Exodus, written around 5 BC.

The Types of Wood Carving

There are four main types of wood carving. Factors that determine which category a wood carving method falls under are determined by the tools used to practice the carving and the shape of the finished product. Many assume that whittling and carving are synonymous, but whittling is one of four types of wood carving. They are whittling, chip carving, carving in the round, and relief carving.

1. Whittling

Whittling is the most traditional type of wood carving. The only tool required to begin whittling is a carving knife. With regard to a whittling knife, you have a few options. You can choose a fixed handle knife or a folding knife. This type of wood carving produces angular lines, and finished products are usually small and three-dimensional.

2. Chip Carving

If you are a beginner, chip carving may be the perfect method to begin to carve with. Chip carving entails removing the surface of a piece of wood and cutting it into it to produce different patterns and textures. Depending on the pattern you want to create, this type of carving can become incredibly difficult. Those who wish to create artwork on a flat piece of wood usually use this method to carve wood.

3. Carving in the Round

This method of carving creates a sculpture in three dimensions. It is a popular way to carve an animal. There is a wide range of tools available for carving in the round. Carvers use tools such as chisels and gouges to make various cuts. Unlike whittling, carving in the round can produce three-dimensional pieces that are more life-like, and smooth on the surface.

4. Relief Carving

Relief carving, as the name implies, entails carving out the relief areas of a design, and is typically done with U and V gouges. A relief carving is a sculpture that rests on a flat surface. It is common for these works of art to be hanging on a wall. Knives, chisels, and gouges are among the tools required by a carver for this type of work. Carving a wooden spoon from a block of wood is an example of relief carving.

Wood Carving Basics

Your tools must be razor-sharp if you want to carve efficiently. They should leave a clean cut with no white streaks indicating damage to the blade. Examine the long cell fibers of the wood before you begin to carve to discern the direction of the grain.

Carve in a downward direction following the grain of the wood. Keep in mind that if the wood appears to be tearing, and your tools are sharp, you may be carving against the grain. Carving diagonally across the grain, or parallel to the grain is also possible. However, carving upwards against the grain results in the wood tearing.

Materials: What Wood Is Ideal for Carving?

If you are a beginner and wonder what type of wood you should carve, you should know that almost any type of wood should do the trick. However, there are certain species of wood that produce better final pieces than others. The most common species are basswood, pine, balsa, and butternut. These are popular among new carvers because they are softwoods that make it easy to learn how to use their tools. Walnut and oak are hardwoods that are ideal for more experienced carvers. These woods are a lot harder to carve.

Here is a list of woods commonly used for wood carving:

  • Limewood is a soft and long-lasting wood, making it ideal for carving. It is usually yellow, or sometimes a slight red color, with few knots.
  • Maple is a hardwood that is a popular choice among woodcarvers and has a straight grain. Because it is both solid, and easy to work with, this valuable wood can be used for turning and carving.
  • Oak is a densely grown wood that requires a long drying time. It is hardwood with a grain that is also great for carving.
  • Walnut has a dark color, making it a popular choice for carvers. However, it is a much harder wood to carve and is recommended for experienced carvers only.
  • Butternut is slightly brown, and has an attractive grain, making it easy to carve.
  • White pine has a creamy color and is softwood. Pine has a grain that is easy to work with and is also great for beginners as it is easy to carve.
  • Ash is a hardwood with a wavy grain that can make for attractive finished pieces.
  • Birchwood tends to be more prone to breaking during carving than other types of wood. It is light in color.
  • Cherry wood has a pinkish color, which makes it another popular choice. However, it has a fine grain with a wavy pattern, which makes it quite hard to work with.
  • Poplar needs to dry for a long time before use. It is tear-resistant, with both hardwood and softwood properties.
  • Basswood is a softwood that is easy to carve, making it great for detailed carvings.
  • Balsa is another softwood that is great for beginners. This type of wood can create pleasant, finished pieces.

Wood Carving Tools

If you prefer, you can purchase a set of tools that includes all the basic tools you may need such as a carving knife and safety equipment, or you can purchase each tool individually.

1. The Wood Carving, or Whittling Knife

A wood carving knife is the most versatile tool that you can use to carve wood. When all you have is wood and a knife, you can make a beautiful sculpture or a functional piece. They come in a range of sizes and shapes. These tools can be used to carve the rough shape of a piece, or for adding more intricate details. The knife you pick should be both easy to hold and rigid. When practicing wood carving, your knife should be sharp because blunt knives end up leaving streaks. Retractable blades are not advisable for wood carving because they tend to break under pressure and may not cut through hardwood.

Consider using a utility knife if you are just starting and prefer not to make a significant investment in wood carving tools just yet. The blade should be stable and sharp, and you should also be able to hold the handle comfortably for extended periods.

Chip Carving Knife

A chip carving knife is the best option for beginners. The blade measures about 1.5 inches in length, and the knife’s handle is long enough to fit comfortably in your hand while you work. It is advisable to choose a knife made of high carbon steel to ensure that it remains intact and that the blade remains sharp for a long time.

Detail Knife

A detail knife has a smaller blade than a carving knife, allowing it to fit into small spaces. Some detail knives have a long blade that ends in a sharp point. Beginners should use a knife with a straight cutting edge that is parallel to the knife’s handle.

2. Mallets

Mallets are a type of hammer that have relatively large heads and are made of rubber or wood. Wooden mallets are commonly used in woodwork to join wood pieces together or to drive tools such as gouges and knives. A wooden mallet does not deform the striking end of a metal tool. It is also useful for decreasing the force applied to the cutting edge of a tool to allow for greater control. The perfect mallet absorbs shock and has a firm grip. If you wish to reduce noise, you should use a rubber mallet rather than its wooden counterpart.

3. Carpenter’s Chisels

Chisels are woodworking tools that have one or both sides that are beveled. These bevels pull a tool into, or out of, a piece of wood. The edge of a double-beveled chisel cannot pull in or out when used with either side up or down. If the bevel is up, the edge is drawn into the workpiece, and if the bevel is down, the edge is pulled out of the wood.

Single-beveled Chisels

These tools are commonly used in carpentry and other types of woodworking. When the bevel is down, the surfaces are very flat. Double-beveled chisels are often preferred because they tend not to dig into, or out of, the wood. Some carvers, however, prefer a single-beveled chisel because it can be pulled into, and out of the wood.

Chisel Numbers

A skew chisel is commonly known as a number two by carving tool manufacturers. The cutting edge is skewed, or angled at 60 degrees, and is beveled on one or both sides like a number one chisel. When the tool is used in a slicing motion, it can pare wood easily fitting into small corners with ease that number one chisels cannot reach. If the bevel is only on one side, you may need a pair that comes in both left-handed and right-handed versions. As the number of the chisel increases, the chisel becomes less rectangular and becomes gouges.

4. Gouges

A gouge is a chisel that has a curved cutting edge. These tools have been designed to carve rounded grooves in wood without the gouge’s corners digging into the wood. It is a handy wood carving tool and serves several functions. Gouges quickly remove excess wood, especially on flat surfaces where the corners of a chisel would dig into the wood and become stuck. These tools can also be used to stop-cut around objects and are useful for carving precise trenches and grooves.

Gouge Size and Sweep

Manufacturers classify gouges based on their size and sweep. The best way to determine the size of a gouge is to measure its width. Numerous gouges sizes are measured in metric units other than inches. The sweep of a gouge refers to the curved surface of the gouge. There are two basic systems for identifying the sweep, but manufacturers sometimes deviate from these systems. To avoid confusion, remember that regardless of the system used to identify the gouge, the lower the sweep number, the shallower the curve of the gouge is.

Sweeps ranging from numbers two to four are shallow gouges. Numbers five to seven as medium gouges, and numbers eight and nine as deep gouges. Gouge numbers ten and eleven gouges are U-shaped gouges, also known as veiners. These gouges make the deepest cuts.

How to Use a Gouge for Carving Wood

Deep gouges and veiners are commonly used to remove a large amount of wood quickly. Medium gouges can be used to remove large grooves from veiners and deep gouges, and shallow gouges are used to make the surface of the wood smooth. To round sharp corners, turn the medium and small gouges upside down. A medium gouge is the best tool for stabbing wood in a stop-cut. If you do not have a medium gouge with a sweep matching the curve you require, you can make multiple stabs around the curve with a smaller, more shallow gouge.

5. V Gouges

V gouges are used to carve grooves. These tools have two cutting edges that are straight and are joined together in the center resembling a letter V, as opposed to a gouge’s curved or U-shaped profile. As a result, the V-tool creates a sharp V-shaped groove. It is useful for outlining features in a carving as well as adding texture to fur and hair.

Size and Angle

V-tools are distinguished by angle and size. The most common angles are 45, 60, and 90 degrees. A 60-degree V-tool is one of the most versatile V-tools and is perfect for a beginner who does not want to invest in many wood carving tools. The size of V-tools refers to the measurement between the upper parts of the V. Sizes often range from 1/16 to 3/4 inches. Tools with the same angle, but different sizes, can cut grooves with the same width at the bottom. Larger tools can cut deeper than smaller tools and can cut V trenches that are wider at the top.

6. Power Tools

Power tools are not used often for wood carving, but they can make the process much easier. Electric saws can help you cut straight or carve out the rough shape of an object quite quickly, whereas an angle grinder can help you complete an entire wood carving. The Dremel Stylo is an alternative to chisels and gouges for creating intricate detail on your project.

How to Carve Wood

Learning how to carve wood takes practice, dedication, and more practice. Here is a guide to help you get started.

1. Select Your Wood

As mentioned above, it is best to start with softwoods like balsa, pine, butternut, and basswood. You can purchase wood from your nearest hardware shop in advance. When creating sculptures, you must start with a larger piece of wood, so be sure to buy wood in the appropriate dimensions. It is also advisable to buy extra wood for practicing before attempting a finished carving.

Some woods may need to be dried before you can use them. If you are purchasing wood from a hardware store, the wood has probably already been dried and prepared for you.

2. Choose Your Tools

While you can carve wood with a simple knife, other tools can help you achieve better final products. Here are some of the tools you need to create beautiful wood carvings.

• A workbench (this can be a sturdy table with a clamping tool to help hold your wood in place while you work

• Knives

• Gouges

• Chisels

• A rubber or wooden mallet

• Paint

• Varnish, paste, or oil to finish off and protect the carving

• Sandpaper

• A pencil or pen to trace outlines

• Brush or damp sponge

Keep in mind that the types of wood carving tools you need depend on the type of wood carving you wish to do. Always ensure that your tools are sharp before you begin carving.

3. Safety, Safety, Safety!

Wood carving requires the use of hazardous tools and results in the release of dust and wood shavings. Therefore, you should take the appropriate safety measures when practicing woodwork.

To prevent injury to your eyes, wear the proper personal protective equipment. Safety goggles are essential for woodworking because they protect your eyes from dust particles that could cause serious harm to your eyes while carving. Another protective tool to use while carving wood is cut-resistant gloves that protect your fingers from cuts while using razor-sharp knives and tools. Wear a dust mask if you are using power tools that generate dust. Toxic fungi can be found in wood, and some woods themselves can be dangerous if they get into your airway.

Tools can slip while being pushed through the wood. Therefore, you should always keep your hands behind the razor-sharp edge of the tool you are working with to avoid injury to them. While carving, you should never hold the wood in your lap. Always secure the wood on a workbench, so you can control the tools with both hands. Cuts frequently occur when one hand tries to hold the piece while the other hand pushes hard on the tool, and it slips.

4. Practice Carving

Now that you have the right carving tools and materials practice your technique on an extra piece of wood to get a feel for the tools. Practice carving with the grain of the wood you have chosen. To achieve the best results, work in small increments, and the direction of the wood fibers.

If you are a beginner, take this step seriously. If you do not practice working with your tools, there is a greater chance of making mistakes, and ending up with a disappointing final piece, which can lead to a loss of interest in the hobby, so be sure to spend enough time practicing.

5. Set Up Your Workbench

Before you can begin carving wood as a beginner, you must first set up your workbench or carving table. A safe working environment includes good lighting, a device for clamping the wood to ensure that you are not injured while carving, and put out the tools you need to carve wood in a way that they are accessible to you. Ensure that your tools are sharp and ready to be used.

6. Outline

Once you are confident enough to begin a sculpture, you should outline the basic structure of the wood as a guide. This is an important step that can help you keep everything in the correct proportions. Use a pencil or a pen for this. Be sure to mark the outline on all sides of the wood if you are making a three-dimensional project.

7. Carve the Basic Shape

Begin your wood carving by forming contours of the design, or the basic shape with gouges or chisels. You can do this in the thinnest or narrowest parts of the wood with a narrower blade. After creating the contours, use a flat blade gouge to add depth to the notches you have created in the contours.

Once this is complete, you should have the basic shape. Use a rounded gouge to flatten any irregular pieces of wood. Before refining your piece, it is important to clean the wood thoroughly to prevent wood chips or sawdust from getting into the grooves. The cleaning process can be done with a damp sponge or a brush.

Always carve in the direction of the grain, that is, along the fibers. This makes it easier to work with because you are not receiving any resistance from the wood. Carvings made in this way can keep the wood from tearing. The fibers in most woods are visible as subtle lines.

8. Refine Your Carving, and Add Fine Details

Once you have a rough form, you can use gouges and chisels to remove wood from the relief areas of your sculpture and add details, working on one section at a time. Smaller tools are handy for adding fine details.

9. Finish and Protect

When you are satisfied with your wood carving, use sandpaper to smooth out any rough edges. However, if you prefer a more natural look, you can skip this step. You can then use paint to add color to your carving before varnishing it. Finishing products such as beeswax and varnish can help prevent the accumulation of debris and moisture on the surface of the wood and keep it from rotting. You can use the following products to finish wood:

Wood varnish. There are several types of wood varnishes on the market. They typically emit toxic fumes and should only be used in a well-ventilated area. Wood varnish provides durability for finished wood carvings.

Beeswax paste. This finishing product is a non-toxic, easy to apply, alternative to wood varnish, and it dries quickly. The only disadvantage to using beeswax on finished pieces is that it tends to rub off if handled too much and may need to be applied again.

Tung oil. Another non-toxic finishing product for wood is tung oil. It is easy to apply but takes a long time to dry completely.

Mineral oil. If you have carved a wooden spoon or another kind of food utensil, mineral oil is a great way to protect it. Like the previous two products, it is non-toxic and is absorbed by the wood, acting as a water barrier.

Danish oil. This non-toxic varnish alternative is a durable finishing product that is easy to apply. It takes roughly two days to dry completely, and is an alternative to beeswax paste, as it does not rub off after excessive handling.

Final Thoughts

It can be hard to know where to begin with any woodworking project, and wood carving is no different. Whittling, carving in the round, chip carving, and relief carving are all types of wood carving. You can carve wood using several tools such as chisels, knives, and gouges driven into wood using mallets.

Gouges come in a variety of shapes and sizes, determined by their width and sweep. If you would like to take up wood carving as a hobby, follow this guide on how to carve wood to help you get started.

Picture of Graham Robson
Graham Robson

In the world of wood carving, your wooden project starts with you. Using the right kit can be seen as an extension of your existing skills and abilities that you're required to build over time.

About Me

My name is Graham, I’m an English teacher and woodcarver during the weekend., my website designed to act as a digital workshop for wood carving in the one place.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as i enjoyed writing it!

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