How to Carve Wood

How to Carve Wood — Beginner’s Guide

Whether we’re vocal about it or not, all of us have been greatly intrigued by the beauty of wood carving. From cupboard designs to the intricate ornaments we like to keep, it shows in our houses everyday.

Undeniably, wood sculptures are widely popular and hence all of us have, at one point in our lives, wanted to spend more time understanding this skill.

However, with little or no background knowledge, you might not know where to exactly start your probing. For that reason, we have compiled this article so you know all the basics you need to know!

In this beginner’s guide, you will find yourself learning all the essential information that a starter needs to know regarding wood carving.

So without a further ado, let’s jump into our guide on how to carve wood.

Ask Yourself the Essential Questions

Before diving into an overwhelming amount of information, it is important to give yourself some insight into what it is that you really need to know.

But of course, as a beginner, even this seems like a hard job! (And it sort of is.) So for things to make better sense to you, here’s a list of things you need to ask yourself before looking up any other thing regarding wood carving:

What Drove You to Learn the Skill?

This is a question of significant importance because it will determine the exact technique that you want to spend your time learning.

What Are all the Different Techniques Used? And Which One is Preferably the Easiest to Learn?

The short answer is that there are dozens of techniques. Of course, you can’t take up the hardest one first so start small and work your way up. We’ll cover a bit more below!

What Type of Wood Should Be Used?

Depending on whether you’re just carving a decoration piece for a side table, or carving the side table itself, you have to know the right type of wood for each purpose.

What are there Different Tools and How Do I Use Them?

This is obviously the most important thing to know but you shouldn’t jump to it directly!

These common queries are the reason why we’re here to help you. So don’t worry, you’re at the right place!

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The Different Styles of Wood Carving

Speaking broadly, there are four main styles of carving wood (that we’ll focus on here) but different techniques have sprung up around the world. However, what makes the information regarding these styles crucial is the fact that they determine the types of wood you’ll be working on and the types of tools you’ll be working with.

Maybe you saw a friend’s front door carved in a beautiful way and that became your inspiration to look into the skill. You should know the style of carving that was used to sculpt that particular door to look up exactly the right technique for yourself.

Whittling

This is one of the earliest styles of wood carving. This usually makes up a lot of small decorative wood sculptures. In this particular technique, a knife is used to slice off wood to form three dimensional figures that tend to have uneven, angular surfaces. The surfaces reflect the knife strokes clearly, and are usually not painted.

Carving-in-the-Round

One could say that this is a more advanced and better form of whittling, with more minute details present. It involves a number of tools, including knives, to give the sculptures a softer and detailed surface. Hence, producing a small — or large — wooden figure that has a smoother, textured surface and may later be painted or stained.

Relief Carving

While relief carving also produces a three dimensional sculpture, the back is never carved. So yes, it’s the plain back that makes this yet another style for carving. Of course it can be used for a number of purposes, but the plain back makes it more suited to wall-hangings and similar functions. The end product usually has a soft surface, however, which is why a good number of tools are used for it.

Chip Carving

Chip carving is the most commonly practiced type of carving. It’s done by ‘chipping’ off the surface of wood in small geometrical pieces with different tools to form an intricate and precise pattern.

While it seems easy, it’s actually the hardest one because it needs extreme accuracy. Since it only involves chipping off the surface, the back is flat. You might’ve seen small wooden boxes with tops that are chip carved!

Extra Notes

Every technique requires a different set of tools to work. As a beginner, it’s better to go for whittling first as it usually requires only one tool! Gradually, you can familiarise yourself with all the other detailing tools as well.

All the Different Tools Used

As a beginner, you will be good to go if you purchase a basic set of tools for your carving dream to come true.

For your convenience, below we have listed the most frequently used wood carving tools that will definitely come handy once you buy them for your sculpting:

Cutting Knives

The subcategories include carving knives, bench knives, and sloyd knives. In fact, you might even find further types within these subcategories! All cutting knives come in a variety of sizes and shapes, determining the purpose of their use. Therefore, not all forms of whittling can be done with just one knife.

Gouges

Fishtail, carving, spoon (or short) bent, and long bent are the most commonly available and used gouges involved in wood carving. As the curved surface of gouges suggests, the main use is to dig in to make small details or hollows in the carved wood. This makes it a necessary tool, even for a beginner.

Chisels

Chisels are somewhat similar to gouges, except that they’re made of a flat blade instead of a curved one. Again, if it’s not sharp, it’s not of good use. They also come in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

Mallets

The carver’s mallet acts like a rubber or wood hammer for chisels and gouges. So, it’s used to tap these tools to make the process of carving easier.

Coping Saw

Like the name suggests, its main purpose is to make coped joints. The teeth of the coping saw cut any external piece of wood that can’t be carved otherwise.

Extra Tip

Your average carving tools come in a set of 12 or 24 pieces. Remember, the best tools are the sharpest!

The Best Woods for Carving

Let’s state a fact: you need to get yourself soft woods to carve.

Even if you generally think about it, the softer the wood is, the easier it will be to carve it. So to save you the trouble, we’ve listed all the types of woods that are better options for carving.

Remember that it’s always the grain pattern that tells you which wood to use:

  • Basswood — among the top five white softwoods for carving, rather fine and almost no grains
  • Aspen — a white wood that is stronger than basswood but still soft enough for good carving
    • Butternut — another great option for beginners, this is a soft wood that is easy to carve
  • Oak — a rather sturdy wood, it’s popular for carving despite its defined grains because of its accessibility
  • Mahogany — a comparatively harder wood with medium grains
  • Black Walnut — rich in color and slightly hard, it’s best carved when the sharpest tools are used

The softness and price of all these wood types varies, but they’re all high quality woods that are frequently used in carving.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is Wood Carving Extremely Hard to Learn?

No!

Yes it definitely looks scary when you first begin practicing, but so do all other hobbies that require a new skill. Once you start grasping the ideas involved, it’ll be pretty fun! Trust us on that.

And remember, consistency in practice is always the key when you’re trying to attain expertise in any field.

Can I Carve Wood with My Pocket Knife?

Well, the answer is a bit tricky. But a simple answer would be yes.

For an expert, it’s pretty easy to use a pocket knife to carve anything on any type of wood. But for an amateur carver, a pocket knife is not the best tool to begin with.

You need to pick your tools wisely and use the sharpest ones available so that your tools don’t become a reason for your slow progress.

Can I Make Use of Dull Tools?

No, you can’t.

The blades of your tools need to be sharpened frequently in order to give you the best performance.

In fact, you should get yourself a sharpening stone along with your tools and sharpen them after every 20-30 minutes of use.

How Durable is Carved Wood?

It is true that carved wood is more prone to damage and decay through insects, fire, or other hazards.

However, today with all the advances, there are many decay-resistant materials you can use to save your wood and make it highly durable.

Safety Precautions

As with any hobby that requires physical work, effort, and the use of such sharp blades and knives, there are certain precautions that you need to take to save yourself from any potential danger that might be coming your way.

Wood carving is no exception. Therefore, we’ve listed down all the safety rules that you should be following to protect yourself from the sharp tools.

  • Wear Gloves — Carving gloves are easily available, always wear them. They’re cut resistant and thus save your fingers and hands from any sort of tool-related danger.
  • Wear Eye Protection — Always wear eye protection. As an amatuer woodcarver, you might make a wrong move that could possibly throw a wood splinter into your eye.

Don’t let this scare you though! It’s very uncommon.

  • Don’t Go too Fast — Don’t forget, the faster you go, the higher the chances you have of making a wrong carve or cut, or even messing up your fingers!
  • Never Use Dull Tools — Dull tools can potentially damage your cut judgement, ruining the whole piece.They also require more power to use, which is harmful for both you and the wood you’re carving.

As always, your safety is the topmost priority.

Practice, Practice, and Practice!

No matter how much we emphasise it, it will never be enough. But still, keep repeating one word to yourself: Patience.

This is literally applicable to any new skill that you try to indulge in and isn’t only for wood carving.

Every new habit that you want to become an expert takes hours of regular practice to actually work out for you. Do not, at any given point, give up because you don’t feel that you’re ‘good enough.’

Anyone teaching you wasn’t born an expert in woodcarving. It took a lot of practice for them to become as good as you see them today.

Another important thing to recall every time you’re working on a piece is that some techniques are easier to learn than the others. Go step by step, do not pressure yourself into learning all the professional styles in just one day.

Wrap Up

Conclusively, it’s fair to say that we’ve covered each important aspect of wood carving that you will need to start your wood sculpting adventure.

With all the necessary information we’ve compiled for you, you’re now at a better stance to purchase the right type of wood and tools, and also to understand the right style of carving that expresses your inner artist.

With that being said, we wish you good luck on your new venture!

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