With just a piece of wood and a chisel, you can create a truly stunning work of art. It might sound simple, but wood carving can actually be pretty complicated. Take, for instance, the wood itself. Which type of wood will be right for your project?
At any lumber supply store, there are so many different kinds of wood to choose from. It’s hard to know which one will work best. Whether you’re a beginner or highly experienced, we’ve put together a list of woods that are great for carving:
What Makes Wood Good for Carving?
Even with the best set of carving tools, your project will be unnecessarily difficult with the wrong type of wood. Qualities to look for include:
- Softness. We don’t typically think of wood as something soft; after all, it’s a solid, sturdy material. But some woods are softer than others, which makes them easier to carve.
- Free of cracks & voids. You’re looking for nearly perfect wood. One with a smooth and consistent surface, without knots or splits. The perfect piece of wood is hard to come by. Some defects run quite deep into the wood, which makes carving it especially challenging.
- Straight grain pattern. Whenever wood has a wavy, curly, or interlocking grain pattern, carving it becomes a lot trickier. There’s a higher chance that the wood might split or crack when you cut it. Ideally, you want wood with a straight grain.
Should You Use Hardwoods or Softwoods?
The answer to this question isn’t as simple as you might think. Most people assume that softwoods are perfect for carving, while hardwoods are not. That’s certainly true of most hardwoods—but not all. Surprisingly, one of the most popular carving woods is a hardwood (basswood).
Hardwoods are (usually) a bit trickier to work with when it comes to carving; it’s easier to cause splits or cracks while you carve. We recommend that you always use power tools when you’re carving with hardwood.
When wood is especially dense, there’s a higher chance that the knife might slip and hurt the carver. That’s why we suggest that beginner woodcarvers avoid most hardwoods.
If you’re just getting started in the world of wood carving, softwoods are ideal for beginners. They can often be carved using hand tools. Given their softness, they’re a bit easier on the tools you use (meaning they won’t dull as quickly). Some softwoods are so pliable that, when you cut along the grain, it’s almost like slicing through butter.
Next, we’re going to cover the types of wood we recommend for carving:
Hands down, basswood is the most popular carving wood by far. Basswood is soft and smooth, which makes it great for carving. It has a light creamy color. And if you’re a fan of darker woods, basswood is easy to stain.
Hand or power tools, basswood is a solid choice. Even better, basswood is readily available, so your project won’t be held up by supply shortages.
Basswood is affordable. One potential downside is that it has a very faint grain pattern. If you like the look of defined wood grain, basswood might not have what you’re looking for. On top of that, it’s especially susceptible to moisture damage, so keep it in a dry room.
Looking for more reasons why you should use basswood? It emits no odor, so it won’t cause a headache while you carve it. It’s also non-toxic; if you have any sensitivities or allergies, basswood will be safe to work with. Using basswood, you can make anything from musical instruments to children’s toys.
This wood is just as easy to work with as it sounds. It’s soft and pliable, perfect for any beginner. This wood has a warm tan tone; it’s beautiful when used to make sculptures and trinkets. It takes polish well, so you can work the surface into a smooth, glossy finish.
Butternut can be tough to track down at times. Whenever you’re inspecting a piece of butternut, make sure to check for any wormholes or voids.
This wood is better suited for those with more experience; it’s a bit firmer than basswood. Like basswood, it’s pretty easy to find, light in color, and affordable. Finish it off with wood oil to give your piece a beautiful shine.
Looking for a light, sturdy material for your wood carving project? Birch has a beautiful bright tone. It’s a popular material when carving spoons, although it’s a bit firmer than basswood or aspen.
Whenever you’re working with birch, be sure to select a piece that’s been properly dried. Otherwise, it will be more prone to splinting during the carving process.
Walnut & Black Walnut
Black walnut wood carving blanks add a rich and dark brown tone to your wood project. Keep in mind that black walnut is more expensive than most types of wood, but the quality of the grain and richness of the tone make it worthwhile.
Black walnut is often used to make tables, chairs, and sculptures. Some types of black walnut have a curly or wavy grain, which makes them harder to carve with.
Even though it has a beautiful color, it might not be the best wood for a beginner. We recommend that you use power tools whenever you’re carving with walnut.
This wood has a unique color that’s unlike any other on our list. It’s a good material for a woodcarver with some experience, due to its varying grain direction and the occasional pine knot. However, if you’re up for the challenge, you can create a beautiful piece using pine wood. It’s relatively soft and readily available at most wood supplier stores.
As far as hardwoods go, mahogany makes for great carving wood. It has almost no odor when carved, and can be used with power or hand tools. Mahogany is highly sought after for its beautiful red undertones, which are enhanced by its earthy brown color. But if you’d like to alter the color, you’ll be happy to know it stains quite well.
Wood carving is a real art. Using hand or power tools, you can carve intricate designs into pieces of basswood, aspen, or birch.
Once you’ve chosen the right kind of wood, the next step is carving it! Selecting your tools and design is a whole other topic. We hope this article has helped you choose the right wood for your next project.