Have you ever walked by the window of a store and seen the most beautiful wood carving, wondering to yourself, amidst the marvel, if you could ever make something of the sort? The great news is you can, and it is maybe more within your reach than you think. Wood carving dates back in human history to as early as the first tools we have ever invented, so let's tap into those ancient traditions and learn the fundamental secrets of how to carve wood!
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WHAT IS WOOD CARVING?
Before getting into how to carve wood, let's take a look at what wood carving is.
Wood carving is both a fun hobby and a professional pursuit where there are two essential tools involved: wood and a knife. Those two tools will vary along the way, and we will dive deeper into how those two tools can change based on your needs and desires a bit later on in this article. But as soon as you have some wood and a knife on hand, you can get started.
Essentially wood carving is drawing patterns and designs into a piece of wood using a knife. You can make deep or shallow cuts into the wood. You can make chiseled and edged or smooth and round cuts into the wood. You can apply any style of carving your imagination can conjure up as soon as you have that idea, some wood, and a knife.
The variety of approaches on how to carve wood is as diverse as the number of cultures existing from each ocean to ocean since the beginning of man. As the styles of wood carving vary, so does the intricacy and nature of the wood and knife that you use to carve that wood.
TYPES OF WOOD CARVING
When we talk about whittling, we are talking about strictly using just a knife for etching away at the wood. Whittling enables deep and precise cuts. You will find sharper edges and more complicated designs revealing themselves when you take on a whittling project. The cuts into the wood are thinner, more angular, and bring about finer qualities and nuances of detail.
When you are whittling, the method is all about full-length strokes that slowly carve through the wood.
The other primary method of how to carve wood is using a hammer and a chisel. You take your idea, draw it out on some wood, place the chisel in the appropriate spot, and tap on the back ofa the tool to break through the wood. This method obviously uses more brute force, and you will lose a great deal of finer detail, but you will also gain a whole new world of dimension because your cuts will have a much deeper and pronounced nature.
CARVING IN THE ROUND
Carving in the round is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Instead of creating carvings that are designed with sharp, angular, and articulate inner workings, you create rounded, smooth, and general shape carvings.
Carving in the round is a real three dimensional style of carving. With other methods of carving, you may etch a design or pattern into a flat piece of wood or round piece of wood, but it is still an internal cutting. Carving in the round is working with the external body of the wood. It is giving the wood legs, arms, a head, branches, or a front and back.
The main style of cutting the wood is in a smooth and rounded fashion. An example of carving in the round is something like a bowl. You will get a polished look with carving in the round.
LEARNING HOW TO CARVE WOOD
CARVING LIKE A PRO
HANDLING YOUR KNIFE
When carving wood, you will be spending a lot of time with your knife; usually hours. It is smart to invest in a knife that has a comfortable and great grip, along with a strong and sharp blade that you can depend on for a while.
Carving gloves are a huge must when learning how to carve wood. They ensure that your hands are well protected from any mistakes or unconscious moments while cutting the wood. They also help prevent splinters.
FOLLOWING THE GRAIN
Following the grain is some of the best advice you can get because it will save you a ton of hassle. Often wood carvers will work against the grain, and this will cause the wood to split, ruining a ton of hard work and effort.
This is a more important note to remember for when you are working with harder woods. With softer woods, the material is so malleable that you can actually go against the grain and not face many issues or defective alterations.
As soon as you make a mistake in the wood you are carving, you are going to have to live with it. There is no backspacing or using an eraser to replace and redo what has happened.
You can avoid those disappointing mistakes by sketching out a blueprint design of what you're about to carve onto the wood. You will simply have to follow the guided lines you set up; and your whole project is likely to come out better.
TYPES OF WOOD
The type of wood you use in your wood carving ventures and projects is going to have a serious influence on the resulting aesthetic of your final product. Along with vibe, feel, and look, the type of wood you use is going to make for a smoother or more challenging experience with cutting.
Some woods are naturally softer than others while other woods are naturally harder than others. The more comfortable woods to work with will be the softer woods, while the hardwoods will require more expertise. The hardwood, as nature would have it, tends to give a more pleasing and lavish look to your final product. We provide recommendations and details for some great carving woods down below.
Basswood is a great wood for beginners because it is softwood. It has a lovely cream like color and is available at most retail spaces selling any wood. It is so easy to cut that it makes a great medium for intricate and meticulously detailed pieces. The way the knife slices through the wood like butter makes it easy to get the design or pattern you desire out of it.
Butternut is another excellent option for beginners due to its soft nature. However, it is one of the more advanced beginner woods. It has a great deal of grain, so there is a lot of design and pattern already occurring within the wood. The grain makes it easy for the wood to split while you are cutting it.
White pine is another great soft wood that is easy to cut into and great for beginners. It has a medium grain level, giving it a unique and fantastic natural aesthetic. Many people recommend white pine wood for carving in the round projects because it is so easy to mold and manipulate.
Mahogany is a well-respected and popular wood within the carving world because it sits so balanced between a hard and soft wood, with a fantastic natural look and feel that hardly needs any post-carving finishes.
Here is where we begin to step out of the comfort zone of wood carving and get into the more advanced projects. Black walnut is a beautiful dark wood with a medium grain that hardly needs any post-project finishing. It stands alone as a beautiful piece of wood. However, you are going to have to earn your finished project because this is a hardwood and not so easy to cut into or mold. Black walnut works great with chisels but not so great with knives.
Cherry wood has a great look to it, with pinkish brown wood. It stands above many other mediums of carving because of its natural beauty and uniqueness, but it is also tough wood, so carving into it can be a serious difficulty for beginners. It should be approached with a chip carving technique because whittling won't work so well.
Sugar maple is a very dense wood, making it extremely hard to whittle on. However, it is so dense that taking a chip carving approach will work well. The wood is not likely to split because of its compact nature.
Again, we have a very dense and hardwood with white oak, so the ideal approach is chip carving and not whittling. The results are fantastic though, and the wood is so thick that wood splitting will likely not even be an issue as you chip away. White oak is one of the most popular hardwoods available on the market. It is a very light-colored and yellow wood with a medium coarse grain.
Learning how to carve wood is not as tricky as you may think. The odds of you creating a masterpiece on your first or even 5th attempt may be low, but everyone has got to start somewhere.
Picking up the hobby, artistic expression, and ancient tradition is all laid out here for you. Make your blueprint, choose your wood, and then get to practicing!
I’m a husband and father of two children. In my professional life, I’ve worked with tools for the last 7 years. I just want to try and share my practical knowledge here on this site.