Wood-carving is a skill, a form of woodworking. Carvers create many different types of objects, either functional like spoons and bowls, or to be used for decoration, like small wooden statues or wall hangings. There are a few factors that will determine the success of any given carving project – we’ll be going over each of these throughout the guide. Wood-carving projects can range from beginner to advanced levels, and all you need are a few simple tools and some quality pieces of wood to get started.
Common wood-carving projects include spoon and bowl making. Other utensils like salad tongs and honey combs are also popular.
The History of Wood Carving
Wood-carving can be traced back over thousands of years. The first piece of wood carved art was made over 10,000 years ago. Many of the best examples of carving in history are found in the middle ages. Although there have been artifacts found all over the world in places like South America, Asia and the land of Native Americans, the ones we have the most information about are those found in Europe. The artifacts found in Europe during the middle ages could be quite detailed, and were often connected to religious places, like cathedrals.
Wood carvers were seen as both the lofty artist and the dedicated hard worker – Making it a very respected profession. Throughout the middle ages, wood-carvings became more and more popular. As time moved on and into the Renaissance period, wood-carving became less and less popular due to changes in style and innovations in technology. As technology became more advanced, wood became less and less used for home decor or furniture. The Baroque period brought on an aesthetic of luxury – which had a tendency of excluding wood.
Wood-carving has been found in places all around the world. Many cultures used wood-carving for religious or spiritual artwork – like inside this cathedral.
What’s the Difference Between Carving and Whittling?
Although they are very similar – whittling is different from carving in a few ways. Actually, whittling is considered just one of the many different types of wood-carving.
- Whittling: This type of carving is carried out best when using a whittling knife. This carving technique usually demonstrates smaller designs with harsher lines. Whittling is different from carving because with whittling you generally use one tool, causing the carving to be less detailed and have rougher edges. This is a great place to start for those who want to explore the world of wood-carving, without investing that much money. Many people whittle as a way to pass time – I find it to be quite therapeutic!
- Relief Carving: This was a very popular style used throughout Europe. This type of technique is often used to carve designs on doors or hanging art. This is done by sculpting three dimensional figures onto a flat panel – without detaching them from that panel. This type of woodworking requires years of dedicated practice and is best recommended for more advanced woodworkers, don’t worry – with enough experience and guidance, you too can reach this level.
- Chip Carving: This style is quite similar to relief carving – the same process of removing bits of wood from the surface is the same – but chip carving is done using different tools, and the outcome looks quite different as well. Chip carving is best performed with a chisel and is a technique used to make patterned and textured pieces of wood. Unlike the extremely rounded and detailed figures seen in relief carving, chip carving usually carries out a geometrical pattern by guiding the chisel to cut out little chips of wood.
- Letter Carving: Letter carving is typically carved into the surface of a block of wood. This requires a gouge tool or a small chisel. This carving option is suitable for both beginners and more advanced woodworkers, although it may take a few tries to get the hang of. If you try out this technique, it’s best to practice on scrapwood before you give it a real shot. You can also draw or trace your design onto the wood first to create a guideline for yourself.
- Carving in the Round: You can think of carving in the round as a combination of whittling and relief carving. It’s more polished and refined than the whittling style – like that of relief carving. Unlike relief carving however, this type of carving is supposed to create an object that can be looked at from every which way – relief carvings are only seen from the head on position, since they are flat. This is a great way for beginners to start their woodcarving journey!
What Types of Wood can be Used for Carving?
As a general guideline, the best types of wood that are softer and that have a tight grain. Soft woods are easier to cut and allow for small mistakes, a good choice while beginners are learning their craft. If the grain is looser, it creates more grooves and makes it harder to smooth out and give it that finished look.
Here are the top 3 best types of wood for carving beginners –
- Basswood: This has a very fine grain to it, which makes it ideal for carving beginners. Although it is a hardwood – it is very soft, making it easy to manipulate and transform. Hardwood is beautiful, but usually much more difficult to carve, making this is a win – win situation. Basswood is great for beginners not only because of its physical properties, but also because it is generally inexpensive. If you think you might like woodworking, but don’t wanna break the bank with your new hobby, give basswood a try!
- Butternut: Similar to basswood in its level of softness as well as its small grain, butternut is another great type of wood for beginners to use. The color of butternut is darker than basswood, but otherwise they are very alike.
- Aspen: This wood on the other hand, is a whitewood – similar to pine or the type of wood used for construction framing. Although it is harder than both basswood and butternut, aspen is still a relatively soft wood. If your goal is to carve larger, more functional objects – aspen is recommended for furniture building as well!
The grain of the wood can either be tight and straight, optimal for carving, or loose and wavy which makes for a more challenging piece of wood.
Wood that is very hard and difficult to cut, with looser grains are types of woods that you want to avoid. The harder the wood the more trouble you’ll have carving it. Often when carving hardwood, you’ll have trouble guiding the knife safely. Although it’s not impossible – hardwoods are usually not the first choice for beginners.
Here are the top 3 types of wood that carving beginners should AVOID –
- Oak: This type of wood is very hard and dense. It is often used to hold liquid because of how dense the wood fibers are. This wood is used to create large, more square pieces of furniture because of how durable it can be – this durability also makes it very hard to carve and is best to avoid for those just starting out.
- Pine: The common tools used in woodcarving – chisels, knives, gouges, etc. are all very blunt and used to make direct and precise cuts into chunks of wood. Pine has trouble staying solid when being carved. Pieces often splinter off or crumple up beneath the pressure of the tool. The grain is quite uneven and curvy, making it a real challenge to carve. Advanced wood workers may be able to carve something beautiful out of pine, but beginners may want to save this wood for later in their carving career.
- Balsa: This is actually considered a soft wood, but it may actually be too soft to be an ideal carving wood. Carving away big chunks of balsa wood may be easy, but making small and fine details to balsa wood is the big feat. It’s a very porous wood which makes it more difficult to create lasting detail.
What Wood-Carving Tools Should A Beginner Look For?
There are so many different wood-carving tools out there, but essentially, the tools for this craft consist of knives and gouges. Depending on the specific project you are working on, you may need a variety of specific tools as well. Just as with most tools, the more advanced and knowledgeable you become about woodworking, the easier it will become to pick out the best tools for yourself and the specific projects you wish to complete.
Most tool kits come with a gouge, a knife and a chisel.
Here are the best tools for wood-carving beginners to start off with:
Smaller blades are recommended for beginners for both safety purposes and because they are generally easier to manage than longer blades. A chip carving knife is a great tool for beginners to start out with. Chip carving knives are quite versatile and are used for more than just geometrical carving. Knives are used to smooth out bumpy surfaces from your project and shave off small slivers of wood. Make sure to test out the handles or you may have trouble guiding the knife into place against the grain of the wood.
Gouges: There are a few different types of gouges out there, but they all pretty much do the same thing – gouge. Just like it sounds, this tool digs into the wood and removes little clumps of wood. There are spoon gouges, V gouges and U gouges. Spoon gouges shovel out spoonfuls of wood while V gouges make more precisioned and angled cuts. The U gouge is the one most recommended for beginners. There are a variety to choose from and they are categorized by their length and curvature.
The gouge is one of the most common wood-carving tools
This video goes into great detail about how to classify these tools and pick which one works best for you!
This video details some great information about distinguishing between the different types of wood-carving tools
Chisels and Mallets:
Unlike the chip carving knife, which can be used for all types of carving, chisels are used pretty much exclusively for wood chipping – or removing small angular pieces of wood. Chisels are a standard in any basic wood-carving tool kit. Mallets are usually made of wood or rubber as both pack a powerful punch!
Chisels come in a variety of shapes and sizes
Amazon sells a great starter kit from WAYCOM that includes quite a few beginner materials!
Power Carving Tools
Although power carving isn’t necessary to achieve a beautiful wood-carving – they can be used to compliment hand tools like the ones mentioned above. If you haven’t used a rotary tool before, get comfortable using one before setting out to refine your wood-carving project. If you have experience using power tools, you might find this to be a great way to add a little flare to your standard wood-carving technique. Rotary tools can add detail and depth to projects. Most rotary tools are fairly inexpensive and easy to find – you don’t need to spend a lot to get a quality product when it comes to these types of tools.
Rotary Tool Tips
The best type of bit to use on your rotary tool for giving your work a finished look – is a sanding drum. This is essentially just a very heavy gritted sandpaper. If you’re unsure what size drum you’ll need the ½” size is generally a good place to start. You’ll see that the flat part of the drum is perfect for sanding down large and flat wooden areas while you can use the side of it to reach into crevices. When starting out, use a soft touch and low speed. After some practice guiding your tool at a steady speed, and getting more comfortable with the grit of the sand paper – the rotary tool can add some real dimension to all kinds of projects.
As with any wood oriented project, you’ll want to cover your eyes. Use protective safety goggles to keep wood chips and sawdust out. If you’re really sanding (like with a power sander or rotary tool) you might also want to invest in a ventilator or a simple dust mask. Gloves for home projects are another great wood-carving investment. You can find them made out of mesh steel which is a type of slice proof glove that protects your hands from the various carving tools you’ll be handling.
Always give your full attention to the project at hand, a distracted wood carver is not a safe wood carver. When you’re carving, guide the knife out and away from you – never guide it towards yourself. Remember that a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife. Dull knives require more pressure and can make them more dangerous to handle.
Safety goggles, dust masks and gloves are all recommended safety equipment for wood-carving.
You can find tons of cool project ideas and step by step guides about wood-carving projects
I listed three of my favorites below:
1. Spoon Carving
For this you’ll need a flat piece of wood (oak, maple or hickory are great for spoon making) or use a tree branch. Trace the spoon shape onto the wood, use a gouge to create the spoon’s bowl, and a chipping knife to work away at the sides of the spoon.
Spoons and bowls are one of the best wood-carving practice for beginners
2. Animal Figurine
This project can be as big or as small as you’d like it to be. This is one of the best projects for beginners, because it can be designed quite simply or be made more advanced by increasing the amount of details you create. There are many different guides available for all different kinds of animals.
This simple carving could easily become a more advanced project with more detailing
3. Wooden Ornament
As the holidays quickly approach, think about making customized wooden ornaments for your friends and family
Make ornaments in heart or star shapes to gift to your loved ones
Wood-carving doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. You can find tool kits with all of the beginner tools mentioned above, and even find workbooks for step by step project guides or look online to buy design patterns!
I find wood-carving to be a very rewarding hobby. This craft really allows you to advance at your own pace. Many people use wood-carving meditatively – the practice really slows you down and makes you focus on what’s right in front of you, something that’s not always easy to do. As you guide yourself through beginner projects, this hobby can easily become something that you master.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.