Woodcarving 101

Woodcarving 101

As an experienced woodworker, you do have somewhat of a head start over others starting out in the craft of woodcarving. And just as with your niche work, there are more ways than one to create a beautiful wood carving. The woods used in carving vary greatly in hardness and grain, while the tools alternate between simple chisels, knives and gouges to specialized instruments. It’s believed that wood carvings are one of mankind’s earliest art forms. Unfortunately, very few examples have managed to withstand the damage caused by time, the elements and climate.

Woodcarving Styles

There are no hard and fast rules to woodcarving, although it’s widely accepted that there are four basic types or styles to the craft. As a newcomer to woodcarving, it makes sense to try all four styles to see which niche you’d like to make yours. Choosing a style up front will help you determine the types of tools, research and training you’ll need to learn and hone your woodcarving skills.

Whittling: This is believed to be the original woodworking style. While any tool with a very sharp blade can create those signature strokes, specially designed knives are typically used by wood carvers.

Chip carving: This style is somewhat like whittling in technique, as every chip in the wood is visible. However, every stroke of the chisel or knife is planned to leave a specific pattern on the wood, a skill that takes time and dedication to master.

Relief carving: Also called bas-relief, this style requires carving an often-detailed scene or image into a flat length or piece of wood to create a two-dimensional image with one unique difference – you can feel the contours of the finished piece.

Carving-in-the-round: This style is basically sculpting three-dimensional figures or items out of wood, leaving a smooth, satiny finish on the piece. Mastering this carving style usually requires using specialty tools and investing time and effort into perfecting your skills.

The Best Carving Woods

North America alone produces an impressive range of woods suitable for carving. From basswood to white walnut, cherry and maple to red oak, sycamore and black walnut, all vary in density, harness, softness and grain patterns and strength. When first starting out, it’s best to choose a softer wood with a fine grain that’s entirely devoid of any knots or growth rings.

Lime wood is a good species for a first project. It’s easy to carve, small grained and very forgiving of all types of mistakes that might spoil other efforts. This type of wood varies in color from very light to a straw color.

A Look at Carving Tools

Just as with woodworking, carving requires using the right tools and wood for each specific project and mastering proper carving techniques. Your projects can be as simple or complex as you wish, but the following basic hand tools are vital to any woodcarving shop.

Bench knife: These sharp-bladed knives vary in length from 1 1/4 inch to 3 inches long. It’s used primarily in chip carving and whittling. A good high-carbon steel bench knife will hold a very sharp edge for a long time.

Chisels: These flat-edged tools usually aren’t used for sculpting because the edges are designed to dig into wood. However, if you’re interested in creating a piece with a crude, primitive look, these are the tools to use.

Gouges: These sharp-edged tools are used to remove large amounts of wood at one time and for rough cutting a project. The entire length of each blade is shaped to create a specific cut in the wood. Some basic gouge shapes include the C- and U-shapes, the bent of V-shape, the spoon and back bent shapes.

Adding woodcarving to your woodworking skills can create new ways to expand your creativity. Combining hand tools with wood never fails to result in endless opportunities to give your projects an authentic, detailed look.


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