Best Wood Types for Woodcarving
Workshopshed: Wood carving is known to be a demanding art. Not everyone seems to be able to do it, and you need some skills, knowledge and a lot of practice to get it right. Ashley Ward from Woodworking Toolkit shares her thoughts on what you need to make the best out of your whittling projects
Ashley Ward: The number one reason why woodcarving seems to be so difficult to many is they simply start with the wrong type of wood for the job. A bad choice on the wood will damage your carving tools and may even cause you physical harm.
How to Choose Wood for Carving
In order to choose the best type of wood for your project, here are some factors to take into account:
#1. Choose the wood based on its function
To choose the best type of wood, you need to know for what purpose the art is destined for. Something that will be used in a kitchen, like a spoon or a bowl will need to be made from hardwood that absorbs little moisture. It also needs to be durable and not break on the first bite if it is a spoon.
Furthermore, not all hardwood can be used everywhere. For example, a bowl made out of hardwood like Oak or Ash resists moisture well but is stained very rapidly in contact with oils. Therefore, it cannot be used as a regular bowl for eating as the oils inside food will stain the wood.
On the other hand, whittling art that has no utilitarian value, like a decorative wood plate can be made from both softwood or hardwood.
#2. Softwood is easy to carve and does not dull knives
One of the recurring problems wood carvers face is getting their tools blade dull by using the wrong wood type. It is commonly known amongst professional wood carvers that using a softwood will help prolong the lifespan of the carver’s tool.
Wood like basswood or pine is excellent for producing quality work with little effort. They are easy to carve and will cause limited damage to carving tools.
In contrast to this, hardwood like white oak is difficult to work with and will many times damage the carving tools if not handled properly. It can even cause injuries to the user as blade slippage is frequent on those hard and dense materials.
#3. The wood grain direction decides the finish
When whittling, it can be tedious to carve on wood across the wood grain. This is especially true when carving through hardwood.
A safe bet to get the job done quickly and easily is to strike the blade in the direction of the wood grain. This will result in an easier and more comfortable carving experience. Especially if you are using softwood. It will cleave through it like butter.
However, cutting across the wood grain does have its own advantages. The end result of a counter grain carve is a more refined and polished finish.
Softwoods like basswood give excellent results when used both along or across the wood grain. Try a quick test to see what works best for you.
#4. Ensure the wood is safe and causes no allergies
Not all woods are safe to work with. Some woods are toxic and can cause dermatitis.
Around 5% of users experience an allergic reaction when whittling. This can be skin turning red on contact with the wood.
However, there are some woods that are considered safe for carving. Basswood, oak, pine are safe, among others.
#5. Avoid carving on wood that has a strong smell
Not all woods can be carved. Some woods emit bad odors that can cause headaches.
Additionally, if you are planning to carve wood for commercial purposes then you do not what to sell wood artwork that emits a particularly strong odor. It is bad for business.
#6. Avoid defects when wood carving
Before starting to carve, it is a good idea to inspect the raw wood block for defects. You do not need perfection. A quick judgment call should tell you if the wood is usable or not.
Most of the time, an imperfection that appears on the surface of the wood goes deeper inside the material.
Types of Wood for Wood Carving
Woodcarvers always try different types of wood to experiment on. However, there are some basic tried and tested wood that most professional carvers will vouch for. Here are a few of the popular one:
Possibly the most popular carving wood, basswood is a softwood that is very easy to work with. It can be used to make a wide range of wood art, from spoons, bowls to decorative plates.
This wood has almost no odor and accepts wood stains well. It produces a natural finish and the carver has the choice of carving this wood both across or along the wood grain.
The best thing about basswood is that it can be used to make kitchen utensils like spoons and bowl because it is a food safe wood. It does not give allergies and has a very low odor.
Butternut is a softwood that is equally easy to work with. It tends to give a naturally pinkish finish with coarser wood grains. Similar to basswood, it accepts stains well and has a low odor.
Raw butternut wood tends to have little defects and are fairly inexpensive compared to hardwood prices. An excellent candidate for those on a budget.
This type of wood can also be used for making a fine whittling craft, as it cuts easily with a sharp carving tool and the wood lightweight. Wood artists prefer this wood for many all sorts of wood art.
Walnut is one of the most popular hardwoods used for whittling.
This dark wood has straight wood grains that are best cut with the grain. Due to the high-density of Walnut, it is best carved with a mallet to ease the process of carving.
This wood sets in a natural clean finish that requires very little after work. It resists moisture quite well and kitchen utensils made from Walnut will last a while.
Odor levels of Walnut are tolerable and since this wood needs very little finish, it makes a great natural carved object.
Maple is a tricky hardwood to work with. However, it is still very a popular wood preferred by many wood carvers. The wood grains are coarse and not symmetrically aligned. This wood type demands some planning before it is carved.
Additionally, it also changes form slightly when it comes into contact with moisture and dries up. It is best to use this wood for interior wood art only. Due to the hard nature of this wood, it works best only when carved along the wood grain.
Further, some people have been known to make mild allergies when in contact with Maple. It has a little odor but not overpowering.
Cherry is a reddish-brown wood that sits just between a softwood like basswood and a hardwood like white oak. It has a medium difficulty carving and recommended for intermediate to experienced wood carvers.
The distinction with Cherry wood is the stability. While it shrinks a little bit when it dries, Cherry soon sets into a solid and stable wood that can last a long time. This makes it an ideal wood for making commercial decorative wood items.
It accepts stains well and has little odor. Furthermore, with some decent tools, it can be cut both across or along the wood grain to deliver a varied result. Although, due to the hard nature of Cherry we recommend that it is carved along the wood grain.
All in all, this is an excellent type of wood for decorative art that you potentially plan to sell later.
#6. Red Oak
Red Oak is one of the most difficult types of wood to work with. This redwood requires a mallet to carve and it is quite porous. It should not be carved into objects that make direct contact with water.
These grains are long and big, but it still gives a nice refined finish that requires minimal staining. Red Oak is mostly for professional wood carvers who have the experience and know-how on how to work with this tough wood.
The main advantage of Red Oak is that it lasts a very long time. If cared about properly, a Red Oak artifact can last for centuries.
Mahogany is a new type of hardwood used by wood carvers. It is a reddish-brown wood with straight wood grains. Despite being a hardwood, Mahogany can be carved both along and across the wood grain with relative ease.
Additionally, it is a safe wood that has a weak smell. Both power tools and hand carving tools can safely be used on this wood type. It does not burn easily with a power carver.
It accepts stains well, and it usually sets in a reddish color. Mahogany has a stable form when it can completely dry, and should keep its form for a long time.
Tupelo is a light colored hardwood that has a very fine grain pattern. It is a difficult wood to work with, due to its hardness. This wood is also not very popular within the woodcarving community.
It is recommended to be carved with a power tool rather than your typical wood carving tools. The good thing about this wood type is it does not char or burn easily in contact with power blades. It is also a fairly inexpensive tool when bought in bulk.
As for the finish, it is better to paint Tupelo as the wood grains are too small for a wood stain to give a good result. We recommend Tupelo for intermediate to experience wood carvers as it somewhat demands some skills to work on.
As we’ve seen, choosing the right type of wood plays a crucial role in wood carving. Each wood type works best for a certain project. If you are freshly starting out, it pays to experiment on different woods just to see what works best for your wood carving skills.
In any case, wood carving looks harder than what it actually is. With some practice and a good toolset, you should be able to make beautiful wood art in no time.
About the author
Ashley is an enthusastic woodworker and carver. Her favourite wood for carving is Basswood.
Images thanks to Pixabay.
I am interested in purchasing some wood for a carver friend. Please advise where I can purchase
Hi Julie, I’d recommend “Home of Wood” who are based down in Rye.
Awesome guide because if you pick the wrong wood you are doomed before you even pick up your tools and for beginners, it may be enough to put them off because they think it’s far too difficult.
You’re going to confuse people calling basswood a “softwood.” Yes, basswood is a “soft wood,” but “softwood” means “coniferous,” and basswood is a “dicot” or deciduous tree.
(And what’s so “new” about mahogany? I’ve got 80-year-old books that reference mahogany–and they’re only discussing about a dozen woods!)
Thanks Wendy. Yes basswood/lime is soft but not a softwood :)
And indeed Mahogany has been named as such since the Victorian era and has been in use a lot longer. There are many examples of antique mahogany carvings.
You did not mention cedar. I want to make a natural cedar sign? Any ideas or help.
Cedar is a popular wood for outdoor work as it is naturally rot and insect resistant. Cedar is generally good for carving although red cedar can prove more challenging. There can be a lot of movement in cedar so factor that in when designing fastenings and joints.