Can You Carve Plywood?  Best Wood Carving Tips!

can you carve plywood

Welcome to the world of plywood carving, where plain sheets of cheap wood transform into intricate and breathtaking designs. From sculptures to wall hangings, furniture to decorative pieces, plywood carving offers endless possibilities for artists and wood carvers. 

So to answer your question, yes, you can carve plywood!  But where do you start? How do you master the techniques, refine your skills, and find inspiration? 

In this comprehensive guide, I discuss the art of plywood carving, exploring the various techniques, sharing valuable tips, and igniting your imagination with a wealth of ideas.

Whether you’re a seasoned whittler looking to explore a medium other than solid wood or one of our beginning wood carvers, this guide will give you the knowledge and confidence to carve your way to stunning plywood designs.

Tools and Materials to Carve Plywood

Before diving into plywood carving, it’s essential to have the right tools and materials. While some tools may be familiar to you, as a wood carver, others may not. The essential tools for plywood carving include chisels, gouges, mallets, carving knives, carving gloves, sandpaper, and clamps.

These tools allow you to shape, carve, and refine the plywood with precision and accuracy.  You will also need a circular saw, table saw, track saw – this is my favorite!, or CNC machine to break down your full sheet of plywood into more manageable small pieces.

In addition to tools, the choice of plywood is crucial for achieving desirable results. I find it best to use high-quality plywood that is smooth, durable, and free from defects. Baltic birch plywood is a popular choice among plywood carvers due to its strength, stability, and fine grain. It is also less likely to warp or split during the carving process.

Other types of plywood such as hardwood plywood (more on types of plywood below) can also be used depending on the desired effect and project requirements. Remember to choose plywood with a thickness suitable for your intended carving technique and design.

To protect yourself and your workspace, invest in safety equipment such as goggles, a dust mask, and ear protection. These will ensure your safety and comfort throughout the carving process. With the right tools, materials, and safety precautions in place, you’re ready to explore the various techniques of plywood carving.

Plywood Carving Wood Techniques

Plywood carving encompasses a range of different techniques, each offering its own unique characteristics and possibilities. Let’s explore some of the most commonly used techniques in carving plywood:

1: Relief Carving

Relief carving involves carving away the background of the plywood, leaving the design or subject in the raised area. This technique creates a 3D effect and is commonly used in decorative wall hangings and sculptures. Start by sketching your design onto the piece of wood and gradually carve away the excess material to create depth and dimension.

2: Intaglio Carving

Intaglio carving, also known as incised carving, involves cutting or carving into the surface of the plywood to create recessed areas. This technique is often used to create outdoor signs and intricate details. Begin by transferring your design onto the plywood and carefully carve into the surface using sharp tools. Take your time and work slowly to achieve precise and clean cuts.

3: Chip Carving

Chip carving involves removing small chips or wedges of wood from the surface of the plywood to create geometric patterns or designs. This technique is characterized by its repetitive and symmetrical nature. Start by marking out your design using a stencil or compass, and then carefully remove the wood by making small angled cuts. Chip carving requires precision and patience but can result in stunning and intricate patterns.

Remember to practice each technique on scrap plywood before working on your final project. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the tools and techniques and refine your skills before committing to a larger piece. With the right techniques under your belt, let’s move on to some valuable tips for successful plywood carving.

Tips for Successful Plywood Carving

Plywood carving, like any form of whittling, requires practice, patience, and attention to detail. Here are some valuable tips to keep in mind as you embark on your plywood carving journey:

1. Start with a plan: Before picking up your tools, spend some time planning and sketching your design. Visualize the final piece and consider the techniques and tools needed to achieve your vision. Having a clear plan in mind will guide your carving process and help you stay focused.

2. Take it slow: Plywood carving is a meticulous process that requires precision and control. One of the most common mistakes is rushing through the carving process.  To carve plywood, take your time to ensure clean cuts and smooth surfaces. This will result in a more refined and professional-looking finished piece.

3. Practice tool control: Proper tool control is essential for achieving the desired carving effects. Hold your tools securely and use controlled movements to prevent slips or accidents. Practice different grips and angles to understand how they affect the carving process.

4. Use a light touch: Plywood is relatively soft compared to other woods, so a light touch is often enough to achieve the desired results. Applying too much force can lead to splintering or breaking the plywood. Let the sharpness of your tools do the work, and allow the wood to guide your carving motion.

5. Experiment with different textures: Plywood carving offers endless possibilities for creating different textures and finishes. Try using various carving techniques, such as stippling, scorching, or sanding, to add depth and visual interest to your piece. Don’t be afraid to experiment and push the boundaries of what plywood can do.

By following these tips and incorporating them into your plywood carving practice, you will gradually improve your skills and achieve more impressive results. Now that we have covered the essential tools, techniques, and tips, let’s explore the world of carve plywood patterns and designs for inspiration.

Choosing the Right Plywood for Carving

When it comes to carving plywood sheets, choosing the right type of wood is crucial for the success of your project. While your lumber yard may carry many different types of plywood, not all are suitable for carving. Here are some factors to consider when selecting plywood for carving:

1. Plywood Thickness: The thickness of the full sheet of plywood will depend on the intricacy of your design and the carving technique you plan to use. Thicker plywood provides more stability and allows for deeper carving, while thinner plywood is more suitable for intricate and delicate designs.  You can also create much thicker pieces by gluing several layers of plywood together, refer to the example project below.

2. Plywood Grade: Plywood is graded based on the quality of its veneer layers. A higher-grade plywood will have fewer knots, voids, and defects, resulting in a smoother and more consistent carving surface. Choose a grade that aligns with the level of detail and finish you desire for your project and of course what your budget allows.

3. Plywood Species: Different species of wood have unique characteristics and grain patterns, which can greatly influence the final appearance of your carving. Popular species for plywood carving include Baltic birch, oak wood, cherry wood, and walnut. Consider the color, grain pattern, and hardness of the wood species to achieve the desired aesthetic for your project.

4. Plywood Finish: Some plywood sheets comes pre-finished with a clear varnish or paint, while others are left unfinished. Consider whether you want to preserve the natural beauty of the wood or apply your own finish. 

5. Treated Plywood: Do not use treated plywood for carving purposes, whether it’s hand carving or power carving.  The chemicals used in the treatment are harmful and should not be handled or inhaled as small pieces of wood or sawdust.

By carefully considering these factors and selecting the right plywood for your carving project, you can ensure optimal results and a finished piece that meets your expectations. Now that we have covered the technical aspects of plywood carving, let’s dive into the creative side and explore various patterns and designs.

Hand Carving Plywood

Hand carving plywood is not as easy as power-carving plywood. Hand carving plywood takes plenty of practice, but is the most cost effective way for beginners to learn.

However, hand-carving plywood is doable, and some prefer it. To carve plywood using hand tools, your tools must have a very sharp edge.

The quality of the plywood may also contribute to how successful the outcome will be. The softer plywood like Baltic Birch will be easier to hand carve.

Use shallow cuts on the plywood surface to avoid splitting it.  If necessary, go back over the cut multiple times to create a deeper groove.

Power Carving Plywood

My preference for carving plywood is using power tools to power-carve the material.  Many carvers, like the artist below, produce remarkable plywood sculptures using power tools.

With power carving plywood, the most common tool is the rotary tool, like a Dremel or similar brand. Other great tools include the die grinder and the angle grinder, these tools make quick work of removing material.  However, patience and a gentle touch are still required to create a beautiful end product.

can you carve plywood
Aircraft-grade plywood Ultima Thule Artwork in Emma Modern Aer Museum Espoo, Finland

Carving Plywood Example

For demonstration purposes we will follow the steps of woodworker Andrzej Gdynia. Here is an example on how to carve plywood.

Step #1: Glue Up The Plywood

Gluing plywood together gives a thicker carving medium. Always ensure that you apply enough glue as the end grain can wick up a lot of glue.

Glue up the plywood

Step #2: Setting Up The Structure

Smart layout work can save you time and prevent wasting plywood.  Good setup starts from the design and a plan.  Take this birdhouse, the priority of stacking the plywood pieces is only at the necessary parts of the birdhouse.

Setting up the structure

Step #3: Carving The Plywood

Carving can begin once the piece has been glued together, and has fully dried. To avoid trouble, it’s always safer to only aim at shaving shallow passes of plywood. The deeper cuts are notorious for creating splits.

Carving the plywood

Step #4: Finishing Your Carved Plywood

A good coat of polyurethane, or your favorite wood carving sealer, will go a long way to protecting your newly carved plywood piece. Staining prior to the poly will bring out the intricate detail of the the individual plys of wood.

finishing your carved plywood

Summary: Can You Carve Plywood?

You bet you can carve plywood!  From choosing the right tools and materials to exploring various carving techniques, patterns, and designs, you now have the knowledge and confidence to embark on a creative journey in plywood carving.

Remember to practice, experiment, and continuously refine your skills to push the boundaries of what plywood can do. Whether you choose to create sculptures, wall hangings, furniture, or decorative pieces, let your imagination guide you and enjoy the process of transforming plain sheets of wood into breathtaking works of art.  Happy carving!

Author: Hadwin Fisher

Hi, my name is Hadwin. I've been a long time wood carver and whittler. My day job is as a carpenter, but I like to work on and write about my wood carving hobby on the weekends and evenings. I hope you enjoy learning from my past experiences!

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