What woods are best for hand carving?

Certain woods are better suited to hand carving than others. So, what woods are best for hand carving?
The most common hand-carving woods are basswood, butternut, and maple. Some more obscure ones include American persimmon and black walnut. Hand sculpting is best for small, detailed designs; but for large, detailed carvings, a chainsaw is the best tool choice to use.

Hand carving also known as whittling is a traditional craft that has been practiced since before recorded history began. Ancient cultures have carved figurative and abstract designs into wood. A large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from Peru and Mexico has been discovered, and many of the pieces depict animals and humans.

Carving is one of those skills that can be learned by almost anyone with a sharp knife and some patience. It does not have to be an expensive hobby either; you could carve your piece in just a couple of hours if you have the right tools.

Walnut, Poplar, and Cherry wood are best for beginners because they are easy to carve and they have a good density and grain structure, which gives them a softer touch and smoother finish.

What makes Wood Best For Hand Carving?

When thinking about the specific feature to check when looking for the best woods for hand carving, You will find that it all lies with its grain.

Woodgrain refers to the alignment, texture, and appearance of wood fibers and this determines the pattern the wood will follow. When the tree is cut, the fibers reveal a visual pattern of relatively darker and lighter wood and this is what we are calling grain.

Another thing to consider when choosing the best wood for hand carving is what you want to carve. Some may be thinking of carving kitchenware, for example; spoons and bowls, and in this case, you will have to choose mostly a hardwood that does not absorb moisture and is strong.

Different Types Of Grain

Different types of grains affect the texture of the sawn wood and the level of challenge you will come across when carving. The main different types of grain are; straight grain, cross-grain, spiral grain, and interlocked grain.

Different Types of grain patterns

Straight-grain -This type of grain runs in a single direction along with the cut wood. Examples of straight grain woods include; cherry, hard maple, and cedar. The straight grain types are the easiest to carve.

Cross-grain –The cross-grain comes as a result of some cells growing out from the center of the tree.

Spiral-grain – The spiral grain type develops as the trunk of the tree twists during development.

Interlocked-grain –This type of grain is formed when the growth ring in a twisting trunk develops misaligned grain.

Open Grain

Open grains are woods that have a visible grain spacing and in hardwoods, it comes as a result of the woods growing faster during the spring month than in summer and this causes variety in cell composition. Open grain in hardwoods is also brought by the size of pores

In softwoods, you will find mostly find open grain because they grow faster making the growth rings (which are the grains) to be further apart making them less dense and easier and soft to carve.

Closed grain

Closed grains are woods that barely have spacing between the grains. They have tighter growth rings compared to open grain and this type of wood usually has a straight grain and which gives it more density.

Softwoods also known as the non-porous woods, have pores and the grain structure will mostly be determined by the color difference between springwood and summerwood.

Best Woods For Hand Carving


Basswood is an excellent wood to check when you are thinking of what woods are best for hand carving. It is not too soft and not too hard, so you can use ordinary woodworking tools on it. Basswood is a hardwood that most people confuse with a softwood because of how easy it is to carve.

Basswood has a uniform grain pattern ( but you will have to take a closer look because of the tight grain) and is a very attractive timber that turns a warm honey color when sanded. Carving basswood can be very rewarding, especially if you are carving religious or mythological scenes, for which the wood lends itself perfectly.


Walnut is a very good wood for hand carving and it’s usually striped with light color sometimes you can see darker highlights the woodturning lighter with time. The grains of this type of wood are straight which gives a natural and smooth finish and you will achieve that with ease.

The best way to identify whether a tree is in the walnut family, is to break its twig and at the center of it, you will find a hollow space called the chambered pith. The hollow session have lines running across.


Butternut is a hardwood and it is among the best wood for hand carving I would highly recommend it to a beginner. it has a medium brown color and it resembles American Walnut the difference being it is lighter.

Butternut is straight-grained making it easy and enjoyable to carve. After you use butternut for hand carving, it is very important to apply a preservative treatment because it is susceptible to attack.


Pine is softwood and it is among the best wood for hand carving. There are a lot of pine species (approximately 126 species) and wood texture mostly depends on the species.

This type of wood is straight-grained making it easy for hand carving. When hand carving, make sure that you cave with the grain to produce a good carving and to avoid strain as you carve against the grain.


Poplar wood is also one of the best wood for hand-carving. it has a creamy yellow hue, though it can be brownish.

Poplar wood is straight-grained and with a sharp knife, you will chop it with ease.

Woodgrain effects;

  • The choice of wood you will use for hand carving- The denser the wood grain, the harder it will be to carve. The hardest wood has tightly spaced grain that is almost impossible for hand-carving and you will be resulted to use power tools to simplify your work and save on time.
  • Choice of tool you will use to carve your piece-When hand carving, it is important to use a tool that is very sharp to avoid accidents because blunt tools are more dangerous than sharp ones. You should also make sure that the tools you are using, have a handle with good ergonomics to avoid your hand from fatigue.
  • the type of cutting techniques you will use to hand carve the wood-When hand carving, always make sure that you carve with the grain but not against the grain. Carving against the grain can cause resistance to the wood and this will make carving harder.
  • the type of finish you will use after you are done hand-carving wood-Hardwoods have pores that allows water and air to go through, and when looking the best finish use, in this case, you should consider a finish that seals the pores.


Hoping that I have helped you with the question (what woods are best for carving), here are a few things you need to keep in mind when carving,

  1. Always have a sharp blade.
  2. Wear safety glasses when carving. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
  3. Always work on a sturdy surface that is free of dust and debris (you wouldn’t want to carve through a splinter).
  4. Try to carve outside if possible, so you don’t make an awful mess inside – or even outside if you are working with fresh wood and sap could cause stains on your clothes or furniture.
  5. Be creative (don’t copy existing pieces), and have fun!

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