What Woods are Best for Hand Carving?

wood for hand carving

Your Guide to Choosing the Ideal Wood for Hand Carving

Are you ready to unleash your creativity and bring your hand carving skills to life? The first step to creating a masterpiece lies in choosing the right wood. But with so many options available, how do you know which one is ideal for your project? 

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the different types of wood commonly used in hand carving and help you make an informed decision. Whether you’re a seasoned woodworker or a beginner, understanding the characteristics of each wood variety is crucial to achieving remarkable results.

From the dense and fine-grained texture of maple to the rich and warm tones of cherry, we’ll delve into the unique properties of various woods and their suitability for different carving techniques. Discover which types of wood are best for chip carving, relief carving, intricate details, bold and dramatic designs, or delicate accents.

Get ready to take your carving skills to the next level with our expert advice and recommendations on selecting the perfect wood for your next wood carving project. Unleash your creativity and craft breathtaking masterpieces that will stand the test of time.

Woodworking Projects for Hand Carving

Carve a wooden spoon – Wooden spoon carving is pretty straighforward and can be accomplished with simply hand tools and readily available wood types.  I like to use butternut wood; it’s an excellent carving wood and holds up well to actual use as kitchen utensils.

Small carvings of birds – You can get as detailed as you wish.  Trace, then rough out a bird shape and start whittling.  You’ll be surprised at how quickly it comes together!  Once sanded smooth, I like to use a wood burning pen to create light lines that represent feathers.  Here’s a picture of some cardinals that my grandfather and I made many years ago:

wood for hand carving

Fishing lures – Carving a floating fishing lure is a fun task and especially rewarding when it actually works to catch fish.  You can order the hooks and hardware online, or just salvage it from another fishing lure you have. Add a little paint and you’re ready for the catch of the day!

Is Hard Wood or Soft Wood Better for Carving?

Soft wood will make your carving easier, but you’ll be giving up durability and character for the ease of carving. Wood selection is a critical aspect of hand carving. The type of wood you choose will impact the final outcome of your project.

There are three main categories of wood for hand carving: softwoods, hardwoods, and exotic woods. Let’s take a closer look at each category and the characteristics that make them suitable for carving.

Soft Wood for Hand Carving

Softwoods, as the name suggests, are woods that are relatively soft and easy to work with.  By definition, softwoods are coniferous trees – think evergreen trees like white pine, spruce, balsa wood and cedar wood. Soft woods are often preferred by beginners due to their forgiving nature and ease of carving, especially when using hand tools. Softwoods are known for their straight grain, which makes them ideal for carving intricate details.

Pine is a popular softwood for hand carving. Pine is readily available, affordable, and easy to carve. It has a light color and a straight grain that allows for precise carving. Pine wood is a great wood for someone just learning woodcarving, to get their feet wet to see if they like carving – it’s cheap and super easy to find.

Although not a coniferous softwood, basswood is the best wood for hand carving (Janka Hardness Rating of 410 lbf), and is favored by many professional wood carvers. Basswood has a fine texture and is easy to shape, making it perfect for intricate designs, and it’s also fairly easy to find at a decent price.

wood for hand carving

Cedar and cypress wood are two more softwoods that I really like to use.  They both offer great rot and insect resistance for projects that may be used outdoors, while being light in weight and easier to carve due to their soft nature.

Want the softest wood for carving?  Balsa is VERY soft, with a Janka Hardness of just 70 lbf.  Balsa is often used for small lightweight model planes and gliders.  Balsa is a great wood for younger carvers or beginners that want to experience carving but don’t have the strength or knowledge base to use a more challenging wood type.

Hard Wood for Hand Carving

Hardwoods, on the other hand, are usually denser and more durable than softwoods.  Hardwoods are, by definition, deciduous trees, meaning they lose their leaves every year – think red and white oak, maple wood, birch, cherry wood and walnut. They offer a wide range of colors and wood grains, making them suitable for a variety of carving styles. Hardwoods are a good wood for creating bold and dramatic designs.

A good entry-level hard wood for hand carving is Poplar, or yellow poplar.  Poplar has a Janka Hardness Rating of 540 lbf, so it’s slightly harder than basswood, but easier to carve than soft maple.  Poplar is also very sustainable, easy to find at a home center and on the lower end for cost.

Possibly my favorite hardwood for hand carving is cherry. Cherry is known for its beauty, strength and durability, making it ideal for larger projects. It has a prominent coloring that adds character to the carved piece. With a Janka Hardness Rating of 995 lbf, Cherry wood is more challenging to carve with hand tools but still worthy of hand carving.  

Another hard wood option is black walnut. Walnut is a good choice due to its rich, dark coffee-colored wood grain and fine texture. It is often used for carving furniture and decorative pieces.  Black Walnut is slightly harder than cherry wood, so it should be used by experienced hand carvers as it will be a little more difficult to work with without power tools.

Exotic Woods for Hand Carving

If you’re looking to add a touch of uniqueness to your hand-carved creations, consider using exotic woods. Exotic woods come in a wide range of colors, grains, and textures, offering endless possibilities for creativity. These woods are often more expensive and harder to source, but the results are worth it.

One exotic wood that carvers love is ebony. Ebony is known for its deep black rich color and smooth texture. It is highly prized for its beauty and is often used for carving intricate details. Another exotic wood option is rosewood. Rosewood has a reddish-brown color and a distinct fragrance. It is often used for carving musical instruments and decorative items.

Choosing a Species of Wood for Hand Carving

When choosing wood for hand carving, there are several factors to consider. These factors will influence the ease of carving, the final appearance of the piece, and its overall durability.

One important factor is the density of the wood. Dense woods, such as oak and ebony, are harder to carve even with power tools but offer greater durability. Softer wood, like pine and basswood, are easier to carve but may not withstand wear and tear as well.

Grain pattern is another consideration. Straight grain woods, like pine, are ideal for intricate details. Harder woods with more pronounced grain patterns, like oak, can add visual interest to the carved piece.

It’s also important to consider the color and texture of the wood. Some carvers prefer lighter woods for their ability to showcase intricate carving details, while others prefer darker woods for a more dramatic effect.

Lastly, availability and cost should be taken into account. Some woods, especially exotic varieties, may be harder to find and more expensive. It’s essential to weigh these factors against your budget and the desired outcome of your project.

Where to Find High-Quality Carving Wood

Finding high-quality carving wood is crucial for achieving the best results. Here are a few places where you can find top-notch wood for your hand carving projects:

1. Local lumberyards: Visit your local lumberyard and inquire about their selection of carving woods. They almost always have a variety of options available, including both softwoods and hardwoods.

2. Specialty woodworking stores: Look for specialty woodworking stores in your area. These stores often carry a wide range of carving woods, including exotic varieties.

3. Online suppliers: The internet offers a vast array of options when it comes to purchasing carving wood. Look for reputable online suppliers that specialize in woodworking materials.  I’ve purchased whittling kits and carving wood blocks from Amazon several times.  The quality has been very good, and Amazon is  great choice for fast shipping.

4. Woodworking clubs and associations: Joining a woodworking club or association can be a great way to connect with fellow carvers and gain access to valuable resources, including recommendations for reliable wood suppliers.

5.  Here at Whittling Cave:  I have several long basswood beams that I use with my decoy carving.  If you need any basswood blocks, let me know how many and what size (Contact Us – Nick) and I can send you the price – it’s reasonable!

Before purchasing wood, it’s important to inspect it for any defects or imperfections. Look for wood that is free of cracks, knots, and warping and has uniform grain if possible. Additionally, consider purchasing dry wood that has been properly kiln-dried or seasoned to prevent future issues.

Preparing Wood for Carving – Drying, Seasoning, and Storing

Properly preparing wood for carving is essential to ensure its stability and longevity. Here are some key steps to follow when preparing wood for carving:

1. Drying: Freshly cut green wood contains a high moisture content, which can cause the wood to shrink, crack, or warp over time. It’s important to allow the wood to dry naturally before carving. This can be done by storing the wood in a dry and well-ventilated area for several months or by using a kiln to speed up the drying process.

2. Seasoning: Seasoning green wood involves removing excess moisture, to create dry wood. This prevent issues with cracking and splitting along the wood grain when done in a controlled and slow manner. Once the wood is dry, it should be carefully stacked and stored in a controlled environment for an extended period. This allows the wood to stabilize and reach an equilibrium moisture content.

3. Storing: Proper storage is crucial to prevent damage to the wood. Wood should be stored in a dry and well-ventilated area, away from direct sunlight and extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations. It’s also important to stack the wood in a way that allows for proper air circulation between layers to avoid mold or mildew growth.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your wood is ready for carving and will withstand the test of time.

Tools and Techniques for Carving Different Types of Wood

Different types of wood require different tools and techniques for carving. Here are some general guidelines to consider:

1. Softwoods: Softwoods are relatively easy to carve and can be worked with a variety of tools, this is the ideal wood type if you’re a hand carver. For intricate details, consider using hand tools such as small gouges and chisels. Larger gouges and power tools are suitable for shaping and roughing out the design.

2. Hardwoods: Hardwoods require sharp tools due to their density. High-quality carving gouges and chisels are essential for achieving clean cuts. When relief carving, consider using mallets or hammers to aid in carving hardwoods.  Power tools, such as angle grinders really help power carvers and can be used by beginners as well (used carefully, of course!)

3. Exotic woods: Exotic woods, with their unique characteristics, may require specialized tools. Consult with experienced carvers or woodworking specialists to determine the best tools for the different woods you are working with.

Regardless of the type of wood, it’s important to keep your carving tools sharp and well-maintained. Dull tools can lead to rough cuts, splintering, and overall frustration. Regularly sharpening and honing your tools will ensure a smooth carving experience and better results.

Tips for Preserving and Finishing Hand Carvings

Preserving and finishing your hand-carved wood pieces is essential for enhancing their beauty and protecting them from damage. Here are some tips to consider:

1. Sanding: After carving, sanding the wood smooths out any rough edges or tool marks. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper and gradually move to finer grits for a polished finish.

2. Sealing: Applying a sealer or finish to the carved wood can help protect it from moisture, dirt, and UV damage. Choose a finish that suits the type of wood and the desired appearance of the piece.

3. Waxing: Waxing the finished wood can enhance its natural beauty and provide an extra layer of protection. Beeswax or specialized wood waxes are commonly used for this purpose.

4. Display and storage: Properly displaying and storing your hand-carved pieces can significantly extend their lifespan. Avoid placing them in direct sunlight or areas with extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations.

Regular cleaning and maintenance are also crucial for preserving the beauty and integrity of your hand-carved wood pieces. Dusting with a soft cloth and periodically applying a fresh coat of wax can help keep them looking their best.

What’s Next?

Choosing the ideal wood for hand carving is a crucial step in creating breathtaking masterpieces. By understanding the unique characteristics of different species of wood, considering important factors, and using the right tools and techniques, you can bring your wood carving visions to life.

Remember to source high-quality carving wood from reputable suppliers, properly prepare the wood for carving, and finish your pieces to preserve their beauty and integrity. With practice, patience, and a passion for the craft, you can unlock the full potential of hand carving.

Want to take a deeper dive into a particular wood type? We have a library of articles on different wood types, and we are expanding it every week!

Author: Nick Sullivan

I'm a seasoned fella who's been whittling sticks and carving wood for four decades. I find joy in creating intricate wooden wonders that tell stories of old and help my readers expand their woodcarving knowledge. I hope you find my articles helpful and they answer your whittling questions. Please don't hesitate to reach out to me if you have any additional questions or just to say hi! Thanks for reading and Happy Carving!

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