Wood carving is such beautiful art that has crept into the life of man for a long time. For everyone who appreciates art, the place of woodwork is not something you can shove aside. It is the creation of beautiful, meaningful images by carving woods. Wood carving is not something you wake up and find yourself perfect at. It requires a lot of practice, guidance, and patience. It would be best if you equipped yourself with the right tools. And today, I’ll take you through how to start wood carving.
The first thing to know is the types of carvings done on wood. This knowledge will help you to choose your style and techniques. There are four main styles of woodcarving, and the same tools are not always used for each.
The four types of wood carving are:
- Carving in the Round
- Relief Carving
- And Chip carving.
Carving in the round
Carving in the round is a three-dimensional wood carving. According to its name, the sculpture can be seen roundabout, from all angles, unlike relief that can be seen only at a set angle. It is the most life-like sculpture. When detailed, you might find it hard in some instances to believe it’s not a real object.
Whittling is a subsidiary of carving in the round. It is the use of a knife, probably a pocket knife or most preferably, a whittling knife to make sculptures in the round. These knives create marks in the wood and give it a particular design peculiar to Whittling only. A whittled sculpture is always left unsanded to show the knife marks.
When figures are made in a flat panel of wood, it is called relief carving. Relief carving is three-dimensional from the front, but the back remains flat. A relief carving can be defined as ‘high relief’ or ‘low relief’ depending upon how deep it is to the surface.
Chip carving is like a relief carving because it is also made in a flat panel of wood. Like relief, it is three dimensional from the front while the back remains flat. Except that with chip carving, the wood is chipped off little by little using knives, chisels, and hammers. It is one of the most simple styles of carving. It is also the most precise and requires considerable practice to become skilled.
Theoretically, chip carvings have just two levels: the wood surface and the point beneath the surface where the tools have made depression. For me, I’d call whittling and chip carving, carving techniques. They are just ways by which you can get your carving done, with whittling for carving in the round and chip carving for relief.
The only thing is just that these two carving techniques or types are best for miniature. Whittling is suitable for modeling tiny sculptures as you get control over your wood with a tool you’re probably acquainted with. In contrast, chip carving is used for making detailed patterns that can be of a free form style or based on geometric shapes such as triangles, circles, lines, and curves. Therefore, you must choose the style of carving you want to begin with to know what tools you need.
Softwood Or Hardwood?
For wood carving, purchasing labeled, higher quality wood from a craft store, web store, or wood supplier is more reliable than picking a good looking wood from the chimney pile. The manufacturer has considered your needs and placed them on demands. They know what wood to buy than someone new to carving.
It is a general rule to start wood carving with softwood. This makes learning easy. But what woods are soft, and what are the easiest woods to carve?
In the world of wood carving, there are two types of wood: hardwood and softwood. As the names imply, the woods are separated according to their strength.
Softwoods are the best for beginners. They are lightweight and have light grain that is quickly swept off. Some softwood can even be carved with a healthy fingernail. Butternut, white pine, and basswood are examples of softwood. They are easy to carve. Basswood is the softest. It’s so soft it tagged the best for whittling as you can turn it into anything with just a pocket knife.
Basswood also has a fine long grain. Butternut and white pine are also acceptable. But because of lower density, softwoods have bad decay and fire resistance and produce tannins- a kind of sticky sap that can influence wood carving’s comfort.
Hardwoods are woods with high density. They are not as easy to carve as softwoods, but they last longer than softwoods. They also don’t produce sticky sap that can ruin carving like softwood.
Softwood does tend to be less dense than deciduous trees, and therefore easier to cut, while most hardwoods tend to be thicker and thus sturdier. Note that not all hardwood has high density and is challenging to work with, the same as not all softwood is soft and suitable for hand carving. But I have written a list of woods that are easy to carve, and you can find them here.
Now that you know what woods are best for beginners let’s talk about grain. Understanding grain is a plus to wood carving. I’m just going to talk a little about this as it’s a topic on its own. The grain is the long parallel lines that run on the surface of the wood. Generally, there are two categories of grain- straight and cross grain.
Straight grain runs in only one direction, which is parallel to the longitudinal axis of the piece. Cross-grain doesn’t run longitudinal but deviates from the longitudinal axis. There are two types of cross-grain: spiral grain or diagonal grain. I’ll tell you a little about carving grains. They are not always used but by professionals, but this will help you understand when I start talking about some grain terms.
- Carving with the grain: this is when you’re going with the grain’s flow, following the parallel lines that run across the wood. It is easy, always giving a clean result.
- Carving against the grain: as the name implies, it is going against the wood. It is heavy going; giving a poor result like chipping or tear-out)
- Carving across the grain: The cut’s direction is across the grain lines, but the cut’s plane is still aligned with them.
- Carving end grain: this is carving at right angles to the grain, for example, trimming the end of a plank.
Which way to carve?
For beginners, you will need to carve with or along the grain. It is always easy and produces a better result
Wood Carving Tools For Beginners
One thing about wood carving is that you don’t have to buy expensive equipment to get started. It is the heart’s skill and in the hands that counts, not the costly tool to woodcarvers. If Whittling is the carving style you are interested in, as it’s the easiest, there are a few things you need to consider. Though a pocket knife is a standard tool, Chip carving knives are your best option. You will need to get yourself a set of good Whittling knives to get started on a high note. High-quality tools will be hand-made with tempered steel that will cut better and last longer than DIY low-quality stuff.
The blades are roughly 1.5 inches (3.5 cm) long, and the wooden handles are long enough to sit comfortably in your hand. As a newbie, maybe for commitment’s sake, you don’t want to invest yet? A craft knife or utility knife can do (one with high carbon steel is a plus. It will stay long before it goes blunt). Just make sure that the blade is sharp and fixed. Remember also to hold the handle for prolonged periods without experiencing discomfort, or else a hobby would turn into punishment.
When I first heard of wood carving, the first thing that came to my mind is a chisel. And by a chisel, I mean those flat-backed woodworking chisels. It was after a long time that I realized there were differences between these two. A wood carving chisel differs from ordinary woodworking chisels because they- the wood carving chisels- have a bevel on both sides of the blade rather than a flat back. Along the way, wood carving chisels further diversify into chisels and gouges. And you can vividly see these differences on the blades.
The blade of a woodworking chisel has a straight edge, that of a wood carving gouge has a curved edge. This enables the tool to “gouge” out of the wood to create different shapes. To start wood carving, you need to be well acquainted with all the tools. Can you imagine a woodcarver who was asked to bring a straight chisel and is submitting a woodworking chisel? Yes, that was me, and I wouldn’t want you too to be. The two look alike. Yes, they look alike, but there are distinct differences. And I’ll take you through this.
The Wood Carving Straight Chisels
This is a straight wood carving chisel. As I said earlier, a wood carving chisel is, specifically, a carving tool with a flat blade. The bevel on the blade differentiates the wood carving chisel from the general one.
The skew chisel has a blade skewed at an angle, typically 45°. The plane, make different shaped cuts with the skew chisel or use it to make dovetail cuts. You get these chisels in various sizes from 1/8″ to 1½”.
A fishtail chisel is exactly like the name. Easy to recognize, it is straight from the handle and spreads at the tip like a fishtail. This tool is perfect for making deep cuts. A mallet can beat chisels. A mallet is a light hammer used to push wood carving tools to make an impression on wood. Traditional mallets are generally made of heavy wood, but rubber mallets are less noisy, and they cause less damage to the handle of the chisel upon repeated impact.
Read Also: What is the easiest wood to carve?
Another tool you’ll need to equip yourself with is the gouges. Gouges are curved tools used to “scoop” the wood to form different shapes instead of cutting it. It is a crucial tool in reliefs and an option in wood carving. Gouges are chisels with curvatures. They come in a vast variety of curvatures, from nearly straight to a very tight arc. There are three basic types of Gouges. The U-Gouges, the V-Gouges, and The Bent and Spoon Gouges. There are other types of Gouges for woodturning, but these are these basics.
U-gouges have curved shafts and curved cutting edges. Note that the cutting edges vary in width right between 1/16 inch (2 mm) and 2-3/8 inches (60 mm), and the shape of the shaft can be straight, bent, back-bent, or spoon.
V-gouges have angled tips that meet in a “V” shaped point. This tool helps us to cut a workpiece from the main block of wood while doing woodturning. The cutting edge of V Guoges can range in width between 1/16 inch (2 mm) and 1-2/5 inch (30 mm). The sides can also meet at a 60-degree or 90-degree angle.
Next up is The bent and Spoon Gouges.
There is a lot of spoon Gouges, and they serve unique purposes. There are spoon Gouges (right corners), Spoon Gouges (left corners), Spoon gouges (front bent), Spoon Gouges ( back bent)
These tools mentioned above help dig into corners that might be hard to access with an ordinary Guoge or just a chisel. As a beginner, you need to equip yourself with just a few of these. Get a set of gouges as that’s how they’re sold at craft stores. The basic ones you need have been coupled to meet your needs. And if you’re for carving in the round, you should get a set of carving chisels or a whittling knife. Some carvers prefer to use Guoges alongside whittling knives when whittling.
Power tools for wood carving
Outside physical strength, another way to carve is by using power tools. A power tool is a mechanized wood carving tool. It helps reduce manual labor in big projects and also in small projects. A chain saw is a popular example.
There are a lot of power tools to help you out in the stead of beating a chisel.
Electronic wood chisel carving tool.
The electronic wood chisel carving tool is the first tool I’d recommend is a power tool. It works for both chisel and Gouges. It is okay with both miniature and large sculpture as it comes in a variety of sizes.
Rotary tools are mechanized carving tools with multi-purpose functions. They are handheld fast-rotating motor connected to a spindle to which you can attach a tool. There are varieties of accessories and attachments for rotary tools, such as carving heads, cutting wheels, sanding bits, and polishing tools to tackle different tasks workplace.
Nowadays, power tools now have come with wireless features. You don’t need them plugged into a power source to have them working. Cordless rotary tools are more versatile and allow you to get into tight areas that corded tools just can’t. They help most in closed grounds in relief as you don’t need to exert pressure on tight corners when you get to one.
The accessories and attachments for a rotary tool are many and varied in their purpose and design. For wood carving, there are tools just like you’d use on basics. It Has chisels, gouges, and even knife tools.
How to use a power tool?
It is as easy as anything should be. First, there’s the spindle, which is the part that spins because. The spindle is usually threaded to accept the collet and the collet nut. The collet is the tool head you want to use, either the gouge or the chisel. The spindle nut holds down this spindle and helps you work fast.
The body of the power tool is delft explanatory.
The all-important part is the power button, easily seen on the body. And then the speed control. That, too, is self-explanatory. After activating these, you can now apply the machine as you’d do with an ordinary manual tool. Take it slow like you’d with The tools.
Another mechanized tool is the power sander. You don’t necessarily need this as it’s best for large flat wood. But if I don’t tell you, I’m limiting your artwork to just an ordinary model. You don’t know if you’re the next Aron Demets.
How to Start Wood Carving
The first step is to know what wood is carvable and what’s not. And secondly, what tool works for what technique or type. And now, let’s try out these techniques. Let’s start with whittling. Whittling has the most basic materials. With whittling, you’re a go with a good sharp knife. Remember I told you, a high-quality whittling knife would get the job faster and better as the manufacturers have made enough measures to satisfy woodcarvers. But a sharp knife is good to go since it is the skill in the heart and the hand that matters, not just expensive tools.
To get started, you’ll need some woodblocks. You can always get this in your local store or at any web store. But for now, if you don’t want to spend on these, get any wood. You’re getting into your trial and error period, and that might be too expensive. (You can get it if you don’t mind anyway, I’m just cutting cost)
Knife positioning and handling.
Before we dive in too deep, let’s get over holding the knife correctly. When you’re handling whatever tool it is, make sure your hand is behind the cutting edge. Tools slip a lot while working, and your hand might get in the way if you mishandle it. This is not just a safety measure. It helps you carve faster and correctly.
When I’m working with knives, I grasp the wood with my non-dominant hand- which is left. Then, I keep my right hand behind the knife of the knife while carefully pressing the thumb of that hand against the knife’s blunt side to help control it. I call that gripping. Holding the knife in place. Next, you hold your non-dominant hand steady with the block of wood, rotate your dominant hand and wrist to make the desired cut.
Carving along the grain
With your hand positioned well with the knife, cut into the wood in a scooping motion. Make sure you go along the long parallel grain lines. Dip your knife into these lines of grains.Don’t force it too much, and don’t go too deep. Going too deep would get the knife stuck. And if it gets stuck because you carved too deep into the wood or the grain orientation changed, stop and backtrack. Backtrack, but do not carve up against the grain.
Always cut along the grain, always. Cutting against the grain will make the wood splitter and render your effort useless. If the wood begins to tear as you carve it even though the tool is sharp, then you’re carving in the wrong direction. Switch to the opposite direction and recheck the results. Another way to know if you’re going against the grain is by listening to the sound of the knife.
You can hear the difference between carving with, against, and across the grain every time, and when you’ve practiced well, you’ll understand better. Cut, cut, cut… Whittle away. Make mistakes and correct them. You can always drop your challenges in the comment box, and I’ll be there waiting to fix you.
After these test cuts, let’s try going into depth.
By now, you know and have experienced enough to know you’ll need safety goggles to protect your eyes from dust and gloves to protect your hand from cut. Thus glove would do well on your non-dominant hand to protect slipping cuts. Some professionals don’t use or wear gloves and goggles.
Sketch Your Design.
As a beginner, you may need to sketch your design on your woodblock. This will serve as a guideline. It would help you from miscalculating the shapes of your carving, as any mistake might make you alter your design or start over with another block.
Hold Firmly The Wood.
If you’re not making a miniature that your hand can hold firmly, make sure to clamp it onto a table. Never try to sculpt or carve with wood on your laps.
When Carving With Chisels.) You cut the basic shapes with a knife when you’re dealing with carving. You follow the same steps with whittling. You first make sketch your design and chip it off little by little. Slowly, do it at your own pace—no need rushing since you’re just a beginner.
Speed doesn’t always make an artist. After cutting out the basic shape, you can then move on to add fine details. This works for both whittling and craving in the round. For whittling, if you’ve gotten your desired shape, no need to sand. Have you heard of the phrase “Celebrate your scars?” It’s the most applicable for whittling. The knife marks are the primary significance of whittling. For carving in the round, you can proceed after you’ve finished carving. You might not like the chisel’s look on your work as it would alter the real-life appearance.
There are two types of relief. The low relief and high comfort. This is divided by how deep the chisel goes into the wood. Low relief is closer to the wood with shallow depth, while high relief is farther from the surface. High relief is best for the bust, and it could emulate sculptures in the round. Examples are the Roman sculptures. They, too, are almost life-like.
Today, I’ll take you through the easy step of low relief. The only difference between carving low or high relief is how deep the Gouges go into the wood. In “low relief,” the depth is shallow, and the carving feels relatively light. Traditionally, the background of low relief is called “Ground.” A ground, i.e., the background, can be of two places. It can be ‘open’ or ‘closed.’
When the ground is open, it is easily accessible by tools. And when it is closed, it’s surrounded by wood that you’d need to save, thereby getting tricky to remove. One needs to be careful around closed grounds, or else you’d remove your design in the process of removing the background.
Sketch your subject
Like every other art, you will need to sketch your design. This will be a guideline for you as you begin carving. You can use any method of your choice, draft it out, and place it on your board. It would help if you had a neat, accurate outline of your subject, whatever you choose. Make the outlines of the subject clean, simple, and flowing. They should be large enough for you to make enough mistakes and cover-up without a lot of fussy details. Details might stress you and demotivate you. You don’t need to map out the sewer channel yet; start simple. Remember, less is more.
Transfer Your Design To The Wood
Now that you’ve chosen a good design with minimum detail and a clean, simple outline. Place a print of your subject (our sketch) on your board. It will be better to use transparent paper to still see your wood in between the sketch.
Lining in is when you carve a trench on the waste side around your subject’s outline in a smooth flowing line. Lining on helps you later in the process, so you don’t have to move too close to the subject and run the gouge into the subject element when you are “grounding out. A v gouge is the best in this situation.
Lower The Background
Now that you’ve outlined your object, you need to start carving out the open area. Removing the open area is known as grounding out. When you ground or ground out, the rest that you’ve chosen not to carve out will look evenly bulged. That’s the same effect we want. That beveled part is what we want.
Hold a wide, medium gouge in a low-angle grip, and carve across the grain from the outside inward. Start from where you are towards the artwork. Be careful not to run the gouge into the element.
Closing in on the Ground
Remember ground closing? That’s what we’ll be doing now. After you’ve removed the background, now move close to the elements. Remove the waste in the tight areas. Use narrower gouges on the enclosed areas. The thinner the gouges, the detailed the element can be. Take care that you do not go below the depth of the V-tool cut. Be careful, as we’re still going to come back to refine the lines. Just do your best.
Level The Background
Use the largest gouge possible and slice across the grain using the low-angle grip. Remove the ridges and any torn grain before moving to the next area. Level the closed grounds as much as possible. Bevels might make your art look rough. Make sure your tools are sharp. Stay away from the characters at this point. You can get to that later.
Get a good gouge that matches with the curve of the element you’re refining. Hold the gouge in a high-angle grip – like you would when your cutting stencil. Or like you’re holding a pencil. Push the gouge down towards the ground at a slight angle, so the elements’ wall slopes out. Ease the tool out and continue around the curve. Use a skew chisel to make stop cuts wherever the pieces end at a corner.
Slice The Long Curves
Use sharp flat gouges. Hold it in high angle grip and stencil out the curves in the open grounds. Be careful. You can’t get this right on the first try. But give it your very best. You can’t tell what’s in you yet. Finish the closed grounds now carving slowly and changing tools. I can’t recommend a tool as each work, each ground, and each corner differs in works.
By now, you’d see that your work has formed. If you’re satisfied with your relief, you can move to finishing. If not, you can keep on smoothing the close grounds. Just be careful not to over smoothening and lose the design.
Finish The Artwork
Remove your sketch from the board and sandpaper the surface. Sand the ground too. After sanding, check the elements’ surface edges to make sure you have clean, neat lines. You can lightly sand the sides also to get clean edges.
Protect the Artwork
After sanding, you can hang your artwork. However, if you’re satisfied with your work and deem it fit to be preserved, there are varieties of wood finish that can protect your work’s surface from moisture, oils, dirt, and other debris. Paste wax is an excellent clear coating. It doesn’t alter the color of your wood. It works well for decorative carvings but can wear off when applied too frequently handled carvings.
If you are like me, who always loves to caress my art, you might not want to use this. Secondly, it’s an excellent start. People may want to hold it, examine it. Another wood finish Is the darnish oil. Darnish oil is made from natural ingredients. It protects the wood, too, except that it again doesn’t last long on the wood. But it lasts longer than danish.
And another is the liquid plastics – polyurethane. Spray urethane and polyurethane generally last for long periods, even if the carving is handled frequently. All these are available at any art supplies store.
Conclusion- How to Start Wood Carving
There is no better time to start wood carving. You just need to get the tools, get the muse, and follow all these steps. With all of the theses, you are good to go. Try more; explore more techniques. Try carving in the round, whittling, relief, and chip carving. You will find what approach you feel free working with. Work more on this, and you’ll be surprised at what practice would make out of you.
Hey there, I am Joseph and I have grown up as a son of an enthusiastic woodworker and I continued in the craft after his demise. Above all, this site is in homage to my old man. He is the one that taught me to make beautiful things out of my woodworking experiences.
Sharing something so special with someone I look up to impacted me in ways that I cannot express. This is something that I want to share with the world. I am grateful to be able to share with our growing community online! Thank you all!
This page contains some tips, recommended accessories, tools, and extras that you might need to make your woodworking experience a success.