Wood carving has been practiced for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest forms of woodworking. Nowadays it is popular as a nice, rewarding, sometimes even therapeutic form of hobby. It can also be a career for art and sculpture lovers, who can even make a living from wood carving.
It includes a variety of techniques such as whittling, chip carving, carving in the round, and relief carving. For every technique, there is a variety of tools: knives, gouges, chisels and other hand tools.
Wood comes in many varieties. One of the most important steps in carving is understanding all the wood characteristics, and then choosing the right one.
Softwood Vs. Hardwood
The softwood/hardwood terminology is often used referring to the gymnosperm/angiosperm group of trees. To be understood correctly, this type of terminology requires an explanation.
Gymnosperm (softwood) trees are evergreen trees; they keep their needles during the whole year and form cones to produce.
Softwoods usually have a lower density, and they are less expensive. Since they are softer, they are usually easier to work with. There are many uses of softwood: building components, paneling, doors, windows, furniture, paper…
On the other side, angiosperm (hardwood) trees form flowers, fruits or nuts and then produce seeds. The trees grow slower and shed leaves during autumn and winter.
Hardwoods are usually more dense, more expensive, and also more fire-resistant than softwoods. This type of wood is mainly used in everything that needs to last, such as construction, flooring, decks and high- quality furniture.
Although the softwood/hardwood terminology is used very often and does make some sense (meaning that evergreens are less sturdy), it doesn’t mean that hardwood is always more dense and harder material than softwood, and vice-versa. For example, one of the least dense, softest trees is balsa wood, technically classified as a hardwood tree.
It is possible to carve almost every wood, but each one has its characteristics, features, textures, and flaws. Difficulty depends on how hard or soft the wood is, and what type of grain it has. It’s up to woodcarvers to decide which one they consider to be the best wood for carving, depending on their preferences, needs, and skills.
Basswood for carving
Basswood is the best carving wood for beginners. It is very suitable for hand carving, and there is a good reason for that. It is white (light cream), odorless, very soft, malleable, almost without grain and easy to work with. It is excellent for whittling and painted sculptures.
It can also be found easily. It is not expensive, being one of the most common types of trees in North America and Europe. All these characteristics make it very popular among woodcarvers without much experience.
The tools used for carving basswood are knives and gouges or even rotary carvers. Basswood is ideal for detail carving, thanks to his lightness and softness. Finishing and polishing final projects are possible without any special treatment. Basswood is not toxic. No health problems, respiratory or skin reactions are related to this wood.
Butternut for carving
Butternut is another great choice for beginners because it is soft and easy to work with. It is similar to black walnut since they have similar characteristics.
Although it is sometimes called black walnut’s blond cousin, it is softer and less strong than a walnut. It has nice grain, typically straight, with medium to coarse texture. Its color is light to medium brown, it is odorless and lightweight.
Its price is in the mid-range. Since it polishes nicely, it is good for carving furniture. It is important to use fine-grit sandpaper when sanding in order not to tear the soft fibers. A downside is that butternut quickly dulls tools.
Although it can be used by beginners, many professional carvers also like butternut because of its visible grains that make final projects more beautiful. It is ideal for natural-finish sculptures.
Butternut can be prone to insect problems, and sometimes has wormholes in it. However, many woodcarvers like this feature.
No health issues are related to this type of wood.
White Pine for carving
White pine is also very soft; with an even, medium grain texture that is easy to shape. Its color is usually light brown. It is a little bit aromatic and gives a faint odor while being worked. It is ideal for whittling with a sharp knife, and carving in the round, but not so good for chip carving.
It can be a little bit harder for beginners, but more skilled woodcarvers usually like to use it. The prices for white pine are in an inexpensive-moderate price range. The downside to this wood is that it tends to swell, shrink and warp. Also, the prominent growth rings may cause carving problems.
Sometimes, white pine can cause allergic skin reactions in some people or breathing symptoms that resemble asthma. It is something that woodcarver should consider before starting to work with this type of wood.
Mahogany for carving
Mahogany is a great wood because it is somewhere between soft and hard, which makes it perfect for any carving technique. It is one of the softest woods among hardwoods typically in use.
It carves well and takes detail fairly; but sometimes tends to split, crack or chip. More skilled woodcarvers like to use mahogany. Its color is reddish, which gives wonderful results and beautiful final projects.
This type of wood has fine to medium texture, with various types of grain, as it can be straight, wavy or curly. In many cases, these irregularities in grain are highly appreciated, as they show the unique beauty of the wood.
The wood itself is popular because of its color, beauty, and durability. It is a favorite wood for woodcarvers that are looking for a rich natural finish. Naturally, this wood tends to be more expensive because of its uniqueness and quality; and also because it grows in Central America, South America, and Africa. The rest of the world has to import it.
Although there are no severe reactions to this type of wood, mahogany sometimes can cause eye or skin irritations.