January 7, 2021

How to Start Wood Carving

Wondering how to start wood carving? Wood carving is a fun, accessible, and creative craft that doesn’t require a fancy studio or a lot of equipment. All you need is a piece of wood and something sharp to carve it with. It may be a regular carving knife or a chip carving knife. Of course, what kind of wood and what kind of wood carving tools you pick will affect the difficulty, safety, and result of your wood carving endeavours?

Wood carving for beginners doesn’t have to be difficult at home. By starting with softer wood and even a handy pocket knife, you can begin to make trinkets, small sculptures and even large pieces with whittling alone.

When it comes to wood carving for beginners, starting with handmade tools is best. Despite the more automated and digital ways to carve wood, starting with hand carving will allow you to better understand how wood feels, bends, and breaks. That is all a part of your journey as a wood carver.

Types of wood carving to consider as a starter

Whittling 

Whittling is the art and style of woodcarving performed using a carving knife. It is one of the oldest forms of wood carving, whittling is distinct for its sharp, textured cuts that leave knife “strokes.” The sculptures made with whittling are often very angular. Whittling is done using a whittling knife or a carving knife. First, you can start whittling wood to create statues and even centrepieces. Whittling requires only a carving knife, although you can also use a V-tool. You can identify whittled wood pieces by looking for carvings with visible knife marks. No sandpaper required here.

Relief Carving

 Unlike carving full sculptures out of wood, relief carving is the process of carving figures into wood. You start out with a flat panel of wood, and carve figures into it, leaving the back flat.

Carving in the Round

 This is like the clay sculpting of wood cutting. Objects are smooth, angles are rounded – hence the name – and all sides are carved, unlike relief carvings.

Chip Carving

 Chip carving involves using a knife, chisel, and a hammer. The process is exactly as the name suggests: chipping away at a piece of wood. This can be used to create intricate patterns in wooden plates and boards. Chip carving knives are best used with softer woods, and allow you to create beautiful pieces from the negative space created from removing wood “chips.”

Types of woods to consider as a starter

If you’re just starting out with woodcarving, it’s better to choose a softwood like birch, limewood, pine, willow or horse chestnut. These are easier to carve. Soon, when you’re more experienced, you can use birch burl, cherrywood, maple, apple, pear, olive or walnut. All of these contain beautiful patterns and colours, and will add new elements to your designs.

Once you’ve decided on your wood carving style, it’s time to select the type of wood you want to work with. Butternut and basswood are softer types of wood that are easier for beginners to carve. Butternut offers a nice looking grain if you’re planning to leave your sculpture unpainted. Whatever you choose, make sure you purchase the wood from an art and crafts store or wood supplier.

Basswood: Easy to carve, with a fine grain. Light and cream colored, best for whittling. Soft and easy to carve with a fine grain. The wood has a creamy tint and is an excellent choice for beginners as it can be found at most local craft shops for a reasonable price.

Butternut: Easy to carve, with a coarse grain. Light brown colored with a distinct wood pattern. Butternut will have a coarse grain which will make it a bit more difficult to avoid chipping during the whittling process but it’s soft and easy enough to carve through that it still is a viable beginner piece. You will likely need to go to a lumber yard to get Butternut.

White Pine: Easy to carve, with a medium grain. Soft and cream colored. Pine is very soft but has a bit of a coarser grain.

*If you’re getting your wood from a craft store, chances are you won’t find many growth rings or knots in it. If you’re getting it from a lumberyard, however, these might be more of an issue. Remember, if you’re a wood carving beginner it can be difficult to carve around these natural formations. Get the cleanest wood possible and come back to the tricky stuff later. Practice makes perfect.

Safety precautions 

  1. Always keep your knife sharp

Sharpening your knives not only makes your work easier, it is safer too. It’s far more likely you’ll be injured using a dull blade than a sharp one.

  1. Wear a glove

Always wear it on the hand that is not holding the carving knife. Leather hide work gloves will not only protect your hands, they will be more resistant to damage and last longer.

  1. Wear your safety glasses

It is no fun getting wood chips in your eyes, so protect your precious sight, and always wear a good pair of safety glasses when you’re sawing, chopping or using a Dremel accessory.

  1. Dust mask

Always wear a dust mask to make sure you are not inhaling the dust created by carving, cutting, sanding or polishing.

Practice drawing your design first

Your woodcarving piece might change as you continue, but at the start it’s important to stick to perfecting its basic shape. Before you start whittling away, trace out your design lightly with a pencil. Staying within the lines of your drawing will help keep you on track when the axe and carving knife come out.

Setting aside time for woodcarving

There will be times during your wood carving projects that you will wish you could speed things up; especially the drying process. But take things slowly and try to enjoy each step of the process. Carving wood is not a hobby you can rush, and when you hold your finished piece you’ll be glad you took your time. So giving it some time guarantees positive results for a starter.

Caring For Your Wood Carving Knives

If you want your wood carving knife to last, you’ll eventually need to sharpen it. Grabbing a sharpening stone is essential to ensure that your knives remain sharp and up to the task. Ensure you know which type of steel you’ve equipped on your knife before choosing your ideal sharpening stone.

David D. Hughes
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