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Wood Carving Tutorial

Types of Wood for Carving

Choosing the appropriate wood for carving can depend on many factors. Is the wood soft enough to cut easily with a chip-carving knife, or do you need a chisel and mallet? Will it have a natural finish that shows the grain, or will it be painted?

Some carvers choose interestingly shaped sticks or logs. A freshly cut log can present problems since it is still filled with a great deal of moisture. If the log dries too quickly it may check (crack) badly. It is best to let the log air dry for an extended period of time until it reaches an acceptable level of moisture content to prevent unwanted cracking.

The alternative is to purchase kiln-dried wood that has been cut into boards. If a large block is required, the boards can be milled with a planer and joiner to give flat surfaces that can be glued together. An advantage of gluing is that large, unusual shapes can be created, unlike the confining shape of a log.

For carving small, hand-held craft objects, such as duck or shorebird decoys, characture figures, and chip carving (decorative designs on flat surfaces like the sides of jewelry boxes), basswood is an excellent choice. It is soft and easy to carve, the close grain holds small carved detail, there are few knots or blemishes, and it is stable when dry. However, basswood's softness makes it difficult to apply a stain evenly an carved surfaces or attain a glossy finish. Most basswood carvings are painted.

For sculpture with a natural wood finish, walnut, mahogany, cherry, or butternut provide rich color with an attractive grain pattern. Butternut is very soft and the easiest to carve with hand tools. Walnut, mahogany, and cherry are rich in color, moderately difficult to carve because of the dense grain, and they take finished well. Gouges and a mallet will be needed for these woods.

The Sculpture Studio does not sell wood. These prices are from a local hardwood supplier. Prices vary greatly. These are included only to give an idea of the relative difference in price. (Board foot: 12"x12"x1")

Type Sample Characteristics Ease of Carving Grain Price (per board foot)
Basswood Cream colored,
easy to carve,
excellent for
whittling and
Easy Fine-
(thickness 8/4")
Butternut Light brown, distinct grain
pattern, good for
sculpture, soft
(dents easily),
very easy to carve,
quickly dulls tools
Easy Course $5.20
(thickness 4/4")
Cherry Reddish brown,
wavy grain can be
difficult to carve,
excellent for
natural-finish sculpture.
Very hard Fine $6.30
(thickness 8/4")
Mahogany Dark reddish brown,
excellent choice
for natural
finish sculpture.
Medium Medium $6.90
(thickness 8/4"


(Sugar Maple)

Creamy, very hard
(difficult to carve,
finishes well.
Very Hard Fine $5.95
(thickness 8/4"}


(White Oak)

Light yellowish brown,
very hard when kiln dried
difficult to carve,
finishes well
Very hard,
carves easier
when green
(thickness 8/4")

(Sugar Pine)

Aromatic, cream colored,
soft, good for whittling,
the prominent growth rings
may be difficult
to cut through
can  make
it more
Medium $1.95
(thickness 4/4")

(Black Walnut)

Dark brown,
excellent for
natural-finish sculpture,
finishes well
Hard Medium $6.55
(thickness 8/4")

Note: The Sculpture Studio does not sell wood.

Tools for Wood Carving

See some of the tools used for wood carving.

How to Carve Wood Sculpture

Techniques for carving wood.