Ultimate Wood Carving Guides for Beginners
Wood carving is a fascinating hobby that allows you to make sculptures like wood art or faces in wood using simple woodworking tools. If you are here, then clearly you are looking for information about this hobby.
We made this comprehensive guide about wood carving for beginners to help you become more knowledgeable about the subject. Whether you are looking for woodcarving basics or a reference to more advanced woodcarving books and tutorials for beginners, we have them all right here in this article.
What is Wood Carving?
Before we learn how to wood carve, it is important to understand what woodcarving is really about.
Wood carving is a very fun woodworking hobby where you can make fairly complex decorative wood ornaments by simply using simple hand tools like a chisel or a knife. Basically, all you need to get started with woodcarving is a piece of wood and a knife. That is about all the prerequisites that are required to get started right away. Of course, the quality of wood, as well as the hand tool you use will directly affect the end result. For example, using softwood for carving is much easier than using hardwood. However, with softwood, the end result will not look as good as when using hardwood like a solid piece of oak.
It still remains a very easy and fun hobby for beginners and experts alike. In fact, you can easily find many woodcarving blogs with excellent woodcarving tutorials for beginners online. We will cover more on this issue later on.
History of Wood Carving
There are many people who believe that woodcarving is as old as humanity itself. Some experts claim that ever since the first men developed tools, they started woodcarving. Even today, there is a lot of evidence that suggests that primitive man were busy carving wood using very basic tools. In fact, in 1860 archaeologists discovered no less than 11 wood carved panels perfectly preserved and date back to 4000 years ago.
Archaeologists have also found many complex decorative wooden ornaments that were wood carved in many old civilizations like the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese. This was a much before the advent of written paper making it more difficult for experts to precisely date them.
However, since wood carving does not require advance tools, it is safe to say that our ancestors did in fact, make complex ornaments out of wood. The reason that we do not find many old wood carved ornaments is simply because unlike stone, wood is less resilient to the elements. However, despite all this archaeologist have found thousands of artifacts that have been carefully crafted using simple tools. What all this suggests is that woodcarving is not very difficult as long as you have the correct woodworking tool to do the job.
Types of Wood Carving
We have so far made wood carving seem very beginner friendly. Do not get us wrong, it is! However, there are several types of wood carving and understanding them will help you find your niche and become a better wood carving craftsman. Additionally, those different types of woodcarving require somewhat different tools so it will help you better decide what type of materials and supplies you need for the job.
Whittling is one of the oldest types of woodcarving known to man. It differentiates itself from other types of woodcarving by having sharp and pointy edges. They have many angles and somewhat look more complex and angular. The technique to achieve whittling is by performing knife “strokes” that slowly cut through wood to revealed sharp and textured cuts. The correct tool for whittling is a carving knife or a whittling knife.
Relief carving is another popular type of wood carving. Instead of working with the whole material, when relief carving you simply work with a small area. Relief carving is generally used to carve sculptures out of wood. It is also a popular method used by craftsmen to make busts and ornamental figurines, caricatures and faces. It is a little bit more complex than other types of wood carving and will require some more advanced skills as well as experience to perform successfully.
Carving in the Round
As its name suggests, carving in the round is very similar to the way a clay craftsman works. When wood is carved in the round, it leaves a smooth and polished surface. Unlike relief carving, carving in the round is by far one of the easiest wood carvings for beginners types.
To perform chip carving, you usually require a chisel, knife and a hammer. It is the most popular wood carving type. What you basically do when chip carving is to remove wood material piece by piece. Chip carving produces one of the most complex decorative wood ornaments out of any other type.
Is Carving Different from Whittling?
There is no real consensus amongst experts whether carving is different from whittling. To some, carving delivers a timeless work of art and requires working with multiple tools like a knife, file, chisel and gouge to obtain the finished result. Those people see carving more like a professional trade rather than a simple and fun hobby.
On the other hand, other experts believe that whittling and carving are one and the same thing. Those experts say that depending on the country where you live, the terms vary. If you are an American, then you will call it whittling whereas if you are European you will call it carving.
While in the past whittling was generally more simple using a knife and wood alone, when you factor in skill and artistry then the line between whittling and carving is blurred. However, there are still many experts who say that whittling is more of a hobby and carving a profession.
Whether it is a valid debate that carving is different from whittling is entirely up to opinion. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, and how you choose to call them, it should not stop you from making wonderful and timeless works of art.
What Beginners Need Before Carving
Woodcarving for beginners is not very difficult. However, you will need some basic skills as well as tools and material to get started. Here is a quick guide that will show you how to wood carve in the most efficient manner possible.
Best Wood Types for Carving
Now that you know which type of wood carving you want to pursue, the type of wood that you use is one of the most important factors. Indeed, there are several types of wood and some are easier to work with than others.
As an example, using soft wood for carving is much easier than hardwood. But the finished result is not the same as hardwood definitely looks more aesthetically pleasing.
Here is an overview of the best type of wood to use when wood carving:
Basswood is a fairly softwood material that has a light and cream cooler to it. Since it is soft, basswood is easy to carve and even beginners can start whittling with basswood with minimum skill level. All you will require is simply a knife for whittling. You can also easily carve more complex artwork using a gouge, chisel, and hammer on basswood. Although, the preferred type of wood carving when it comes to basswood remains whittling with only a knife since it is so easy to cut. Since it is so soft, it is not the best for chip carving but any other type of wood carving will work excellently on basswood.
Butternut is another softwood that is one the best wood for carving. It is a coarse wood with a light brown color and large wood grains. It is very easy to carve, especially when whittling using a knife. Since it is a beautiful wood with very visible grains, many professionals use this type of wood for making all sorts of wood carved artwork. If you are looking for wood material that is easy to work with then it is hard to find a better softwood than Butternut.
White pine is another type of wood that is popular amongst both beginners and experts alike. It has a medium grain texture and a cream color. It is similarly a softwood just like the other types mentioned above and ideal for whittling with a knife. Since it is so soft and grainy, chip carving is not the best on this wood type. Many experts say that white pine is the best for carving in the round since it is so easy to mold and fashion any way you want.
Mahogany is where things get a little bit more interesting. It stands right between a softwood and hardwood. You can use mahogany for any type of woodcarving, including chip carving. This is a very beautiful wood type that will deliver a very aesthetically pleasing result. Many professionals who sell their wood carve use mahogany as their base material, mostly because it is a gorgeous reddish wood material that requires almost no post-work like applying veneer or wood tint.
Black Walnut is a dark brown and hard wood type. It is quite hard to carve with a medium grain. When used with the right tool, however, it will deliver a very professional and aesthetically pleasing finish. Again as with mahogany above, it requires very few post work mostly due to its dark brown coloration. You can use Black Walnut with almost any type of wood carving, from chip carving to relief carving. However, since it is hardwood, whittling can be difficult on this material.
Cherry is a pinkish brown wood with wavy grains. It is very hard to carve. It is a dense hardwood that works well with chip carving. However, it can be very difficult to whittle on cherry.
Again, sugar maple is another hardwood that is hard to carve. Sugar maple is one of the best wood for chip carving, mostly because it is such a dense wood.
Lastly, we have one of the most popular hardwood available on the market - white oak. as its name suggests, this is a very light and yellowish wood with medium coarse grains. it is the ideal wood for chip carving. Because it is so hard, whittling on white oak is very difficult.
List of Wood Carving Tools
As we have mentioned before, you will need a very basic set of wood carving tools to get started. You cannot carve wood without those indispensable tools, however basic they are. But what are those tools? We’re glad you asked!
Chip Carving Knife
The chip carving knife is one of the most basic woodworking tool available for wood carving. It looks exactly like a kitchen knife but much smaller. It has an elongated blade that measures around 1-1/2 inches with a fairly long handle for comfort. What you basically do with this woodworking tool is chip away material piece by piece. It works best on soft wood like butternut or basswood but can equally be used on other hardwood like white oak depending on the wood carving project you are working on.
Similar to an ice cream scoop-spoon, gouges simply “scoop” material. It is a curved carving tool to that is ideal to work with on only small surfaces. There are several types of gouges like U-gouges, V-gouges and spoon gouges. Their shape usually follow the prefix. For example, a U-gouge has a U shape while a spoon gouge will look very similar to a spoon.
Of course, chisels are one of the most popular woodworking tool available. Almost everyone who works with wood has at least one chisel in the workshop. They are very sharp tools and are ideally used with a hammer or mallet for wood chipping. In fact, chisels are almost exclusively used for wood chipping unlike other types of woodworking tools like gouges and chip carving knives.
Ideas for Wood Carving
To help you get started right away with wood carving, here are some wood carving ideas for beginners.
Before starting to carve, you can simply draw a pattern on a piece of paper and glue it to your wood material. If you do not want to use tracing paper, you can even use the bandsaw to cut a wood pattern. This will provide you with a guideline on how to start carving more accurately. This is especially helpful for beginners who are just getting started. However, we find that even professional woodcarvers use a pattern simply because it is so effective and easy-to-use.
Another method is to use a rough out from a finished wood carving. What you are simply doing here is using a duplicating machine to cut the “roughout”. You then carve from the roughout only giving you a blueprint to get started.
Learn How to Carve Wood
Here are some quick wood carving basics if you are an absolute beginner at carving.
Learn How to Cut
Firstly, before starting to carve, it is important to first choose the right tool for the job. If you are planning to perform wood chipping, then you’d be better of with a chisel rather than a knife.
Secondly, it is important to hold the material firmly with one hand and use your tool with with the other. If you are performing whittling, cut using swift moves. Do not stop halfway. With chiseling, remove only small pieces at a time. Don’t go for larger pieces at it may ruin and break the material. Equally important is the wearing of knife-gloves. They will protect your fingers from the sharp edges of your woodworking tools.
How to Paint
Before painting, make sure to sand the surface to a smooth and polished finish first. For the best finish, it is recommended to manually sand your work using a lower grit sandpaper. This will allow the paint to soothe in deeper in the veins and pores of the wood. You can spray paint as this is the fastest way to get a professional finish. Additionally, you can also use a paintbrush to do so as this provides more maneuverability when painting intricate corners.
How to Fix Damage
Damages happen often when wood carving. On the bright side, there are quick and easy ways to repair them. You can use wood putty to mold or cover damaged parts. However, remember than when wood carving, the most important part is to cover the damaged part in a way that makes is seamless. You can further cover the wood putty buy sanding and then applying a layer of paint.
How to Make Wood Finish
There are several ways to make a wood finish when wood carving. Some wood types like Mahogany don’t even need one, since they already are very esthetically pleasing raw. However, you can boost the looks of your carved product by applying a coat of paint, veneer or varnish - whichever suits your taste and need the best.
Best Wood Carving Tips
To get the most out of your wood carving, here are some wood carving tips that will surely get you started the right way, especially if you have never carved before.
What is the most important when wood carving is the way you handle the knife. It needs to be appropriate for the job and be comfortable to hold. You may use this knife for long hours, so using a tool with a comfortable grip will limit hand fatigue and allow you to get the most out of your time and effort.
A mistake that many beginners make when starting out is not using gloves. Wood carving can be dangerous since you use very sharp woodworking tools. You should always wear carving gloves that will protect you from the sharp knife edges. This is especially helpful if you happen to be a clumsy person or simply lack the experience when wood carving. In any case, you should never attempt to wood carve without carving gloves!
Follow the Grain
You can follow multiple routes when wood carving. However, the easiest way to carve wood is by following the wood grain. This is especially helpful if you are working with very tough and high-density hard wood like white oak. If you are working with softer wood like butternut, you can easily carve even in a direction that is against the wood grain.
To make your life easier, it is best to first draw a quick sketch of your final result. Then stick it on your material and start carving. You will carve with more precision and get a more professional result that looks more like what you had in mind this way. Remember, with wood carving, once you make a mistake you can never go back! So, it is important to get started the right way by making planning a sketch first.
Best Books to Learn Wood Carving
To help you get started with wood carving, here are a few of the best wood carving books for beginners on the market.
The Beginner's Handbook of Woodcarving: With Project Patterns for Line Carving, Relief Carving, Carving in the Round, and Bird Carving
This wood carving book is co-authored by Charles Beiderman and William Johnston, two renowned wood carvers. It is written with beginners in mind and delivered in a way that is easy to understand by anyone of any age. It contains patterns and techniques for line carving, relief carving, bird carving and carving in the round.
Additionally, it comes with over 60 beautiful illustrations as well as 200 color photographs to help you understand techniques and methods clearly and in the simplest manner possible. If you are an absolute novice and do not have a clue how to get started, this book is a good buy. It is available as a paperback, kindle app as well as spiral-bound.
Buy here from Amazon.com
Complete Starter Guide to Whittling: 24 Easy Projects You Can Make in a Weekend
The Complete Starter Guide to Whittling is one of the best whittling books on the subject. You can only purchase this guide as paperback. This book presents the whittling technique used by 12 leading experts. it contains 24 whittling projects that are very beginner-friendly and can be accomplished quickly and easily. Further, all you will need to get started is a knife and a piece of wood. That’s it! It is by far the simplest wood carving book for beginners we know of.
Carving Faces Workbook: Learn to Carve Facial Expressions with the Legendary Harold Enlow
For those who are interested in carving faces in wood, the Carving Faces Workbook by Harold Enlow is one of the best reference on the subject, available exclusively in paperback. It is a 144 pages publication that contains beautifully illustrated pictures and is very easy to follow. You do not need any advanced skills to get started with this book. The language used is very user-friendly and at the end of the book, you will literally be at expert at carving faces in wood.
Carving the Little Guys: Easy Techniques for Beginning Woodcarvers
This paperback guide shows you how to carve figurines with intricate details that capture emotions and expressions. It is mostly for caricature wood carving and despite being only 32 pages in paperback format - it is a true treasure trove! You will learn a lot of secret techniques in this manual. It equally covers some wood carving basics like sharpening your tools or how to wood carve the correct way.
Chris Pye's Woodcarving Course & Reference Manual: A Beginner's Guide to Traditional Techniques
Last but not least, we have this wonderful wood carving guide by master wood carver Chris Pye. It is a paperback edition that can also be purchased as a kindle app. This guide is jammed-packed with common and popular techniques that professional wood carvers use every day to make beautiful work of art. Its 160 pages never get boring and it even has beautifully illustrated techniques that will help you better understand the basics of wood carving. It is an excellent wood carving book for beginners.
Which Course Should You Learn?
Are you looking for a digital course instead of a paperback book? Don’t worry, we got you covered! If you need a quick and easy course to follow online, we think that the “Wood Carving for Beginners” by Sharon Elliott is one of the best wood carving online tutorial for beginners out there.
With this digital course, you will learn many basics things like using the best carving tools, carving caricatures, mastering all wood carving types and how to perform finishing jobs on your work. It is very easy to follow and delivered in a way that any beginner, regardless of skill level can absorb.
Other Resources on the Internet
Of course, there are also many useful wood carving blogs where you can learn how to wood carve effectively.
This site is actually a private online club for chip carving. It is hosted by well-known figures in the wood carving industry - David and Todd. On this exclusive club, you can connect with other chip carvers and ask questions about any issues you have. Further, by registering to this site, you will get premium access to a complete guide to chip carving that will be shipped to your doorstep. It is well worth a subscription!
Go to ChippingAway.com
This is another wood carving blog by Chris Pye, author of “Chris Pye's Woodcarving Course & Reference Manual” reviewed above. Chris is a master wood carver that have many decades of experience. His “private club” gives you access to premium videos and guides that are not found anywhere else on the Internet. If you are an absolute beginner then you will love the video content delivered on this website. Chris makes mostly web videos about any wood carving types rather than writing text - which is much more helpful especially when trying to explain techniques of wood carving. It is a well-rounded site for those who are still not sure which wood carving type suit them the best.
Go to WoodCarvingWorkshops.tv
This is a working blog that contains free and invaluable information. If you don’t have much money to spend on premium courses, then this blog is an excellent place to begin with. It contains pages over pages of free content written with beginners in mind. But this free blog is not limited to only wood carving. It also contains a lot of information about anything related to woodworking - from tips and tricks to advanced carpentry work.
Go to FundamentalSofwoodWorking.com
The wood carving tutorials for beginners on this free blog is one of the best you can find online. It is written in a simple language and starts with simple techniques that beginners can follow. It contains many projects you can start working on and we generally recommend this wood carving blog to almost any beginner we meet.
Go to lsIrish.com
This ultimate wood carving guide for beginners finally comes to an end. We have covered quite some ground. As we have seen, wood carving is a fascinating hobby that does not require much to get started. Most of the time, all that is required is time and a knife. As a closing note, we have listed a lot of resources that will help you bring your wood carving game to the next level. Check them out. With that said, good luck with your whittling and carving endeavors!
Read More: Top 27 Woodworking Blogs For Beginners