October 13, 2021

Carving Elmwood | What I Wish I knew

Have you ever tried to carve a piece of elmwood, only to be hampered by its complexity and difficulty? I am going to show you how to make elmwood carving more of a breeze.  Get the basics down first, and you’ll be ready to make some great carving projects.  I’ll show you all the tools you need and how to maintain them, and the basics of carving the different types of elmwood.  By the end of this tutorial, you’ll be able to start your own projects and share them with the world.

What elm wood looks like

Elm Wood is a tough, durable wood, ideal for flooring wagon beds, and it gives a beautiful shade to your outdoor furniture. Elm has 20 species in the temperate regions of the world, with the American elm (Ulmus Americana) as the popular one. 

It grows 140inch tall, but open-grown elms rarely reach that height. They make a spreading, umbrella-like crown valued for shade. Elm is easy to identify by its leaves. The leaves are  5inch long and 3inch wide, and they have saw-toothed edges ending in a sharp point. 

Its heartwood ranges in tone from reddish-brown to light tan, while the sapwood approaches off-white. The usually dramatic grain resembles ash. Moderately dense, elm weighs nearly 40 lbs. per cubic foot dry. When Elmwood is steamed, it bends easily, and when dry, it holds its shape. 

It comes with twisted, interlocking grain that makes it difficult to work with power tools. Although it does not split when being screwed, it requires drilling pilot holes, and the wood sands easily to a luster. 

It works better on cutting boards because it has no odor or taste, and it will not split. Do not worry when it contacts water since it is decay-resistant, which is why it has gained popularity in boatbuilding. 

Elm wood furniture has unique and bold wood grain. The look and hardness of elm wood make it attractive for furniture and furniture parts with high traffic. It comes with pale sapwood that is off-white. The ring pattern makes it unique, and the uneven texture is the interlocking wood grain. The swirls and waves on the grain separate it from the rest of the wood. 

A great debate has erupted regarding if Elm is hardwood or softwood. However, it is soft hardwood. That means it is stronger and hard but softer than other hardwood. The interlocked grain makes it tough, and that is why it remains resistant to splitting. It qualifies for spaces that need to absorb shock. 

The interlocking wood grain of elm furniture separates it from the rest. That grain occurs when the fibers of the wood grain reverse their direction as the tree grows, and that is how we end up with spirals and swirls.

How to carve elm wood

Since it is hard, expect to face difficulties carving the Elmwood. Make sure it is dry before you start. Carving a spoon is an easy task that needs creativity, and it is also hard, but the grain pattern makes a good finish. 

When you experience a split or crack, fill it instantly with Epoxy and continue with the project. Understanding the properties of a wood type comes with carving a part of it, which is how its character is shared through experience. 

Elmwood is slippery, and that makes it hard to carve and stain. However, it makes beautiful bowls. It is ring porous, and that makes it less ideal for liquid-holding bowls. Design your item with the properties of wood in mind. Carve your bowl using the highlights of the growth ring pattern that is even and concentric.  

When carving a large, round bowl, the elm moves a bit as it dries. That leaves you with a flowing rim with high portions at the end grain. The outside becomes darker since the grain patterns are enhanced. 

How to finish the carving

A natural finish is appealing from the elmwood. If you want to subdue the open pores, fill them up using a filler of your choice. Using paste filler leaves you with a natural finish, and uncolored filler allows you to tint it as required. 

Tinting it to the lightest color of the wood after you have stained it is a better idea. You can also use universal tinting colors (UTC’s), japan colors, or artist oil colors. The UTC’s tend to lack disadvantages, whereas the japans fade in the light. The artist’s oil color gives you a lightfast color.

Put a small amount of filler and thinner in separate containers and mix the artist’s color into it when mixing filler colors.  Leave it with toothpaste consistency of the color so that it breaks down and becomes liquid. That is how you did up with color concentrates. 

Mix raw sienna into the filler and check it regularly on a paper plate for color. Add small amounts of burnt umber to turn the light of the yellow down a little as needed. You are allowed to use the filler untinted. After all, it is all about personal taste. Test your filler on scraps.

Sand and clean or stain if you like. Wash the coat with shellac to seal the color in a ratio of 1:2. That is one part shellac; two parts denatured alcohol. Apply and remove filler as required. Allow it to cure for three days. You can choose to make shellac a final finish or varnish.

Another option is to use a thin varnish-like Minwax antique oil or watco. Apply a generous amount to the surface and wet sand it in. The oil fills the pores, and does not forget to wipe it down repeatedly. Prepare to wipe since the oil weeps out of the pores for some time. Seal with shellac, sand, and you are allowed to use a gel stain over the top. The pores get darker over time with the oil and sanding.

How to polish the carving

  1. Dust your furniture using a damp cloth. Micro-fibre performs better since it does not leave scratches. Add water to the cloth and wipe the surface. The moisture collects the dust but avoids saturating the wood.
  2. Apply a generous amount of mineral spirits to a separate cloth. Too much ends up soaking to the wood. 
  3. Use a different cloth to wipe the surface again, following the direction of the grain. Pay attention to grimly areas, and expect the dirt to lift right away. 
  4. Clean off the residue from the mineral spirit. Use a damp cloth. 
  5. Wipe away moisture with a clean cloth. Do not leave any damp on the carving. 
  6. Polish and buff. That is a protective measure to your surface. A good buffer smoothens the surface. 

Safety Precautions

  • Use the right tools.
  • Keep a first aid kit closer
  • Keep your tools sharp.
  • Wear protective clothing.
  • Do not cut material towards yourself.
  • Pay attention to the carving tool. 
  • Keep your workspace clean.

Using a carving knife to carve elmwood

Keep the knife tip pointed and towards your face and the wrist locked, arm straight, and cut straight down from the shoulder. Prepare to position your body since you are cutting off to the side of your legs. Keep your body away from the knife. 

The chest lever grip allows the use of the bevel of the knife pointed away from the body, rotating your wrists against the body. Pull the wood and the knife away from each other as you remove an amount of material.  

David D. Hughes
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