August 16, 2019

Best Wood for Carving | Pick the Right Wood for the Right Project

If you’re one of the many people who enjoy carving wood, you’ve probably thought about buying different woods for different projects. Wood for carving can be as varied as the projects you want to carve and as wide-ranging as the available types of wood. So how do you choose the best wood for carving?

Wood carving has been practiced for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest forms of woodworking. Nowadays, it is popular as a beautiful, rewarding, sometimes even therapeutic form of hobby. It can also be a profession for art and sculpture enthusiasts, and they can earn a living from woodcarving.

It includes a variety of techniques such as carving, chipping, round carving, and relief carving. There are various tools for each technique: knives, gouges, chisels, and other hand tools.

Wood comes in many varieties. One of the essential steps in carving is to know the wood’s properties and then choose the right one.

Softwood Vs. Hardwood

The softwood/hardwood terminology is often used to refer to the gymnosperm/angiosperm group of trees. To be understood correctly, this type of terminology requires an explanation.

Gymnosperm (softwood) are evergreen trees; they keep their needles throughout the 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. Softwood has many uses: building components, paneling, doors, windows, furniture, paper…

Conversely, angiosperm (hardwood) trees form flowers, fruits, or nuts and produce seeds. The trees grow slower and shed leaves during autumn and winter.

Hardwoods are usually denser, more expensive, and 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, balsa wood is one of the least dense, softest trees, technically classified as a hardwood tree.

It is possible to carve almost every wood, but each has its characteristics, features, textures, and flaws. Difficulty depends on how hard or soft the wood is and its type of grain. It’s up to woodcarvers to decide which one they consider 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, 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 trees in North America and Europe. All these characteristics make it very popular among woodcarvers without much experience.

basswood for carving

The tools used for carving basswood are knives, gouges, or even rotary carvers. Basswood is ideal for detail carving, thanks to its lightness and softness. Finishing and polishing final projects are possible without any special treatment. Basswood is not toxic. No health problems or respiratory or skin reactions are related to this wood.

Butternut for carving

butternut wood grain 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 the 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, 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 not to tear the soft fibers when sanding. A downside is that butternut quickly dulls tools.

Although beginners can use it, many professional carvers also like butternut because its visible grains 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 bit aromatic and gives a faint odor while working. It is ideal for whittling with a sharp knife and carving in the round but not so good for chip carving.

The prices for white pine are in an inexpensive-moderate price range. It can be harder for beginners, but more skilled woodcarvers usually use it. 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 working with this type of wood.

Mahogany for carving

Honduran Mahogany

Mahogany is a great wood because it is soft and hard, making it perfect for any carving technique. It is one of the softest woods among hardwoods typically in use.

More skilled woodcarvers like to use mahogany. It carves well and takes detail fairly; but sometimes tends to split, crack, or chip. 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 for its color, beauty, and durability. It is a popular wood for woodcarvers seeking a rich, natural finish. Of course, this wood is more expensive because of its uniqueness and quality, but it also 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 can sometimes cause eye or skin irritation.

David D. Hughes
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