The ideal carver's wood might be as soft
as white pine, with mahogany's straight grain, totally without knots or
difficult grain, and able to hold detail as well as persimmon. But the next
carver in line may well prefer working with very hard woods that dull tools
quickly, with difficult grain including knots acting as designed in pieces
to add to the attractiveness of the finished carving.
Here we'll take a look at the first set
of features, those that make carving easier to do, but we'll also do a
sideways check of some difficult-to-carve woods that provide extra
satisfaction for a great many woodworkers.
Notes On Wood Preparation
Because wood dries slowly when air dried,
tensions are released slowly: fast drying in kilns, if not well monitored,
can actually create tensions within the wood, adding to stresses that are
there from the growing years. For this reason, air dried wood is usually
best for carving. But it is well to remember that air dried wood dries only
down to the ambient humidity of the surrounding air. For use in a shop
environment, you need to move that wood into the shop for at least eight
weeks to allow it to condition itself to that area's humidity. The thicker
the wood, the longer the period of adaptation.
For the most part, avoid buying wood with obvious problems that will
interfere with carving--this includes loose knots, large knots, shake, wane,
cup, twist and any kind of warping, as well as fungi and any stains. Look at
the lie of the grain--rub your hand over the planed board. The direction in
which it feels smoothest is the direction in which it cuts most easily, and
the direction that produces the smoothest, shiniest cuts. Straight grain
wood is nice. Twisted grain and interlocked grain are usually things the
woodcarver wants to avoid, unless the carver is looking to enhance the
carving with such features of the wood.
For small carvings, get a mildly grained (figured) wood. Otherwise, the
grain will dominate the carving detail. For larger works, stand-out grain is
fine, often enhancing the look of the finished carving. Close grained woods
also take and hold detail better--look for wood listed as easy or moderate
Keep an eye on color changes within the wood, too. Too great variation can
create an unintended look.
Some American Wood Species
We're not covering all the woods available in the United States and Canada
here--and we're covering a couple that are not too easy to find here--but
these are generally all considered moderately good or better carving woods
for the reasons listed.
Basswood (Tilia Americana) is easy to work, Europeans sometimes call
it American lime because it bears some carving similarities to European lime
(Tilia vulgaris). Basswood is an off-white, almost cream colored, tending
towards very light brown. The grain is straight, and texture is even. It
holds carving detail very well. The wood has no characteristic odor or
taste. It seldom warps after seasoning, making it close to ideal for larger
pieces, as well as great for smaller carvings. Cost is moderate, usually 25
to 50 cents under the oaks.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea) is also called white walnut. Though it is
much softer than black walnut, it is related, and figure and grain patterns
are very much alike. The narrow sapwood is almost dead white, but the
heartwood is a very light brown, possibly with some pink tones and the
occasional dark brown streak…the streaks can make for very effective
carvings if handled well. The wood is lightweight, and the texture is
coarse. It works easily and holds detail well. It is a fine carving wood.
Cherry (Prunus serotina) is not as easy to work as the above two
woods. It classes as moderately difficult, in fact, but the reddish brown
color and gentle figures make it an attractive wood to carve. Cherry shrinks
a lot in drying, but is very stable afterwards. Power tools can burn cherry,
but hand carving tools won't. Appearance is great, it holds detail well, and
is currently one of the highest priced American woods because of its
popularity for general woodworking. Cherry also darkens as it ages, with
color over the years becoming almost as dark as black walnut (which, oddly
enough, lightens as it gets older).
Maple (Acer saccharum [hard] and Acer rubrum and others [soft]) are
carving woods that present some challenges. The grain patterns are not as
straight as in some other woods, especially in hard maple, and create a
tendency to blotch when finished that also shows up as varying density when
you're carving the wood. More careful planning of cuts may be needed here.
There are numerous special grain names for maple, including birdseye, curly,
fiddleback and tiger, which can create great special effects in your carving
(and make you work for every compliment as the wilder the grain the harder
the carving). Holds detail well and finishes to a high shine.
Red Oak (Quercus rubra, et al) is a group of oaks that are all porous
(open pores run long distances, so that it is possible to use a 5-6" long
piece of red oak to blow bubbles in water, as if you were using a straw).
Quartersawn red oak has many attractive rays. Grain is sometimes difficult
for carvers, but it takes decent detail (not as good at really fine detail
as basswood, cherry, and some others, but pretty good--and it lasts nicely,
as evidenced by my house's red oak newel posts that were carved and set in
place around 1915). Keep the tools super sharp for this one.
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a semi-forgotten wood that is
useful for a ton of things, is best used quartersawn (it's not particularly
stable in its flat sawn form), and has a really lovely lacey ray pattern
when quartersawn. The wood is a silvery white to reddish brown and is a
moderate item: it is moderately heavy, moderately strong, moderately stiff,
moderately hard and has good shock resistance. It holds detail quite well,
probably a little better than red oak, and finishes nicely. Carving can be
fairly difficult, but it rewards the work.
Walnut, American Black (Juglans nigra) has heartwood that varies in
color from very light brown to almost purple. It is usually straight-grained
and easily worked, as well as being heavy, hard and stiff, with good shock
resistance. It is a moderately open pored wood that takes natural finishes
well (and needs a filler to reach a really high sheen). It is difficult to
say enough about the good qualities of this wood, but it is a very, very
good carver's wood as well as being a very, very good, and attractive,
general use wood. Demand has recently been down a bit, as the lighter
colored woods are currently more popular, but the price is still fairly
A Few World Woods
Most of these woods are not commercially grown U.S. and Canada woods, but
some may still be available as local woods in some areas.
Lime (Tilia vulgaris) is an excellent starter wood for carvers because it is
so small grained and easy to carve that it is very forgiving of many
mistakes that might ruin carvings in other woods. The grain is tiny and not
particularly distinctive. The wood is straw colored, or lighter. This may be
found as a decorative planting in America. Sharp tools give the best finish
(but when isn't this true?).
Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is also known as Honduras mahogany,
with most now coming out of Central America. Heartwood color varies from
light to a dark reddish-brown, right on to a deep, rich red. Grain is
usually straight, but may be interlocked. Texture is medium to coarse.
Mahogany has low stiffness and resistance to shock loads, but dries nicely,
without distortion, and is stable in use. It works easily with sharp tools,
and has been for a long time one of the premier furniture and decorative
woods of the world.
Pear (Pyrus avium) is difficult to work, close-grained and very hard,
but works nicely in small carvings. Strong and tough, but may distort, and
has a tendency to split. It is very stable once dried, and is widely used
for fancy turnings, as well as carving. A challenge to work, but again a
rewarding wood that holds detail exceptionally well.
Tupelo is also known as black gum, which is slightly odd name for a
wood that is very light in color, with a pale brownish heartwood, sometimes
tending to gray, and fading into a wide band of lighter colored sapwood.
Tupelo resists splitting, is uniform in texture and has interlocked grain.
The grain makes it hard to work, but it is rewarding for power carvers.
Tupelo stains nicely, and can be finished well, is heavy and moderately
strong, and holds detail very nicely.