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Good Carving Woods for Hand Carving

Wood Carving out of Aspen
So I have been carving wood since I was a kid - carved my mother a duck once for Mother's Day - amongst other things.

One of the things I encountered when I was a kid is trying to find wood that is good for carving. Ideally I needed wood that was reasonably easy to cut with a blade, but should not split easily.

So what are the best woods for hand carving?

Any wood can be carved, and some are better for specific tasks. eg. Some woods make very good bows and longbows, but other woods might be better suited for making gunstocks, bowls, wooden spoons, etc. For example see Good Woods for Bows and Bow Making.

Since different species of trees produce very different woods it is important to know each wood's individual characteristics, such as colour, texture, and various qualities that dictate how easy the wood is to carve.

The beauty of wood is that you can just find it for free and practice wood carving on whatever you can find, but I do recommend trying to pick a sample of a wood that is more ideal for practicing on.

Aspen is another white wood that is quite popular among woodworkers. It’s stronger than basswood but is still quite soft, so it is fairly easy to use for carving. Aspen is readily available and inexpensive.

Basswood is the most popular choice wood for beginners. This is a white wood grows throughout Europe and the Americas. It’s been used in woodworking for centuries. Basswood has almost no grain and is very soft, making it ideal for new woodworkers. It is also popular in lower cost musical instruments, making up the bodies of some woodwinds, and electric basses and guitars. Basswood blanks can be found easily and are a great wood to start learning to carve on, since it is malleable and inexpensive.

Black Walnut is a popular choice because of its darker colour. It is more expensive than basswood, aspen and basswood. It should be carved using sharp tools and a mallet for the best results. Walnut has a dark rich colour and grain that has made it popular for a wide range of products, including furniture and gunstocks.
Butternut is another good wood for beginner wood carving. It is browner than basswood or aspen and has a nice grain. It is related to walnut but is lighter in colour and can be carved easier. Like black walnut, butternut polishes quite nicely, and is also a good choice for furniture. It is a much softer wood, so this wood is also friendly for beginners. Be prepared for wormholes when working with butternut.

Oak (Red Oak or White Oak) is also a popular wood for carving, with a range of features that make it almost ideal. It is a strong and sturdy wood. The grain of oak is very defined and is also a favorite woods used for making furniture.

What woods do professional wood carvers use?

Honestly, professional wood carvers often use power tools and are sometimes referred to as "power carvers". Because they are using power tools, a power carver will often use different woods that are harder to use than a hand tool carver. With the added power they can more easily carve a hard wood and get extra details easily while the same hard wood might be extremely frustrating for a hand carver.

Zebrawood Bowl made on a Lathe
So just because a professional carver uses some exotic hard wood, doesn't mean you should. Often the pros use more exotic woods because they know it is an investment in later making the item sell. So for example they might use Zebrawood and produce a really exotic looking bowl.

Zebrawood is a popular wood because of the name, and its exotic appearance. It is also not bad for carving - when using power tools such as a lathe. Is it a good wood for carving by hand? Nope, not really. You can still use it, just like you could use Ironwood or any other wood for that matter. It just is not recommended for hand carving.

For example you would not want to carve hard maple by hand. It is fine if you are using power tools, and hard maple can be a good bow wood, but if you are hand carving for the first time then hard maple would be a very difficult wood to work with. Myself I have sworn I will never use hard maple for makings bows ever again, because the wood splits too easily.

Note

You may notice I lean towards not using power tools if possible. This is after all "Project Gridless", and as the name implies we prefer to use tools that don't require electricity if possible. Are power tools handy to have? Sure they are. But if you are trying to live off grid and use very little electricity, they are not very practical.

Happy Hand Carving!

Wood Carving out of Basswood

Wood Carving out of Black Walnut

Wood Carving out of Butternut

Wood Carving out of Oak

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