Know Your Wood - A Wood Carving Wood Selection Tutorial

Knowing what wood to use for a wood carving project can be a make or break deal. Sometimes buying that bargain piece of lumber turns out not to be a bargain after all.

Think about this - you're going to be spending a good amount of time and effort bringing your wood carving project to life. Do you really want to scrimp on a piece of stock that makes your project go like hell? No, of course not. But you'd be surprised how many guys do. In fact, if the truth be known, I've done it too - only to kick myself over and over for having taken the cheapskate route.

What I'm going to do here is show you what types of woods are used for carving projects and I'm also going to show you
where to buy wood carving lumber.

Knowledge is power and being in the know about what shop lumber to buy will guide you into your next wood carving masterpiece.

Wood carving lumber can generally be split into three different categories by the ones most common. One might argue there are more but for simplicity sake we'll say there are basically three; Soft, Hard, and Intermediate. Each type has its advantages and can be applied to different carving requirements.

Soft woods readily available and easily adapted to most uses are Yellow Pine, Bass Wood, and Lime. These are general use woods that work well for most carving tasks. They are great for the beginner wood carver as well as they are relatively inexpensive so scraping a piece won't break the bank. Being soft also makes them easier to carve and this gives you a chance to practice techniques and develop good carving habits. Soft woods are also good for prototyping or developing ideas for more involved carving projects.

Hard woods are also readily available but tend to cost more as these woods grow more slowly and are therefore a bit more scarce than the soft woods. Primary woods in this hard-wood category include Oak, Walnut, Cherry, and Mahogany. There are also premium hardwoods such as those that come from fruit trees - Apple and Pear. These are a bit harder to find and therefore a tad more expensive to boot.

Intermediate woods are just that - those in-between the hard and the soft. The wood of this group are Holly, Sycamore, and Beech. Light in color and still fairly easy to carve. These woods are best for shallow carvings with broad strokes.

Another factor to consider when choosing a wood for carving is the closeness of the grain. Woods that grow slowly have a denser grain and are more uniform. These tend to be hardwoods and the close grain makes these woods desirable for carving projects where a beautiful finish is desired.

Quick growing trees on the other hand, have a more open grain as the tree puts on bulk quickly. These grains tend to be soft and dull and it's very difficult to achieve a high finish.

Here is a list (in alphabetical order) of each of the woods mentioned with more detail about their particular characteristics.

  • Alder — A wood typically used by ancestral native American Indians; well suited for bowls and food utensils.
  • Apple — A hard and dense close-grained fruitwood. Finding large pieces is difficult so it's usually used for carving small objects. Having such a dense grain makes it ideal for any carving where a good polish is desired.
  • Basswood - Also known as tulipwood or american whitewood. This wood is very soft and easy to carve. Used by many beginning wood carvers for practice and seasoned pros for prototyping and model making.
  • Beech — Relatively easy-to-carve wood that's heavy. Characteristics include a golden yellow exterior with a reddish interior or heart. Beech is used mainly for furniture that is carved.
  • Boxwood — This wood is beautiful to look at, is extremely hard with a close grain and smells good too. Ideally suited for carved items like jewelry, small dishes, and especially for boxes and puzzles.
  • Cedar — Soft wood that's easy to carve and very aromatic.
  • Cherry — Close grained and hard. This wood carves well and can be polished to a high gloss shine. Narrow widths are the norm. Wider pieces can get pricey.
  • Hickory — Straight grained in nature with a white exterior and an auburn heart. Used most often when creating large sculptures.
  • Holly — Close grained wood used mostly for carvings with fine details. Fairly easy to carve.
  • Lime — Another close grained wood that's easy to carve and is used primarily for mirror and picture frames as well as interior trim pieces and other architectural work.
  • Maple — The Soft maple variety is the established choice for general types of carvings. Usedfor making furniture and specialty carvings such as musical instruments. Rock Maple on the other hand is a hard variety that's preferred for heavier items - mainly sporting and hunting gear.
  • Pear — A soft beige colored wood with a close grain. This wood produces a very soft satin-like finish
  • Yellow Pine — Colors vary from white to reddish brown. This wood is good for large sculptural carvings and interior detailing. Once used for shipbuilding and interior joinery work. It's important to know that the smooth clear wood is called "first or virgin growth". If this is not specified, chances are the wood will be of low quality, coarse and full of knots. Only "First Growth" should be used for carving purposes.

This list is by far not all inclusive as there are many many woods to choose from. This list however, is a good start and should help guide you in your wood carving wood selection process. To find a good selection of woods, click on
Woods for Wood Carving Projects