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Figuring out what types of wood to use for your carvings can be a challenge, especially when starting out with wood carving. With an abundance of species and types of wood to choose from, and with different characteristics to each one. So let me make the choice for your next wood carving project easier with this article.
The best types of wood for wood carving is Basswood, Butternut, Pine, Cherry, Maple, Oak, Aspen, Black Walnut, Birch, Cedar, and Mahogany. These woods have characteristics and traits that are valuable for a woodcarver. Some are hard and hold detail well, some are soft and better for quick carvings.
This list is not complete and there are several other kinds of wood on the market that are good for carving. These are just my favorites that I like to work with. So let’s get into why these woods are so good for carving.
What is the best wood for wood carving?
Asking what wood is the best wood for carving is like asking “what food is the best”. It is impossible to give one true answer for what wood is the best, different carvers value different traits in the wood.
One carver might like a dense wood that holds detail well like black walnut and one might like basswood for its simplicity and lack of grain pattern. In general, we want wood that holds detail well, does not chip or splinter when you carve it, is easy on your carving tools, and is enjoyable to work with.
There are no woods out there that get a top score at all criteria for wood carving. There are however some woods that are commonly regarded as good woods to carve. And remember, almost all woods can be carved ( if not all ). Some woods just takes a lit more patience and time to learn how to carve.
I am a huge advocate of trying to carve as many different types of wood as you can. So here you go. Here is a list of commonly regarded good woods for carving and some of my favorites.
1. Basswood ( Tilia americana )
Basswood is one of the most common woods regarded as good for carving. It is classified as soft hardwood. The wood is soft to carve, has little to no visible grain, and has a creamy white color. Since basswood is so soft when carving, the knife or tool lasts longer before it needs sharpening.
Basswood is one of the best woods to carve for beginners. It is like a blank piece of paper that you can easily form into whatever you want. It is also a great wood to paint on since the grain is less visible and will not show through the paint as much as other woods.
Since basswood is one of the most common woods to carve for both beginners and experienced carvers it is available in all shapes and sizes and easily obtainable both online and your local wood retailer.
2. Butternut ( Juglans cinerea )
Butternut is a relative to the Black Walnut but butternut I softer. Being so soft, you can easily work it with both hand carving tools and power carving tools. Butternut has a defined grain running throughout it, which is slightly lighter in color than its counterpart, the black walnut.
If you want a wood that is as soft as basswood but still has some color and grain to it I would go for butternut. Butternut is highly susceptible to insect attacks and diseases that a forest normally has.
It is not normally used for commercial uses or lumber. This makes butternut hard to come across, but there are some blanks for sale on etsy.com. Otherwise, I would go and ask at my local lumberyard if they have some or know where it is obtainable.
3. Pine ( Pinus )
Pine is one of the woods classified as softwood on this list. Pine can be good to use depending on your project. Pine is fast-growing, prone to chipping, and usually has a lot of knots throughout the wood. So finding the right pieces is important when looking for blanks.
You want pieces that have few knots and fine-grained wood. The reason I included pine in this list is because of its great availability. Pine is one of the cheapest and most readily available wood types on the market. Pine can be bought in any form or size imaginable. So even though pine might not be the best of the best for carving, most people will be able to get their hands on some pine boards to use for carving.
My first and many more woodcarving projects were done with Pine. Pine also has more than 40 different species that grow around the world. They all have different characteristics when it comes to carving. Eastern White Pine is one of the types of pine that has a good reputation for woodworking and woodcarving.
4. Cherry ( Prunus )
Cherry is another hardwood that comes in many different variations. In general, cherry is dense and holds detail well, and has a beautiful brown and sometimes red color. Cherry can be hard to carve and some carvers use a heavier knife like the Mora 120 or heavier tools when carving cherry. So if you want an end product that holds detail well and is sure to be beautiful I would consider cherry. Just know that it is going to be more tedious and time-consuming than the softer woods.
Maple comes in two Categories. Soft maple and hard maple. But don’t be fooled by the names, maple is always a dense wood to work with. The hard maple is just even harder. Trees like Sugar Maple are in the hard maple category and Red maple is in the soft maple one.
When carving maple it is best to use gouges and a mallet instead of a knife. And it is important to always keep your tools sharp. Maple also has a tendency to get burn spots if working power tools too hard.
6. Oak ( Quercus )
Oak is one of my favorite woods because of its beautiful and subtle light brown color, and the way the grain runs through the wood. Oak is a hard, sturdy, and strong wood. It is dense which also means it can be hard to carve. But chipping off small chunks at a time makes it workable and the end result will always be worth it when it comes to oak.
Fun fact: Oaks can get up to 1000 years old and is hollow inside in their old age.
7. Aspen ( Populus tremuloides )
Aspen is a great wood for woodcarving and a favorite for many woodcarvers. It can be similar to basswood in many ways. It is soft, straight-grained, easy to carve, and has a creamy white color. But Aspen is stronger and sturdier than basswood. Aspen is also readily available and cheap. Advice is to go to the nearest wood retailer and buy it there
8. Black Walnut ( Juglans nigra )
Black Walnut is the wood with the darkest color on this list. It has a beautiful dark brown color and a beautiful grain to it. Black Walnut is also a very dense hardwood. So keep your tools sharp and strop them often.
Black walnut holds detail really well and can be formed into anything you want as long as you got the patience. It is a good idea to use good quality equipment when working with Walnut. Sturdy equipment goes a long way and will make you enjoy carving Black Walnut a lot more.
9. Mahogany ( Swietenia )
Mahogany is another great wood for woodcarving. Mahogany is somewhere in between soft and hard and is pleasant to work with. The only negative about mahogany is that it has a tendency to split and chip if you are not careful. But after getting used to working with mahogany it won’t be a huge issue.
Mahogany has a rich brown color with a red tint to it. Mahogany also stains really well and easily gets a shiny look to it, but it is just as beautiful with no finish. Mahogany can be expensive because it is one of the most sought-after woods in the world. And it is not native to the USA.
10. Cedar ( Cedrus )
Cedar is a great option for wood carving. Cedar is soft to carve and has a beautiful variation of grain and pattern throughout the wood. Cedarwood is also prone to chipping and tearing, so if you are carving a design with a lot of detail I would go for something else like oak.
Cedar also comes from many different types of species. The most popular for carving is the Red Cedar WoodWorking with cedarwood has a bit of a learning curve to it but when you get to know the wood and how you can work it, it is great to work with and carvings usually turn out beautiful.
11. Birch ( Betula )
Birch is great for wood carving and is used a lot in Europe for carving kuksa ( finish style cup from burl wood ) and spoons. Birch has a creamy white color but does not have any distinct features to the grain. The most beautiful pieces made with birch are made with either spalted birch or birch burl ( See More ).
Birch can also be like a blank piece of paper. The grain will not disturb you in what you are trying to make. Whittling birch is done best from green wood as hardens considerably when dried. Birch is plentiful throughout the northern parts of Europe and North America.
There are many different types of wood you can carve. As we can see the range is big and the properties of the different wood types vary a lot. But my recommendation when starting woodcarving is just to carve anything you can get your hands on. Some of my first carvings were done with wood that I sawed of an old broomstick.
So use what you have and explore the different types of wood when you can get a hold of them. Have fun with your carving!