Getting started in woodcarving

As active woodworkers and readers of this magazine, you already know how satisfying it is to make something in wood; whether it’s a chest, chair, mirror frame, or a host of other projects that have been described in past issues. The beauty of many of these objects can be greatly enhanced by decorating them with carving, which will give them an even greater variation of texture and add to their grace and beauty. You can combine your manual skill with an artistic feeling, and make your project a distinctly individual piece.

In recent issues of Popular Woodworking I have been describing some advanced projects and techniques. 1 hope that this has aroused the interest of woodworkers who have not yet taken up the pleasures of woodcarving. In this article, I would like to back up to the beginning for those of you that haven’t yet started carving. Thus, I will discuss the tools you will need to get started in carving and some of the woods that you might consider using.

Tools and Equipment

The beginner should buy only a few tools at a time, and then only when he finds a need for them. I do not recommend buying sets of tools because they generally have several that you will rarely use, and that’s not really saving you any money. As your skill develops, you will want to add to your collection of tools according to the wood you use and the types of carvings you do, but buy new tools only when you have the need for them. Cutters

The most common cutters are the woodcarving gouges which have concave cutting edges and vary according to their curvature, shape, and length. You should buy only good tools that will take and hold a razor edge in the hardest wood you intend to carve. Cheap tools are usually made from a softer steel and will not hold an edge, so you have to do a lot of sharpening. The harder steels can attain and hold a thinner and smoother edge and are best for delicate detail work. When obtained from the manufacturer they usually come ground only and must be sharpened before they can be used. This allows the carver to adapt the bevel to his style of carving and the type of wood he plans to carve. Even if they have been sharpened, you will find that you have to fine-tune them to your own carving style.

The Cutting Kdge

The cutting edge on carving tools comes in various shapes and is used for different purposes. I will briefly describe each of these.

Chisels are flat with no curvature. They cut well along the grain, but are not of any use across grain. They have one beveled side with the other flat, and are used mostly in carpentry. In carving they are useful for rounding convex surfaces; however, this function can be done equally as well by Turners. If you do not already own chisels, 1 would not recommend that you buy any just for carving.

Firmers are similar to the chisels but have bevels on both sides. They are used for setting down vertical edges and paring flat or slightly rounded surfaces. However, like chisels, they have but limited usefulness in carving.

A skew is a firmer in which the cutting edge has been skewed at an angle forming a sharp point. It’s used for cutting straight edges, undercutting, and for getting into sharply angled comers. The skew is the most useful of the flat tools. Do not confuse these with the skew chisels which have either a right- or left-hand single bevel.

Gouges are the most commonly used tools in carving; they have a circular profile, known as the sweep. Gouges are identified using a numbering system based on the fraction of a circle contained in the sweep as illustrated in Figure 1. Figure 2 shows some different sweeps and how they relate to the same width of gouge. Thus gouges of the same size can have different radii of curvature, with the largest number having more of the circular section. This numbering system can differ slightly among manufacturers.

Veiners are U-shaped gouges. They are called veiners since the smaller ones are very useful in carving the veins of leaves. When turned over, they can carve a slender stem in relief if they have been sharpened with a slight micro-bevel on the inside. These tools are used mostly in lettering and carving delicate lines and grooves. They are also extremely useful for texturing surfaces.

Parting or V-Tools come in three angles: 45°, 60°, and 90°, with the 60° tool being the most useful and the 90° one the hardest to use. They are used for outlining, finishing comers, carving sharp-edged grooves, and in lettering when a V-shaped groove is desired. For most purposes you will want the apex edge of the V to be rounded for easier cutting.

Tool Size

Full-size tools are generally 9-1/2″ to 11” in length with blades approximately 4″ long. These are the easiest to use and should be your first purchase. Smaller tools that are approximately 6″ long are most useful for small carvings. They are sometimes called a beginner’s set. but I would not recommend them for beginners. Block-cutting tools are generally small-sized with half-round handles for palm control. The larger and heavier tools are referred to as sculptor’s gouges.

Tool Shape

There are six basic shapes for the shaft of the tool; and each has its own use. Examples of these tools are shown in Figure 3 and the photograph above. The straight gouges are the standard shape and are the most useful. The others are for special purposes. For instance, the long bent gouges are primarily used for relief carving and the carving of concave shapes such as the inside of bowls. The short bent gouges are for deep relief and concave carving in confined spaces which cannot be reached by the other gouges. A back bent gouge is convex instead of concave and has limited use in carving. It is used in deep relief mostly to carve the undercut. Fishtail gouges have the cutting edge wider than the main shaft so they can reach beneath projections and into comers. They are used for carving in tight areas and for making sharp comers. The #3 sweep fishtail gouge is a very popular tool, especially in the larger sizes. The dog legs are generally chisels designed for finishing flat recesses on relief carvings. The sides are tapered back to facilitate undercutting. Handles

Tool handles can be either octagonal or round. You should choose the shape most comfortable for your use. English tools such as Marples and Henry Taylor have round handles, as do the Japanese tools. The Continental tools such as the Swiss and German usually come with octagonal handles.

For delicate detail carving, I prefer to use pencil-grip gouges as shown in the photograph above. These are small gouges that 1 have removed from the manufacturer’s handles and remounted in a dowel rod with only about an inch of the blade protruding. These can then be held like a pencil and easily rotated to match the contour of the carving.

Japanese Tools

The Japanese make a full line of carving tools with blades made of two layers of steel laminated together. The cutting edges are made from an extremely hard carbon steel which will take a keener cutting edge than other tools. This hard steel is laminated to a layer of softer steel, to provide strength and protect the cutting edge.

Their smaller gouges differ greatly from the common European variety. These small tools are extremely useful for the carving of delicate details. They are made with a thinner laminated blade with a pre-sharpened shallow bevel that gives the tool a small cutting edge. The handle is also different and allows you to hold the tool the same as you would a pencil. This gives extra control for the carving of fine details. Two of these are illustrated in the photograph.


Dull gouges are hard to carve with and are dangerous to use because they require more force and are thus harder to control. Your gouges will need to be continually sharpened and honed while carving, and for this 1 recommend the use of Japanese water stones. They are cleaner to work with, and sharpen faster and better than the oil stones. These stones come in a range of grits from very coarse to very fine. They should be soaked only in distilled water to prevent the build-up of salts.

For establishing the bevel on your gouges I would recommend a 100-grit friable aluminum oxide wheel mounted on a motor so that it rotates away from you. This direction is the opposite of the method for sharpening chisels. Since it is friable, the wheel will run cooler and always present sharper crystals for abrading the steel.


For carving in harder woods you will probably want to use a woodcarver’s mallet. These are round in cross section and come in several weights since it’s usually the weight of the mallet, rather than the force applied by the carver, that is used to drive the gouge through the wood. I would recommend the soft head type made with urethane. This style is more resilient than the hardwood mallets and less tiring for the carver.


Abraders are used to smooth the wood. There are many times when sandpaper will not do the job. and in these cases, riffler rasps and files are very useful. Rifflers come in many curved shapes to fit a variety of contours. Rasps are the coarsest with many tiny teeth for cutting. The files can be used in small areas instead of the finest sandpaper. Riffler files can be obtained from jewelers’ supply stores. I’ve found the industrial diamond riffle files made by Titan Tool Supply Co. (66 Comet Ave., Buffalo, NY 14216) to be especially effective in wood carving. A set with various shapes and coarseness is shown in the photograph above left.


Wood carving tools usually require both hands for control of the tool, thus some device must be used to hold the wood. For relief carving, simple C-clamps are usually sufficient. However, for in-the-round carving, a multiple-position holder or vise of some type is desirable. There are a great variety of these made for sculptors and carvers and they differ according, to the size of wood they can accommodate.

You can also make a holder from common pipe obtained from your hardware store. An example is shown in the photograph above and provides the full range of three-dimensional positioning.

Characteristics of Carving Woods

There are many woods that are appropriate for carving. The following short list is oriented toward their carving characteristics to help you decide which woods to choose for your carvings. Basswood is one of the best all-around soft woods for carving. It has a fine texture with no pronounced grain patterns and does not split or check easily. The wood is light in weight and easily carved. The color is creamy white so many carvers choose to stain or paint the finished carving. Since the wood contains so little resin, it is easy to paint; however, its high degree of absorption makes it difficult to stain.

Cherrywood is a light reddish-brown, and is one of the favorite fruit woods for carving. It is close, straight-grained, and fairly hard; thus it can be used for carvings with fine detail. In this respect cherry is somewhat better than walnut for carving details. It takes an excellent finish and has a beautiful grain.

Jelutong is a whitish wood from South East Asia. It’s softer than basswood and carves very easily, even across grain. However, it does have internal sap channels which must be filled if they occur in your particular piece.

Mahogany is an easy wood to carve; however, it can be unpredictable since the grain can change direction rather abruptly. Honduras mahogany is readily available and easy to carve. The grain is coarse and has open pores which should be filled whenever you want a smooth surface. The wood takes a finish well and polishes beautifully. This is a particularly good wood for carving. Philippine mahogany is not a true mahogany. It’s generally softer, has larger pores, and is coarser than the true mahoganies. This wood is very stringy and generally of poor quality for carving.

Maple is a light-weight hard wood which takes details well, and thus is good for reliefs and lettering projects. Use the sugar maple species since soft maple is not a very good carving wood.

Myrtle, also known as California laurel, grows along the Pacific Coast in California and Oregon. It’s a moderately hard and strong wood with a close grain and a slight tendency to split. Soil minerals contribute to a wide variation in color. This is an excellent carving wood and it is possible to attain delicate detail.

Oak is strong and durable, and has attractive color and grain. It is most suitable for works featuring a bold treatment and is not often used for small carvings.

Padauk, also known as vermilion, is a brilliant orange-red when first cut, and turns a deep vermilion upon exposure to light. The wood has a moderately coarse texture with large open pores which can make it difficult to carve fine details.

Most of the pines are good for carving. Sugar pine is straight-grained and relatively coarse textured, with nearly uniform growth rings. Its color is light brown. Eastern white pine is creamy white to light brown, of medium texture and fairly even grain. Western white pine has a somewhat coarser texture. Avoid yellow pine which is hard, knotty, and resinous with a tendency to split.

In poplar the sapwood is almost white to yellowish with the heartwood providing regions of pale olive. The wood is moderately soft but has a resiliency which fights your gouge, thus it’s not the best for small carvings. The wood ’ s fibrous nature makes it more time-consuming to carve than basswood; however, this same fibrousness means it can be cut extremely thin and yet retain it strength.

There are two types of redwood that can be used for carving. The coastal redwood is mostly used for large carvings not requiring fine detail. You will see many chain saw carvings in this wood. It has a very coarse grain that splits easily. The presence of hard and soft growth rings makes it easy to carve along the grain but quite difficult across the grain. The wood can be strengthened for carving by impregnation with beeswax, which gives it a salmon color. The Sierra redwood is very soft and requires very sharp tools.

Eastern black walnut is one of the most beautiful of our native woods. The heartwood is a light to dark chocolate brown. It’s one of the favorites for carvers since it holds details well and finishes beautifully. It has a moderate grain with coarse diffuse pores. California walnut, known asclaro walnut, is also used by many carvers, but does not carve as well as the Eastern black walnut.

Water tupelo is a very fine-grained white wood which grows in the flood plains along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and up into the Mississippi Valley. It’s a white, straight-grained wood which will take detail cuts without splintering. It’s whiter and lighter than basswood and is used by many duck carvers. However, its sanding dust is toxic to many people.

Basic Tool and Wood List for Beginners

To help you get started, I will list a minimum set of tools to buy. These will accomplish many wood carving projects. You can add to this list as you find a need for more tools.

1. Cutters

The minimum set of gouges for the beginner which I have found to be the most useful consists of the following five:

8 mm skew 5 mm

3 shallow gouge 16 mm

3 shallow gouge 10 mm

9 deep gouge 8 mm


These tools should be of the standard length which are easier to use than the short ones. Whenever you want to expand on this set, then I would recommend first adding more sizes of the #3 gouges since these are the most useful in carving the final details. Smaller skews which are used in detailing would be the next ones to add after that.

2. Sharpeners

If you buy only one stone. I would recommend the 1200-grit Japanese water stone. This will sharpen your gouges well enough for most carving. As you add to your set, obtain the finer grits. For establishing the bevel on new tools you will need a 100-grit aluminum oxide grinding wheel.

3. Abraders

A beginning carver should not need anything but sandpaper at first. Then, whenever you find the need, get a few jeweler’s riffler files.

4. Holders

For relief carving, a pair of 6″ Jorgensen high-speed bar clamps works well. For in-the-round carvings, I would recommend the Model 301 standard PanaVise available from many mail order tool suppliers. This is a versatile tool which can be fitted with other heads in addition to the vise.

5. Wood

Probably the best woods to start with are basswood and Honduras mahogany. They both carve easily and are usually available at specialty lumber stores in sizes suitable for carving.

With the above list of tools and materials you are now ready to begin carving, and in future articles I will describe some projects you can work on.

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