The wood you use to carve with will differ in its color, grain and hardness. It’s best not to sit down with a random piece of wood, or something too hard when you’re just starting out.
Set yourself up for success with a block of carving wood that holds detail and is relatively easy to carve. We’re going to focus on Basswood, Butternut, White Pine, Black Walnut and Aspen. Not only are these woods recommended for beginners, but they’re also relatively inexpensive and easy to find, depending on where you are.
1. Basswood (Also known as Linden)
Basswood is a soft wood that still holds detail well, so its a perfect for carving if you’re a beginner. It’s light cream colored, with streaks of brown, and has a smooth, even grain. Basswood seldom warps, so its ideal for both large and small carvings, and its cheap and easy to find in hobby shops as well. This is definitely a favorite for figure carving and relief carving.
Basswood carving blocks from Schaaf Tools
2. Butternut (White Walnut)
Butternut (sometimes called white walnut) is a soft wood that holds detail well. The sapwood (living outermost layer) is white, while the heartwood (inner wood) is light brown, with occasional dark brown streaks. It has a medium coarse texture, with a distinct, straight pattern. Butternut is easy to work with hand tools, but be aware it can dull tools quickly, so have your sharpening stones at the ready.
Coming Out of The Butternut - by woodcarver Nate Elarton.
Aspen is technically a hardwood, but its a soft hardwood – not quite as soft as Basswood – but still easy to carve. Again, this wood holds detail well, and has a white coloring and nice straight grain. Aspen trees grow all over the place, so their wood is cheap and pretty easy to find. Inexpensive blanks can be found at most hobby shops.
Mark Hanson demonstrates how to carve a Greenman out of Aspen
4. White Pine
White Pine is another good option for those of you just getting into hand carving. Its another soft wood that holds detail well (are you seeing a theme here yet?) with a medium grain and light cream color. White Pine is best for whittling, relief carving, or carving in the round. It is not as well suited for chip carving because it has a soft, straight grained texture. Some people also have trouble with pine cracking as it dries out, so if you’ve finished a carving you like, dry it out slowly, or seal it after a few days.
5. Black Walnut
Black Walnut is popular, but a bit more expensive than the previous choices. And although its a little harder (this wood is quite sturdy and heavy) it is still straight grained and fairly easy to carve. Walnut has a rich, dark brown color with a beautiful natural finish. If you have a chance to experiment with a walnut carving block, give it a try!
Walnut Carving Block from Schaaf Tools
Every carver’s ideal wood is different. And remember, each wood has its own benefits. As you continue carving, try a few different types of wood to get a sense for what you prefer, and what works best for which project.