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Different Types of Wood Carving

types of wood carving, relief carving, carving spirits, chip carving art by Mike Evans

What are the different types of wood carving?

The craft of wood carving covers a broad range of techniques that yields everything from useful household utensils to ornate and detailed decor, collectibles, or furniture. Some forms are worked on one side of a flat slab or panel of wood. In others, the carver works from all sides of the wood. Each type has distinct features and focuses on different cuts or techniques. 

A wide array of power tools make it possible for woodworkers to carve, detail, sand, and polish wood into lovely pieces. However, this article focuses on the tools and techniques of hand wood carving. The only necessary wood carving tools are small knives, chisels, and gouges. 

What distinguishes one type of wood carving from another?

The differences between the types of wood carving include the techniques and tools used as well as the pieces that each type produces. In this article we compare and contrast 6 common types of wood carving by addressing the unique aspects of that style of carving, the tools each requires, and the types of items commonly made by each type of carver.



whittling, knife carving, figure carving schaaf tools whistling whittler handcarved gnome

Folks frequently equate hand wood carving with whittling, and some carvers learn the basics of carving by whittling.

What’s a whittling knife? To some, a standard pocket knife or Swiss army knife works as a whittling tool. Others use special wood carving knives with larger handles and shorter blades to help whittlers work tight curves and small details into their pieces. It’s also worth noting that some whittling purists believe a “true” whittling knife must have 3 blades and 2 back springs.

Whittlers often carve small figures or keepsakes. Some include few details and leave their projects “rough.” Others include fine details and then sand and finish their work.

Treen Carving

Treen carving centers on practical, household items carved from a single piece of wood. Common items include kitchen utensils like spoons, bowls and goblets, as well as baskets, needle cases, and pipes. Treen pieces are frequently turned on a hand lathe and sometimes use green wood.

If you want to start treen carving, you’ll need only a basic set of wood carving tools and a means to sharpen them. The craft is relatively easy to learn and produces a piece that’s attractive, useful, and lasting.

Lovespoon Carving

wooden spoons, spoon carving, lovespoons

The words “love” and “spoon” describe key aspects of this type of carving. A lovespoon is a wooden spoon. Traditionally, a suitor carved a lovespoon to communicate his love and the seriousness of his intentions.

Because they were  literal spoons, lovespoons served a practical purpose. However, since they also represented love and affection, lovespoons typically were intricately carved and contained lots of symbolism such as hearts, doves, and rings.

Today’s carved lovespoons continue to be intricately designed, highly decorative, and filled with symbolism. But, lovespoon carving is no longer the exclusive domain of young lovers. Carvers of both genders and all ages now make these lovely pieces, which are predominantly for decoration rather than adoration.

Flat-plane carving

For people who like to carve figures, flat-plane carving--also known as Scandanavian flat-plane carving--is ideal. Flat-plane figures are usually caricatures of people or animals. They are carved in large flat planes and are typically left rough. Tool marks remain, and edges are unrounded and unsanded.

Finished pieces are usually painted in lifelike colors and used as decorative items throughout a home. 

A flat-plane carver’s primary tool is a carving knife. Beginning carvers who learn to use a knife well can create attractive wooden caricatures. This feature makes flat-plane carving attractive to woodworkers on a budget.

Chip carving

Chip carving is worked on one side of a flat piece of wood. Carvers “chip away” bits of wood to form a design on the wood’s surface. The overall dimensions of the wood do not change, except where the design or picture is carved into the wood.

Chip carving is distinctive because it typically includes geometric patterns and is often done on an existing piece like a box, a table edge, or a chair leg.  Chip carving also requires only a few wood carving tools beyond a short-bladed carving knife and a stab knife, so it’s relatively inexpensive to start chip carving.

Relief carving

relief carving woodcarving by Madcarver with Schaaf Tools

Like chip carving, relief carving is worked on a flat piece of wood. When doing relief carving, the woodworker carves away layers of wood until the design has depth and shadows. The depth of carving determines whether the carving is low-relief, high-relief, or deep-relief.  Deep relief carvings--which include several layers and are often quite intricate--are carved to a depth of more than two inches and incorporate significant amounts of shading.

Relief carvers essentially draw a detailed and layered picture into a piece of wood. They use a variety of carving knives, as well as several gouges and chisels, to achieve the detail and depth that their piece needs.

Types we didn’t include

Because of our focus on hand carving, we omitted chainsaw carving, even though it’s popular and distinctive. We also left out a few less-popular types of woodcarving but may cover those in the future. To keep up on the latest info about wood carving, join our community by subscribing at the bottom of this post. 

A few guidelines for all wood carvers:

Regardless of the type of carving you choose, you need to observe a few guidelines.

Protect your hands. To work well, your wood carving tools need to be very sharp. Even with sharp tools, you’ll need to exert a fair amount of force when you carve. One slip of the knife could seriously damage your hand. Observing safe carving protocols and/or wearing carving gloves decreases the likelihood of injuring yourself.

Protect your eyes. Removing bits of wood is the essence of any type of carving, so safety glasses make sense. They provide excellent protection against airborne wood chips or slivers.  

Keep your tools sharp. It makes sense that sharp tools cut easier and make crisper, neater cuts. Although it seems counter-intuitive, sharp tools are also safer to use. Using dull wood carving tools leads to more accidents.

Choose a project that’s not too difficult. Choosing a carving project that’s beyond your carving skill is a recipe for discouragement. Often the project goes unfinished. Sometimes a discouraged carver gives up on the craft altogether.  Whether you choose treen carving, chip carving, or another type we’ve mentioned, you’re wise to tackle something that you can reasonably finish.

Which type of wood carving is best for you?

The answer depends on your interests, the time you have to devote to carving, and your budget for wood carving tools and accessories.  Read through our summaries.

  • Which carving types appeal to you right away?
  • What aspects do you find particularly attractive?
  • Does your personality tend toward practical or decorative?

Your answers to these questions will guide you toward a few types and away from others.

Combine these considerations with your budget and time constraints. Doing so will guide you toward the “best” type of wood carving for you--at least at this point in your life. You can always expand from wherever you start!

For help getting started with tools, check out our guide to the best wood carving tools for beginners

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