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What Is Wood Carving?


Relief carving with Schaaf Tools gouges

Are you looking for a hobby that allows you to create beautiful keepsakes or practical items without spending hundreds of dollars just to get started? Wood carving checks all of those boxes.  

This article explains the basics of wood carving, including the tools, terminology, and types of wood carving.

What is wood carving?

Wood carving is a type of woodworking in which people use knives, chisels, and other hand-held wood carving tools to create figures or designs in pieces of wood. Woodcarvers make everything from duck decoys, cufflinks, and epic three-dimensional storybook scenes to furniture, home decor, and life-sized sculptures of animals or people. 

The language of wood carving

When woodcarvers talk about their craft, they mention the tools they use, the kinds of wood they carve, and the types of carving they do. 

Wood carving tools

A wood carver’s most basic tools are carving knives, such as whittling knives, chip carving knives, and hook knives. Whittling knives are all-purpose tools while chip carving knives feature a thin, short blade that allows carvers to chip away small bits of wood. A hook knife, or spoon knife, has a bent blade shaped like a hook and is ideal for carving spoons and other pieces with hollowed-out areas. 

Chisels and gouges make it easier to carve curves and angles. Chisels have flat edges while gouges have curved edges and rounded ends. Gouges allow the carver to scoop out chunks of wood. When woodcarvers carve grooves or add detail to their carvings, they often use a veiner, a special gouge with longer sides. If their project needs angles rather than curves, they’ll choose a V-tool (or a skew chisel).

Chisels and gouges differ in size and the amount of curve--or sweep--they have. A tool’s size and amount of curve are known as its profile. In a typical toolset for woodcarvers, each instrument would have a different profile.

schaaf tools 12 piece set profiles skews

Among the nearly endless supply of carving accessories, two critical items are a wood carving mallet and a sharpening tool. Woodcarvers use a mallet to strike the ends of chisels or gouges so they can make a deeper cut into the wood block. 

Carvers keep their tools sharp by using a wood carving sharpening tool such as a stone or a belt grinder for initial sharpening and a strop to polish the edge of the tools and remove burrs that sometimes appear during the sharpening process. 

Types of wood

A block of wood is classified as being either a hardwood or a softwood. Softwood is easier to carve and generally less expensive than hardwood. Beginning woodcarvers usually start by carving a softwood like basswood, butternut, or pine. 

Although their hardness makes them more challenging to carve, hardwoods often have a distinct hue and a defined grain. Because of this, experienced carvers sometimes prefer working with hardwoods like cherry, mahogany, or black walnut

Types of wood carving

There are several types of wood carving, each of which employs unique methods and requires specific carving tools. However, they share an essential characteristic--they require the carvers to use very sharp tools. Many woodcarvers wear safety goggles and wood carving gloves to protect themselves from cuts and flying bits of wood.  

Here are 5 common types of wood carving. Most of them work well for beginning woodcarvers. The exception is chainsaw carving, which is generally best suited to experienced carvers.

Whittling 

whittling with schaaf tools protective gloves

Most woodcarvers start by whittling. They find a small piece of softwood and use a pocket knife to create a toy or a trinket. Whittling is the most basic type of wood carving since the only essential tools are a wood carving knife and a honing strop.

Chip carving

Chip carving starts with a flat piece of wood. Carvers “chip away” bits of wood to form a design in the wood’s surface. Chip carvers use gouges as well as carving knives. 

Relief carving

In a relief carving, the design protrudes from the piece of wood, giving the piece a sense of depth. Relief carving is one of the oldest forms of wood carving and requires a variety of carving tools.

Carving in the round

carving in the round wood spirits

Carving in the round yields a completely 3-dimensional piece. The design can be viewed from any direction because the wood is carved away from all sides. Depending upon the design they choose, folks carving in the round may need knives, chisels, gouges, and V-tools.

Chainsaw carving

To do chainsaw carving, carvers fit a chainsaw with a special blade. They also need a grinder and sanding tools if they desire a smooth finish. Safe chainsaw carving requires the carver to wear safety boots and earplugs as well as gloves and goggles. 


Who carves wood, and why?

Artifacts from around the globe reveal that people have been carving wood for centuries. Why is it still popular with people of all ages? One compelling reason is that wood carving lets artists and craftspeople create something useful, lasting, and beautiful using only their two hands and a few small tools. It’s easy to get started into wood carving, and there’s a perfect project for virtually every carver. 

Additionally, several characteristics of wood encourage people to become woodcarvers. As a carving medium, wood is:

  • Plentiful. Trees grow abundantly in many parts of the world, ensuring a constant supply of wood.
  • Easy to use. Basic hand-held tools will carve wood. 
  • Varied. Each variety of wood has a unique color, hardness, and grain pattern.
  • Lasting. Wood that’s finished or protected from the elements will last several lifetimes.
  • Versatile. Wood can be fashioned into virtually anything.

Learn more about the tools woodcarvers use in our guide: Best Wood Carving Tools for Beginners.




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