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What Type of Woodcarving is Right for Me?


You've decided you want to try your hand at woodcarving. Maybe its the idea of creating something awesome out of a simple block of wood, or the appeal of making handmade gifts for your friends and family. Or you could just have some free time and a few tools laying around, and you'd like to try something new. 

Whatever the reason, the first step for a beginner woodcarver is to figure out exactly what type of woodcarving they want to do.

In this article, we'll cover a few types of hand carving:

  • What we like about each type of carving 
  • The Pros and Cons of each type of carving

After reading this, hopefully you'll be able to make a more informed decision about where to start your carving journey after reading this. 

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, focuses on different cuts or techniques, and uses different tools. 

Relief Carving

Relief Carving is worked on a flat piece of wood. The woodworker transfers the artwork, pattern or design to the wood slab, and then carves away layers of wood until the design looks 3D. As you continue to remove wood around the design, it begins to have depth and shadows.

In essence, a relief carving presents a picture “drawn” into the wood with carving tools until it stands out from the background.

Why is relief carving so cool?

Because with some practice, even beginners can create epic, three dimensional scenes in wood! There are also plenty of fun, simple relief carving projects you can do that aren’t as complicated as recreating an entire scene from your favorite fantasy novel. Beginners can slowly improve their relief carving skills by starting out with simpler designs, like letters, flowers, Celtic knots, or (in my case) a basketball.  This is great carving style to begin your woodcarving journey.

Pros

  • Create awesome artwork
  • Start with simple projects and progress to more difficult
  • Can be done on any sturdy surface
  • Relaxing, cathartic hobby

Cons

  • You will have to put in the time to learn how to sharpen your gouges, which can be tricky

Carving in the Round

Carving in the Round involves taking a piece or block of wood and turning it into a three-dimensional object. Unlike relief carving, which is viewed primarily from one direction, this type of carving produces a fully 3D piece, which can be viewed from all sides, and often looks realistic.

Common carving subjects in this style are people, faces, animals or gnomes. But really, almost anything can be carved in the round!

Carving in the round produces some amazing art. It’s also more difficult than the other types of carving we’re covering here. Of course, you can start simple, with faces for example. There are some good “How to” videos out there for beginners that will walk you through all the steps.

You’ll need a heftier vice to secure your wood in place, and allow you to work on the piece from different angles. Vices specific for this type of carving are available, but can be a bit pricier than the alternative securing methods. We’ll cover all tools you’ll need in the next section.

Pros

  • With practice, you can create amazing sculptures out of wood
  • Can be relaxing and rewarding

Cons

  • More difficult than other types of carving
  • A few more tools required
  • More space required (you’ll most likely need a dedicated work bench if you are working on larger sculptures) 

Whittling

Whittling uses knives instead of gouges and chisels to carve shapes out of wood. The finished product tends to be smaller in scale than something that was carved in the round, for example. 

Many beginners start with whittling, if for no other reason than it’s the most accessible (all you need is a single knife, wood and something to sharpen your knife with). Contrary to popular belief however, whittling is not necessarily safer than other methods of carving. Because you’re often required to hold the piece of wood in your hand while you carve, slicing your finger or hand is a real risk.

That being said, it is the lowest barrier to entry. Affordable carving knives aren’t difficult to find, and they are simpler to sharpen than curved gouges. There are a zillion whittling resources out there in book, article and video format. And there are some super simple, fun whittling projects that would be easy to get started on right away, like carving a Santa Clause faces in a pencil, or creating gnomes from twigs.

Pros

  • Easy to get started
  • Lots of fun, beginner projects and learning resources available
  • Low barrier to entry (don’t need much to get started)
  • Portable, can do it anywhere

Cons

  • Scope of what you’re able to do may be smaller than if you’re also using gouges and chisels
  • More dangerous than other types of carving

Treen Carving, Spoon Carving and Greenwood Carving

Treen carving focuses on practical, household items carved from a single piece of wood. Common items include kitchen utensils like spoons, bowls and cups. Traditionally, treen focuses on functionality more than decorativeness, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make your carving look pretty. 

Spoon carving, by definition, would fall under the category of treen carving. But it’s popular enough to have its own category. Many people use a combination of knives (curved and straight) and gouges to carve spoons and bowls. There a number of tools shaped specifically to hollow out the concave portion of the spoon or bowl. Spoon carving “blanks” are also readily available: wood that is already machine cut into the basic shape of a spoon.

Spoon carving is another easy option for beginners, and shares many similarities to whittling. In fact, you can whittle a spoon, but you’ll need some type of curved knife or gouge in addition to your straight knife.

Like all these forms of carving, there’s no limit to the complexity you can reach with your spoon or treen carvings. I’ve seen some mind-blowing, intricately designed spoons.

Greenwood carving means you’re using wood that has just been cut down and is still wet. A lot of spoon carving and treen carving falls under this category (although it doesn’t have to). There is some added complexity to Greenwood carving, because you’ll need to research how the wood changes at it dries. If you decide to trek out into the woods and cut yourself a piece of wood to carve, I recommend you do some Googling first, or ask someone that has experience.

Pros

  • Fun, practical projects that you can use when finished
  • Tons of learning material available
  • Relatively low barrier to entry
  • Skies the limit with how creative you want to get

Cons

  • Similar cons you’d find in whittling
  • Hook knives are difficult to sharpen, if you decide to go that route

 

You may have noticed that all of these are types of hand carving...

Why do we like hand-carving?

  • Carving by hand is often described as being relaxing and cathartic. Carvers tend to get lost in their work. Many programs, like 21st Century Heroes for Wounded Combat Veterans, offer therapeutic hand carving classes for that very reason
  • Rewarding – its awesome to make something with your hands!
  • Beginner friendly
  • Low barrier to entry – it isn’t too difficult to find affordable, quality hand carving gouges and knives
  • Lots of learning material available – videos, books, articles, magazines, local workshops and more

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