I am not exactly sure when I began wood carving but it was as a child based on my intrigue with a small Chinese figurine that my Grandmother had created using a paring knife from her kitchen drawer and an old piece of construction pine. I thought that carving was about the neatest thing that I had ever seen. Then came scouting and church camps where I was constantly whittling away at something… mostly making knives and swords. Back in those days young boys would not go anywhere without a pocket knife.
In high school, I began to take art more seriously and experimented with all forms of art; however, sculpture, and particularly wood sculpture, remained my favorite form of art. It is fun for me to look back over all those years and review my carving progress. It was not until my early married years that I owned wood carving tools beyond a low quality pocket knife and some carpenter’s chisels. Having genuine wood carving tools was a kin to early mans discovery of fire; however, I still needed to learn to sharpen them. The rest was fast moving history and I won’t bore you with it.
Part of my goal with the articles on this site, my web site and classes that I offer is to introduce you to the wonderful art of wood carving. I hope to provide motivation and education and perhaps save you some of the trial and error on carving techniques, selecting carving woods and the tools you use on them.
When people ask me questions about my carving, it is often about the woods that I use. So, let me begin my series of articles with a brief discussion on carving woods.
Generally speaking, woods have three primary properties that a carver will want to consider; the woods hardness, grain, and color.
Hardness has to do with the wood’s resistance to cutting or penetration by a carver’s tools. Technically, woods are classified as either hardwoods or softwoods. Typically, softwoods are those with needles or leaves that are not lost in the winter. One exception to that is larch. Larch does lose its needles and is classified as softwood. Hardwoods include all the fruit woods found around Chelan that are deciduous. Be aware that sometimes these classifications can be deceiving. There are softwoods that are harder than hardwoods. And, there are a number of hardwoods softer than technical softwoods. An example of what I am illustrating is one of a carver’s favorite carving woods, basswood, a hardwood softer than Alaska Yellow Cedar, a true softwood.
One needs to factor in hardness when considering a carving’s application. For instance if you were carving a walking stick or cane, you would want a hardwood for strength. Many softwoods would not have the necessary strength for use as a walking stick.
I should not leave a discussion on hardwoods without one note of caution. Many exotic hardwoods, such as those from tropical regions of the World, are toxic. Caution should be exercised when creating dust to always wear a face mask. Some carvers are even allergic to the touch of certain exotic woods.
Grain is the visible strata or lines in the wood. Grain is typically growth rings and in softwoods the grain is often wide as softwood trees grow fairly fast. A carver generally carves with the grain following the same direction as the longest dimension of the carving. You have all heard the term: “that goes against my grain.” The phrase stems from the fact that carving against the grain is most difficult and sometimes impossible. Generally, even if it is possible to carve against the grain, it will rip and tear, leaving a jagged surface. I recall an American Indian artist once telling his audience that the wood will tell you if you carve in the wrong direction. What he was referring to was if one carves against the grain, one will feel resistance. Carving with the grain is generally smooth.
Color is important if you do not paint your carvings and appreciate the naturalness of the wood. I do add oils and sometimes stains to wood if I think it would improve the carving’s appearance. I tend to not paint wood as it hides the natural beauty found in wood. Good woods with color are walnut and butternut. There are many others that are not necessarily dark woods like Alder and Desert Juniper that are also quite attractive. There are some woods with a creamy or light sapwood (outer wood) and a salmon or brown interior (heart wood). These dual tone woods are fun to carve and one can be creative with carvings utilizing the different colors. An example is the wizard pictured here with blond hair and natural skin tones on the face. This piece is Diamond Willow from Alaska, one of my favorite woods.
One needs to choose a wood for a carving after evaluating the above. Clearly, one can carve any wood and I fancy myself as one willing to carve any type of wood. I have even carved that pesky bitter brush that grows all over North Central Washington. However, I do have my favorites. I will list a few of them here and in the near term (future column), I will discuss each of them more fully, describing their characteristics. Some of my favorites are:
Western White Pine
Tip of the Day
Carvers sometimes find wood too hard or even too soft to carve. Hardwoods can be too hard for small detail knives and soft woods can easily crush when a knife that is not razor sharp is being used. A remedy for both of these is to spray the area to be carved with a good dose of 50/50 rubbing alcohol and water. The mixture works magic in both cases and it dries without a trace. Give it a try.
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Keep Sharp and Happy Carving!