Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | March 22, 2009

Woods – My Favorites for Carving

In my previous posting, I began discussing woods that a woodcarver might use. I had stated that any wood can be carved and in fact, I enjoy trying new and different woods as they are introduced to me. My friends are always offering me a piece of wood to try. Carving friends are a good and challenging influence in that regard.

I do have my favorite woods however and they include:

Yellow Cedar
Western Juniper
Western White Pine
Diamond Willow

Let me briefly highlight what I see as their attributes and drawbacks.

Basswood – I think it is safe to say that basswood is probably the wood of choice for most woodcarvers. Although it is classified as a hardwood it is soft enough to easily carve with the most delicate of tools and it is a wood that one can easily cut across grain. In fact, with basswood it is not unusual to carve against the grain with success. The grain of basswood is not as pronounced as in most woods. A carver does not need a mallet to carve basswood unless it is a large piece needing a great deal of wood removal. It is easily worked with hand pressure. Basswood is one of the very best woods for accepting and holding detail and virtually all caricature carvers use it either exclusively or at least to a major degree.

I do have a personal opinion that there are a few draw backs to basswood including the fact that it is a blond wood and it does not stain well. It does accept paint and most caricature carvers paint their basswood pieces. Personally, I use two types of finishes on Basswood: 1) an oil mixture on it which darkens it slightly and highlights the grain or 2) oil with pigment added to provide an antiqued color finish – still allowing the grain to be seen. It is a wood from the Northern Midwest; so, generally folks out west here have to buy it. It is not as expensive as many other woods although like everything, the price seems to climb annually. Most carving suppliers offer it and it is always available at carving shows. A great on-line source for Bass wood is Heinecke Wood Products at: Dale and Tim Heinecke offer the best quality Bass Wood for a reasonable price that I have experienced and their service is excellent.

Walnut – Walnut is beautiful and that feature is a major attraction to it. It is a hard wood but not too hard to carve. In fact, I find it about perfect for mallet and gouge carving. It might be a bit hard for fine or more delicate carving knives. Walnut takes detail very well and cuts cleanly with sharp tools. It is more costly than most woods. Walnut grows everywhere and every once in a while someone will take out a walnut tree and you can find some free wood. To finish Walnut, all that is needed is a good quality oil. Walnut carvings always have a rich look to them.

Mahogany – Mahogany, too, is a beautiful wood. Although primarily brown, it has a red tone to it and has a distinctive grain pattern. Mahogany can be a challenge as it often has inconsistent grain. One need be cautious when “hogging” wood or you will find yourself ripping against grain and ruining a nice piece of work, however, with care, it works fine. I find mahogany better suited for piece without fine detail due to its grain structure. Mahogany carving wood primarily comes from the Caribbean where it is grown on plantations for export. Many mahoganies from elsewhere in the world are on an endangered species list as they are so popular in woodworking. Mahogany, like walnut is not cheap. Sharp tools are always important but Mahogany is a wood that definitely requires sharp tools.

Yellow Cedar – Often called Alaska Yellow Cedar, yellow cedar is common in Alaska. I love this wood. Most commercial yellow cedar domes from Alaska and Canada but is also found in the Western Cascade range in Washington State. This wood is wonderful to work with and it has a rich aromatic smell that really gets one’s attention. It is another wood that accepts and holds detail very well. Technically a softwood, it is harder than probably any other softwood that I am familiar with. It is a creamy yellowish color and has natural oils in it to a greater degree than most woods. It is quite popular for carving in the Northwest and Canada for North Coast Indian pieces. It is also a good wood for decoys and anything that will have exposure to dampness. Yellow cedar can be purchased from a few suppliers on the Coast. I have often found it at shops catering to wooden boat builders

A close relative to yellow cedar is Port Orford Cedar from Port Orford, Oregon. As it comes Primarily from Port Orford, it is rare and I know of only one source. It has a more distinct grain and its smell is more on the medicinal side and quite strong. I use it primarily for North Coast Indian carvings but have had success with other subject matter as well.

Western Juniper – This wood is referred to by many names. Arizona calls it Arizona Cedar and Cedar City, Utah was named after it. It is also referred to as Desert Cedar and grows all over the Western interior from Eastern Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. There may be some in Washington and California as well. It has a slight aroma similar to Tennessee Red Cedar (as in cedar chests) but the smell is faint and does not last once it dries. This wood is not commonly carved but I like it a lot. It is one of those woods with a blond sap wood and a pinkish brown heart wood. I am aware of two professional carvers that carve desert cedar almost exclusively. One draw back is that just under the bark is a layer of sap that will gum up your tools if not completely cured dry. It is technically a soft wood but it is a hard wood. It finishes wonderfully with a simple oil finish.

Western White Pine – Years ago, Western White Pine was the wood of choice by whittlers and woodcarvers. Its one time carving popularity has been replaced by Basswood. It is about as soft of a wood that can be carved with any success. It has a wonderful aroma that I equate with honey combs as honey combs used to be made from this pine in bygone years. Once common in Eastern Washington, the Idaho panhandle, and Western Montana, it is somewhat rare today mostly available only at carving shows. Despite its rarity it is not expensive. It is blond with pink tones and oil will show off a distinctive grain. It is the old growth woods that are best for carving. I suggest staying away from the broad grained younger growth.

Diamond Willow – Good diamond willow comes from Alaska. It is tight grained and has rich dual colors. Its only draw back is its small diameter. The largest that I have ever seen was years ago and it was about 8 inches. These days 2-3 inches seems to be about as large as it gets. Many people select this wood for canes and walking sticks because of the distinctive diamond pattern found at the base of every branch or twig growing from the main shaft. Diamond willow can be found in BC and some of the Northern states but the carving quality is just not the same as the Alaska wood. Like other woods, this was common at one time but more rare today. The best sources for Diamond Willow is also carving shows. I know of only one on-line commercial supplier for walking stick material (see Links on my website).

Those are my favorites but I have enjoyed a lot of other woods as well. In fact, I should add Birch to may favorites list. It carves wonderfully and its hardness is just about perfect for me.

I do suggest experimenting with lots of woods. You will find that each one is different and an adventure in itself. Beyond the hardness or color of a wood, pay attention to its smell, feel, and how it finishes.

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