Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 31, 2019

Choosing Wood for Woodcarving

It is often heard: “what wood do I choose for woodcarving?”  Clearly, there are times where we have an idea for a carving, or we get a commission for a specific carving and in those cases, we do need to choose a wood for the specific project in mind.  However, there are many times where we see a unique piece of timber that simply “grabs” us.  It may have a twist, knot or a seemingly imperfection that is striking or artistic.  In these cases, we have a couple of choices.  What I do is gaze at the piece for as long as it takes when something will pop into my mind that will fit perfectly.  Sometimes simply looking at the piece will produce an image in our mind.  In looking back at the hundreds or maybe even thousands of whittlings and carvings that I have done, the ones that folks, including me, have enjoyed the most are the ones that contain some wonderful and/or unique characteristic to it.  The alternative is to simply hold off doing anything with it until something does come to mind… and it will.

Of course, in those cases where we have an advance project in mind or have been commissioned to create something specific, we must select an appropriate piece of wood.  So, what I want to discuss in this posting is the process of selecting and the wood to select for our project.

The Wood

There are hundreds of woods on this fine planet of ours, but I will limit this discussion to a few woods common to woodcarving or that are my personal favorites.  Also, let me mention, here, that the quality of the wood is very important.  Taking basswood as an example, all basswood is not created equal.  It is no fun carving a poor-quality piece of wood.  Use caution in buying wood on-line or that you cannot physically examine.  One good source for woods are carving shows as there are often wood merchants and you can see what you are buying.

No discussion of wood would be complete without including Basswood (Tilia Americana).  These days, the wood of choice for beginner carvers, for detail, for caricature carving and many other applications is basswood.  While technically a hardwood, basswood is actually a softer wood… yet hard enough to hold incredible detail as it has fine, even grain.  It falls somewhere between pine and birch as far as ease of carving goes.  One reason that it is favored by caricature carvers is that it can be cut with a knife across grain fairly easily.  That feature is unique as compared to most woods.  Cutting cedar or pine across gain will likely result in crushing the wood, even with a sharp knife.  And, it is almost impossible to cut across gain on hardwoods due to their… well, hardness.

But, let’s face it, basswood is not the prettiest of woods and unless the final finish of your carving is to be blonde (or shades thereof), basswood is generally painted.  Generally, I do not like to sand my work, but basswood is hard enough to be sanded easily to a very nice finish.  I once took a class from Ian Norbury and carved a female bust.  Because of the fine features of a female face and the tone of her skin, sanded basswood was the perfect wood to choose.  An excellent source for basswood is Heinecke Wood Products ( www.heineckewood.com ).  These guys are nice and friendly, reasonably priced, accommodating, and their basswood is premium.  FYI, it is the lightest natural basswood that I have ever seen.

Tip:  By applying a 50/50 mix of water and rubbing alcohol to your carving it will magically allow the carver to achieve a smooth, clean cut on soft woods, more easily allow for cutting across grain and even soften up hard wood for easier carving.  I often use it on knots, cutting end grain, cutting fine delicate detail, and in areas prone to splitting.  I put my mixture in a spray bottle and keep it close at hand.

Western White Pine/Idaho White Pine is a soft nice wood for beginner whittlers and carvers.  One can achieve some pretty good detail with it with a very sharp knife and especially by adding the above referenced alcohol mix.  I am told that in the early days of whittling in America, Western White Pine was the wood choice for carving mainly because it was plentiful, inexpensive or even free as it was used for everything imaginable at the time.  Ben Hunt used a lot of White Pine for his whittling and carving in the 40’s.  Sadly, disease all but wiped out Western White Pine and old growth or tight grained Western White Pine is quite rare today.

A very attractive and more affordable hardwood to carve is Butternut.  I have heard it referred to as “the poor man’s walnut.”  This is a gorgeous wood by simply adding a light oil finish.  Its natural light brown color does not require either painting or staining.  This is the wood of choice by the famous and gifted carver, Fred Cogelow.  Personally, I have not been able to achieve the level of detail Cogelow does but it is likely that Butternut I have carved was not of the highest quality.

Cherry is, in my opinion, the most beautiful wood on the market.  However, it is also seriously hard.  I find it too hard to carve with my aging hands.  Like Butternut, the only finish needed is a light natural oil.  Due to Cherry’s hardness, it is almost required that one roughout a Cherry project with a power cutter such as a Kutzall or Sabre Tooth burr/rasp and then finish up with a gouge.  While not impossible, it is extremely difficult to carve with a knife.

Birch is an almost white hardwood suitable for carving and achieving good detail.  It is harder than basswood but softer than maple and most fruitwoods.  It is about as hard of a wood as I like for knife carving.  Dur to its natural white color, your final finish will either need totally natural or painted.  My own experience has demonstrated that it does not stain well.

A wood that I have loved to whittle and carve for as long as I can remember is Diamond Willow.  I find the best wood comes from Alaska.  This is a fine-grained wood with a large salmon colored heart wood surrounded by a creamy sap wood.  Diamond Willow is often used for walking sticks.  An attractive feature of Diamond Willow are the numerous diamond shaped cankers that form along the shaft, generally around where small branches form.  This is my personal perfect wood for whittle carving.  The one drawback is that it is seldom larger than 3-4 inches and more often even smaller.  This is a wood that you will want to physically examine before buying… or have reviewed good photos.  I have seen a lot of trash for sale, even by reputable carving supply stores.

finisheddiamondwillow

The above is a photo of a finished piece of Diamond Willow with an unusual number of diamond cankers.  For additional photos of both finished and unfinished wood, visit ebay.

Other woods – Truth is, one can carve in virtually any wood.  Found wood is both fun to carve and can be very attractive.  I suggest tying all woods.  I do suggest avoiding drift wood as while it may be quite unique, it may well also be impregnated with sand.  Sand and a fine edge do not mix.

I once found a gorgeous old growth Western Red Cedar fence post and proceed to carve a wizard crawling out the top only to find that when I cut into it with a prized gouge, I ran into a buried fencing staple.  I ended up grinding off 1/4 inch of my tool… enough said.

I have a friend that is a skilled spoon carver and he delights in carving a vast selection of different woods… all gorgeous.  Like me, he lives in fruit country where he collects trimmings from local fruit trees in the early months of the year for his spoons.

Wood Grain

In closing, let me mention a few things about wood grain.  First of all, wood grain is beautiful, and one should not be afraid of carving wood with a grain.  As mentioned above, carving across grain often requires the use of an alcohol mix or it must be green wood.

Some years back I heard a Native American carver tell a group of onlookers that the wood tells him which way to carve.  I initially thought… “what a bunch of BS.”  But, in fact, this fellow was absolutely correct.  When one is carving and the blade “bites” into the wood, stop.  Do not forge on… it’s time to stop.  The resistance or biting is, in fact, telling you to stop and carve in the opposite direction.  In most woods, the grain does not run straight, it is often “ribbony” and a carver must accommodate for that.

Thank you for reading, happy carving and keep sharp.


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