Whether you are an expert or a novice woodcarver, there is always space to improve and get better at this niche woodworking hobby. This article aims to give you 15 valuable tips that every woodcarver should know about. So, here are some great woodcarving tips:
1. Don’t Carve Away Large Chunks of Wood at Once
Regardless of what you’re working on, start carving carefully.
When we say don’t carve away large chunks of wood at wood, we don’t mean the additional wood surrounding your figure drawing. For example, if you’re working on a spoon, go ahead and get rid of the additional wood surrounding the sketch of the spoon you’ve drawn on your wood blank.
That said, once you’ve gotten rid of the excess and are starting with the actual carving, it’s always best to start small. This applies no matter whether you’re a beginner at carving or have been carving for decades, this piece of advice holds true.
If you’re a beginner, you may have been told there’s no such thing as taking off too much wood. However, logic should tell you that’s not the case – if you take off too much wood, you’ll soon find you don’t have enough material left to complete your piece. By starting small, you reduce this from happening.
Additionally, carving small slices reduces the risk of mistakes that will lead to you scrapping the entire project. You’re unlikely to push your knife in too deep or accidentally cut off a section of your sketch that you didn’t intend to.
So, while taking your time and staying slow and steady may lead to your project taking longer to complete, the math shows that it’s worth it – you won’t have to spend additional time redoing it because you made a mistake that could not be fixed.
2. Learn Proportions
This piece of advice holds no matter whether you want to specialize in carving humans, animals, or objects.
Getting your proportions right helps make your projects more believable. This doesn’t just apply to carvers who want to work on realistic pieces but also to those who are working on a more unique style.
For example, if you watch an animated television show or movie, you’ll notice the characters – though often utterly unrealistic – are usually proportionate. Their eyes are lined up, their arms are the same length, and so on.
This is because proportion helps things look more attractive to our eyes. This is true no matter whether we’re looking at another person or simply a random object in the room.
Consider a baseball, for example. When you picture a baseball, you likely instinctively know what the proportions of the red stitching are. You know where it needs to be placed, roughly how thick it should be, and so on.
If someone hands you a baseball that’s clearly off-proportion, you’ll notice – and you’ll almost certainly find that the replacement is not as aesthetic as the original. Again, this is because of how our mind sees proportions.
3. Follow the Rule of Three for Human Figures
If you’re looking to try your hand at carving human figures, always keep the Rule of Three in your mind.
The Rule of Three essentially explains how you can start to sketch your figure on your wood blank:
- The head is divided into thirds. The top third goes from your hairline to your eyebrows, while the middle third is from your eyebrows to the bottom of your nose. Finally, the bottom third is from the bottom of the nose to the bottom of the third.
- The last third can be further divided into thirds – the first goes from the bottom of the nose to the divide of your lips, and the second goes from the crest of the lips to just above your chin. The final third goes from just above to just below your chin.
- The body is divided into thirds as well – the first third goes from the bottom of the head and the shoulder area to the beltline. Then, the second third goes from the beltline to the middle of the knees, and the final third is from the center of the knees to the bottom of the feet.
Additionally, a general principle that you can follow when carving figures is to make the full figure eight heads tall – that is, the length of the body without the head should be equivalent to the length of seven heads stacked on top of each other.
These rules aren’t a hard and fast guideline, and you’re always free to experiment and discover what proportions you prefer for yourself. However, if you’ve never worked on figures before or need a guideline on how to sketch them out, these rules provide a great starting point. Additionally, they help make your figures more realistic.
You can even follow the rule of three when carving just a bust – the first point still applies!
4. When Carving Eyes, Start With the Eye That Corresponds to Your Dominant Hand
Well carved eyes can make your human and animal figures “pop” and stand out from the rest. They help add expression and character to your piece and make it more relatable.
However, eye carving can also be a challenge for many woodcarvers. Not only do you need to know how to carve them, you also need to be able to line them up correctly with each other and the rest of the face. After all, you don’t want lopsided eyes or eyes that are located closer to the lips than to the forehead, right?
A good way to get your bearings when carving eyes is to start working on the eye that corresponds to your dominant hand. This makes it easier for you to place it correctly in relation to the rest of the face. Additionally, since you don’t have to move your hand awkwardly, you have better control over the carving.
By the time you’re finished with the first eye, you’ll be more confident about approaching the second one. This confidence will help balance out the disadvantages that may come from having to twist your hand a bit to get the perfect carving angle.
Additionally, carving the eye that corresponds to your dominant hand first means that you’ll be easily able to see it and use it as a reference when you’re carving the other eye. If you carve the eye that corresponds to your non-dominant hand first, you’ll likely cover it with your arm so that you can have the best angles when you work on the “dominant” eye.
5. Start With the Largest Chip When Chip Carving
When you’re working on a chip carving project, you should ideally sketch your design our first – freehanding chip carving can be extremely challenging, even for experienced carvers.
Once you’re done with the sketch, it’s time to move on to the actual carving. For best results, start with cutting out the largest chip first. This is because smaller chips are easier to mess up – by the time you’ve worked on the biggest piece, you’ll have a feel for how deep you’re carving the piece, and it will be easier to keep things uniform when you get to the more challenging areas.
Another thing to keep in mind when chip carving is that your hand will need to be in contact with the piece at all times while you’re working. Make sure you’re seated comfortably, and if the piece is small enough, consider placing it on your lap while working to make carving easier.
6. Add Highlights When You Work on the Eyes
If you’re looking to add personality to a piece, the eyes are key. Getting them perfect will help your finished project “pop” in a way few other things will be able to.
One of the best ways to perfect your eyes is to add shadows. Look at your own eyes – they’re not flat orbs of color. They have a lot of depth, and replicating that same depth will help your piece stand out.
Adding highlight does not necessarily have to be down with the help of a knife or a Dremel – a paintbrush (or a toothpick, depending on the size of the eye) can come in extremely handy! Even if you’re not painting the figure, consider painting the eyes at the least.
If you’re not fully confident in the shape of your eyes, carve them frequently on scrap pieces of wood. Remember, the inside corners of the eyes should be the deepest parts of the face, so you’ll need to be very careful when carving them!
7. Don’t Shy Away From the Mallet
One of the biggest challenges carvers have with their tools is with using their mallets. Tons of woodcarvers are concerned about using their mallets and worried that they will swing it with too much force and damage their projects.
The fact is, mallets are a necessary part of every carver’s arsenal, especially if they’re using hand tools. Certain hardwoods, like oak and cherry, will take forever to work on without effective use of the mallet. If the wood you’re working on is even harder than those, mallets will be a lifesaver.
Before you start working on a new type of wood, always order a bit of scrap along with your main blanks. That scrap will essentially function as your tester – you can experiment with using your mallet to determine how much strength you need to put into it.
Remember, mallets are also used on softwoods, so getting a sense of how much of the mallet each type of wood needs will help prevent any unsalvageable mishaps.
8. Use Power Tools
One of the biggest challenges that many traditional woodcarvers face is something that is ubiquitous in most hardware and hobby stores – power tools.
The reason for this is often twofold – some carvers have only ever worked with hand tools and are apprehensive about making the switch. Others believe that using hand tools is the superior method of carving and power tools are essentially “cheating.”
Neither of these is true.
Power tools are actually pretty easy to use – the store assistant will likely be happy to explain the basics when you buy a tool, and there are numerous online tutorials (both written and video) to provide you with further help if necessary.
Nor is the use of power tools cheating. Power tools are precisely what their name implies – tools. Using power tools does not mean that you’re less skilled as a craftsperson, nor does it negate the skill, effort, and time that goes into each piece.
Now, we’re not saying using power tools is necessary – having a preference for hand tools is never a bad thing. However, having a basic understanding of how to use power tools will go a long way, especially with some less exciting parts of the project such as sanding.
9. Know How Hard Your Wood Is
Here’s the thing about wood – the harder it is, the more challenging it is to work with, especially for novice woodworkers.
Knowing how hard a given species of wood is (or should be) will make it easy for you to decide which wood you should be working with. Novice woodworkers won’t make the mistake of ordering something like Australian Buloke (the hardest wood in the world), and more experienced woodworkers will be able to determine which wood is right for their next project.
The best way of knowing the hardness of a wood is by looking at its Janka rating. The Janka scale is the most commonly accepted measure of the hardness of wood – the higher the Janka rating, the harder the wood.
Let’s take a look at the Janka ratings of some woods commonly used in woodworking.
As you can see, the hardness varies a lot from the lower end to the higher end. The relative softness of the wood is why it’s recommended that beginners start with basswood or butternut, rather than something like black walnut and apple – while the latter two have a deeper color, they’re also much more challenging to work with.
10. Find Your Style
Wood carving is not a single, homogenous style of art. In fact, there are four major subcategories of wood carving – chip carving, carving in the round, whittling, and relief carving.
- Chip Carving: Essentially involves chipping away at the wood blank to create a pattern. It can also be used to create statues and is often used to enhance other objects, like boxes and plates.
- Carving in the Round: This is the style that most carvers use. Though it says “in the round,” it’s essentially anything that is carved in three dimensions, from object to humans and realistic to abstract.
- Whittling: Likely the oldest type of wood carving, this style involves making sharp, texture cuts in a wood blank. The strokes are often visible on the final product, and whittling is generally done with a whittling knife (though some carvers may use something as simple as a pocket knife very effectively).
- Relief Carving: In which the design is carved into the wood, usually on only one side of the blank. The design is usually carved so that it looks like it’s emerging from the wood, and the carver plays with perspective to try and fool the viewer that the wood has more depth than it actually has in reality. Some reliefs may also be carved to appear like they are sunken into the wood instead of emerging from it.
When choosing your carving style, it’s also important to think about what tools you want to use. If you prefer using hand tools, there’s no need to worry, and you’re free to choose as you like. However, not all carving styles are compatible with power tools – some are usually done using only hand tools.
Here’s a quick glance at what tools you can use for each style:
|Hand Tools||Power Tools|
|Carving in the round||x||x|
You can, of course, try chip carving and whittling with power tools – wood carving is all about experimentation and finding what works best for you. However, most carvers find that these styles are not as effective when working with power tools for the actual carving (you can still use power tools for sanding).
11. Make Sure Your Finish is Food Safe
This advice applies even if you’re not making a piece that will be used in the kitchen – if you’ve got a pet or young child, there’s always a risk that they’ll pop the piece in their mouth before you notice, and you don’t want to use a finish that’s dangerous for them.
So, what’s a food-safe finish?
The reality is, all finishes are food safe – as long as you let them cure properly. Even polyurethane can be food-safe if you use it correctly.
Proper curing usually takes about a month. If you’re unsure whether your finish has cured completely, the easiest way to figure out is to smell your piece. If you can smell even a little of the finish, it’s not cured fully, and you’ll need to wait a little longer.
While your finish is curing, keep your object in a place that is difficult to reach.
That said, you may not have the time needed to let a piece cure properly before sending it to a buyer. In that case, consider using a finish that’s food safe even without curing, such as shellac, tung oil, or beeswax. If you’re using something else as a finish, always make sure to check if it’s food safe if you aren’t able to let it cure properly.
12. Choose the Right Wood
This may seem like a basic tip – however, it’s anything but.
There are a number of factors that go into choosing which wood is right for a project, including your carving style and what you’re making. For example, chip carvers largely prefer to work with basswood because of how easy it is to carve.
However, before you can consider these factors, the most important thing to keep in mind is your experience. If you’re a novice carver, it’s essential to work with a wood that is soft and easy to take a knife to. Harder woods can be challenging for experienced carvers, and working with them too early in your carving journey may turn you away from woodworking as a whole.
Here’s a quick glance at some popular woods and what amount of experience you should have before working with them:
There are a number of reasons that we’ve recommended you have experience before working with some of the woods mentioned above.
Teak wood, for example, could be worked on by an intermediate carver – however, it’s usually pretty expensive to find because it needs to be imported. If you’re spending the money on buying teak blanks, it’s best to have the experience so that you don’t have to worry about messing up a piece and having to throw it away.
That said, take the table as a guide and not as a rule. Some carvers may prefer to work on more challenging woods from the get-go, and just because you’re experienced doesn’t mean you can’t work on more forgiving woods like basswood.
13. Consider Learning Woodturning
While woodturning isn’t exactly a part of wood carving, it is a member of the larger family of woodworking crafts. It is, of course, possible to be a woodcarver without ever using a lathe – however, many carvers find that even a basic knowledge of woodturning can help them take their carvings to the next level.
Many carvers think of woodturning as a practical hobby – that is, something you do to make pieces to sell, like table legs and bedposts. However, turning can also be used to produce pieces that allow you greater creative flexibility while still being sellable if you’re someone for whom carving is both a job and a hobby. This includes bowls, pens, walking sticks, and even clocks and chess pieces.
14. Always Wear Gloves
No matter what you’re carving or what tools you’re using, wearing gloves is a crucial part of carving.
If you’ve taken care of your tools well, you’re almost certainly using a sharp tip to carve (unless you’re at the sanding and finishing step of your project). You may think that you’ve got the experience necessary to work with a sharp knife without any protection – but all it takes is a slip of the hand, and you’ll find yourself dealing with a potentially major injury.
We recommend using Kevlar Gloves to protect yourself!
Remember, your hobbies should not be more expensive than you can afford – and if you injure yourself significantly, the medical bills that come along with the injury will not be pretty.
So, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a pocket knife and a piece of scrap wood you found in the yard to whittle a basic whistle or working on a complex wood statue, wearing gloves will help you stay safe.
15. Learn Wood Burning to Add Texture
Pyrography (better known as wood burning) is the art of essentially using heat to decorate wood.
For effective pyrography, you’ll need to use specialized wood-burning tools instead of simply taking a match to the wood. Wood burning essentially involves applying heat to the wood, not bare flame. The type of the material, the size of the tip, the object’s temperature, and the way the iron is applied all help create detailed, complex designs.
You can always wood burn designs on flat wood blanks or on other materials, such as leather and gourd. However, combining pyrography with wood carving can help create a complex, textured piece that will stand out and “pop” in ways you may not have thought possible.
There’s no one way to do wood carving – while there are nuggets of information you can use to elevate your pieces, the best carvers are usually the ones who experiment and look for ways to break the rules.
However, you cannot break the rules without knowing what they are to start with – and these tips should serve as a good base as you work on your skills and improve your carvings!