Complete Guide To Wood Carving Spirits and Faces

Face carving and spirit carving is a very interesting style of wood carving that can both be whittled or done with power tools. Carving faces as a beginner requires patience to learn all the details and features that make up a complete face, especially when whittling. In this article, you will find a lot of helpful tips and tricks that will help you carve more realistic and volumetric faces.

Face carving comes in many forms such as spirit carvings, relief carvings, carving faces in a log/tree, carving faces in the round, and of course all kinds of figures and statues also often have an element of face carving. The fundamentals of any face are always the same, whether it is a part of your carving or your whole carving, you will use similar techniques to carve the nose eyes, and mouth.

To start with, we will introduce you to face carving from the very basics of this style of wood carving. If you are an experienced woodcarver, feel free to skip the first section of the article and move onto the following tips and tricks to improve your face carving skills

How To Carve Spirits and Faces For Beginners

If you are not planning to whittle a face and instead you are going to be using power tools, scroll down to the power carving section of the article.

To whittle your first carving face you need to first plan it out. As you get better and more confident with carving faces you may choose to stop drawing on the wood before you carve it, but at the beginning planning out your work with a pencil or a marker will make the learning process much easier, so we recommend you don’t skip the planning out part.

Here is the basic plan of panning and executing a face carving for the first time, not worrying about details too much at first:

  1. Work out the rough ratios of where you want the eyes, mouth, and nose (and a mustache if you’re feeling creative) to go on your woodpiece. Mark it with rough sketches using a pencil or a marker
  2. Draw an accurate outline of the face with the chosen style of eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and nose (more on the styles later). This will later become the deeper part of your carving.
  3. Carve the wood from top to bottom with the help of your drawn outline, take off layer after layer until you reach the desired depth.
  4. Make an accent on the eyes and make sure to add a lot of depth to them, eyes must be 2-3 times deeper than the skin of your carving.
  5. After you carved out all of your drawings add all the desired details and see where you can add extra volume and depth on your carving.

Following these 5 steps will get you to carve your first face. Of course, will be a very simple and basic face, but before you move to extra attentive details you should practice a little on the simple things such as this, to get familiar with ratios and the outlines of faces. You should also try different variations of eyes, noses, and mouths on such simple carvings. More about shapes below.

For a more visual representation, you can also look at this video with a fun background soundtrack!

Eyes, mouth, and nose shapes

Especially at first, most students happen to struggle with coming up with shapes for eyes and mouths simply because they are a little too hyper-realistic in most wood carvings. Meaning that round eyes and a triangle nose like me and you have, will not quite work as well on wood.

Getting a hang of shapes on the face is just a matter of time if you carve many different variations from other carvings. Of course, if your artistic abilities allow you to illustrate good eyes on your wood carving from your first try, go for it, but for the rest of us, you can click here to visit a Pinterest page with a lot of face carvings to look at for inspiration, or simply type “simple face carvings” in Google and click on images and you will find thousands of good examples.

Important. Don’t try to copy the whole wood carving. Try to take a nose from one carving and the eyes from the other and see what you can come up with, it will still most likely be very different from the original, but taking at inspiration by copying individual parts of the carving is good to get a feel of face structure.

What you may notice is that face carvings also happen to be very different. Some are in relief, others are statues of gnomes and some are “in the round carvings” of a head. Below we will discuss how to choose the best type of carving for a beginner, when it comes to carving faces for the first few times.

Beginner Face Carving Projects

As mentioned before there are many different types of carvings that implement face carving techniques. However, it’s important to choose a style most of the concentration is on the face in order to get better at carving faces.

For example, if carving a gnome, a face is only a part of the carving meaning less accent and attention goes towards it, making such a project not at all the best if you want to get familiar with carving faces.

On the other side, you have the best type of face carvings for beginners, which could already be your favorite from how cool it looks. Yes, we are talking about carving a face in a log, just like in the picture above.

The amazing thing about carving a face in a log is how different you can make it look every time. You can go from a spirit, to someone you know, to an abstract image of a fictional creature. This is the perfect playground for anyone doing face carving, regardless of whether you are a beginner or a professional.

Relief carving is also great for face carving. It may be second to log carving for enhancing face carving abilities, but it is second to no other style in the way that it trains 3D vision and your understanding of ratios and proportions.

How To Improve At Face Carving

Of course, the obvious recipe for improving is practice, the more you do it the better you get better at it. You don’t need us to tell you that, so we want to give you a little more than advice that you kind of already knew. So here are some good tips and tricks to becoming more creative and more confident at face carving.

First of all, try adding some more hyper-realism or the opposite – alien-like facial features to your carvings. What you see above is not a very difficult carving, but how impressive does it look!

Let’s dissect it a little, the carving has a human hyper-realistic mouth and fictional (alien-like) eyes. The nose is both small and large at the same time. This is an excellent example of what makes up a carving that consists of very different facial features existing together in good taste.

What does this mean for you? Take inspiration and make your carvings unique. Technique will come with time, but what will really make your face carvings special is the style you adapt to, so start getting a little out of the comfort zone and try out some unusual faces.

Face Carving Technique

As mentioned before, technique will come naturally the more you practice it, and while you can practice just by carving more and more faces, it is very recommended to do some exercises specifically focusing your attention on technique.

An example of such exercise is carving smaller faces. What this allows you to do is to practice proportions, understanding of facial features, and most importantly technique much faster as instead of one face per week you can carve 5 faces in a day.

While some cuts may vary on a larger scale a lot of what you will be doing will be relatively similar. For example, the brawl cut that you will have to do very well on a small carving is just as important on large carvings, you may hold the knife differently and not have to be as careful when carving a large face, but it is still the same idea that a brawl cut has.

What is a brawl cut? well, this and much more is explained in a video below that gives you a tutorial on how to practice carving faces on a small piece of wood.

The video is in a step-by-step format. Meaning that the reason that there are 4 noses on the woodpiece because it is a progression. Therefore step 2 is identically copies step 1 and adds an extra cut. Afterward, step 3 identically copies step 2 and adds an extra cut no top of that. When carving the face by yourself you can choose to only carve from one side.


Following steps 1-4 you will get a good outline of the face that is later shaped into a more realistic and attentive to detail version.

The below video is the second part showing you steps 5-8. Notice how the video is longer than the first one, this should tell you too should spend a longer time on these steps. Unfortunately, rushing faces will result in flat and less realistic faces, so have patience and try to make the best out of every step when following the tutorial.

So, here is the second part:

It is always very satisfying watching step 8 turn into a very pretty face figure. If you want to see just the ending watch 12:40-14:00 for (almost) the final result of the face.

Best Wood For Carving Spirits and Faces

Very often you choose the wood for your carving based on what you can find nearby or what you already have. Carving spirits and faces is not a theme which requires a special type of wood however some kinds of wood work better than others.

With that said let’s talk about the most popular and probably the best wood to use for carving a face:

Is Birch Good For Carving

Birch wood is mostly good for carving. Just like with other kinds of wood, birch can be very different, however, most birch wood is very pleasant to carve, aromatic in smell, and is accessible to most carvers. Birch wood is especially good for carving spoons, bowls, and spirits.

The reason that birch is very convenient for carving faces is that its branches that can be easily found or purchased for a low price are the perfect size for a face. It is very comfortable to carve birch green and it doesn’t need any “special preparation” before you can just sit down and carve a wooden spirit out of it.

Is it the best wood for carving faces though? It probably is not… however, it is by far the most popular wood that is used for face carving. It is fairly predictable, has a beautiful color, and is easy to find in many places around the world.

If you use birch wood for your face carving you will probably have a good time carving. While it is nice to experiment with more rare woods or denser woods such as cherry, birch just seems to be a much better option than the majority of other woods out there. In addition, most of the theory behind face carving is written for birch wood. 95% of it will be the same for other kinds of wood, but a very small portion of what you read online about-face carving will not be true if you are not using birch wood.

So now that we have concluded that birch is not the best but… very good. What is the best wood for carving faces?

Carving Faces Out Of Basswood

Basswood is very predictable and this quality is very important when you are carving someone’s face. There are dozens of reasons why we think basswood is one of the best woods out there, especially for beginner carvers. You can read about that in our article Basswood Vs, Butternut.

Basswood is also much easier to carve than when it is dry. This means that you don’t have to carve your purchased basswood in the first 2 weeks and can let it lie around and carve it any time you want, and still get the results you expect.

The grain is very important for carving faces, and basswood has a very “normal” grain with straight lines and uniform texture. This is both good and bad for carving faces, but it’s once again, a little more predictable. Different kinds of grain look differently once the carving is finished, while birch grain is somewhat similar to basswood. Basswood grain is a little less wavy.

To conclude, you should probably try both, birch and basswood. Birch is a little more interesting to carve while basswood is a little better. There is no clear winner between the two, it’s just a matter of preference.

Other Good Woods For Carving Faces

As mentioned before, faces are not very picky about what kind of wood you use on them. Of course, some wood is easier and some wood is harder to carve, less pleasant woods to carve can impact the quality of your work making them a second choice to woods such as birch and bass.

With that said, the two above candidates are not at all the only types of wood that are pleasant to carve. Below is a list of other kinds of wood that are very well suitable for carving faces and spirits:

  • Cedar
  • Apple
  • Pine

Cedar is probably the preferred wood out of the three. It is incredibly different depending on which type you buy. You can read more about the unique features of cedar wood in our article all about carving cedar wood.

To summarize cedar it is very aromatic, can come in different colors including a very intriguing red as well as being nice to carve when green.

Apple wood is also one we have written a very descriptive article on. Be sure to read it if you ever feel like carving this fruit tree. Regarding face carving apple wood is pretty similar to birch, except it is harder to carve and 10 times as rare.

Apple wood is mostly used for spoon carving, and face carvings out of apple are pretty rare, but there is not much that should stop you from carving apple if you have some at home.

With that said apple has a very interesting color that changes on the carving as time passes. This does leave the danger of vitiligo appearing on your carving’s face but that may be unique and what you are going for anyway.

Finally, pine is also a nice alternative to both apple and cedar. Pine is known for how hard it is to carve, but white pine is the exception! If you get your hands on white pine you can easily carve a face out of a wood that looks incredibly beautiful (and white) as well as usually hard to carve for most people.

Spirit Carving

Spirit carving is not too different from face carving. Of course except for the abstract and more alien-like carving style. In this section of the article, we will present you with some useful tips for you to look into if you are specifically looking to carve spirits out of wood.

Spirit carving is a style of face carving that involves fictional illustrations of spirits on a wood piece. Spirit carving is often carved out of birch logs or inside a living tree.

One of the coolest possible projects you can do is carve a “forest spirit” or a spirit in the forest out of a living tree. It’s important you make sure that it is legal first!

If the area around you does not allow you to do such a carving you can always do it in your own or a friend’s garden.

Make sure you practice the exact face that you are going to carve before attempting your carving on a living tree since you only really have one try when you do it on a living tree… No pressure!

Required Tools To Use When Carving Faces

Luckily for you, face carving does not require a lot of tools. In fact, you can narrow everything down to a single pocket knife, but in this section, we will give a more broad list of items that you can use when face carving.

You probably have a carving knife you love and will never change to anything else… But in case you are looking for a new carving knife, this is the knife that you will never want a replacement for.

Using high-quality gouges is a great way to add variety to your face carvings. The above set has every necessary gouge you will need for any carving, of course, including your face carvings as well.

If you are buying wood for carving why not have it delivered to your doorstep. This set of 6 large basswood blocks is perfect for practicing your whittling and wood carving techniques.

Sharpening knives is very important for both safety and convenience. If you’d like to know more about sharpening knives check out our article 6 ways to sharpen wood carving tools and equip yourself with a strop if you don’t already have one.

Safety is very important and if you want to keep your fingers safe, make sure you carve in no cut resistant gloves. Especially if you are a beginner you will definitely end up slicing your knife on your hand and nothing will save you better from a cut that a bit of protective equipment.

You will also need a pencil or a marker to draw on your wood before carving. We recommend using pencils with a darker color and markers with a lighter color!

How To Carve Faces and Spirits With A Dremel

When carving with powered tools a lot suddently changes in comparison to carving with hand tools. First of all, wood choice becomes huge as dremels accept very dense woods. This means you can carve a face out of cherry and have no problems at all with it!

With that said, the general rules stay the same. You still need to plan out your drawing if you are relatively new to carving faces and carve from the top of your woodpiece to the bottom.

Check out this short video below for a timelapse of how a wooden spirit is being carved;

As you may have noticed, in the above video you can clearly see that there the carver uses different power carving bits for his dremel. This is important to keep in mind and rationally choose the right bits for your dremel. When shaping the eyes you should use the smallest bit!

An idea you could implement in your carvings when power carving is leaving a part of your log with the cork. This can be either on the backside or above the hair forming a sort of a hat/frame for your spirit.

How To Finish a Face Carving (or Spirit carving)

You don’t always have to apply a finish to your carving. However, if you want it to last longer or be a little shinier there are plenty of finishes that are suitable for faces.

The top 3 finishes that you can apply to a face carving are probably:

  • Beeswax
  • Deft spray
  • Paint

Most favorite finish out of these 3 for us personally is the deft spray. If you are unfamiliar with what deft spray is, it is a type of lacquer that you spray on your carving and it creates a glossy finish. In our opinion, it looks nice.

Think twice before applying a finish to your face carving as you don’t want fine details and shadows of your carving to be put to waste! However, if you think your carving is suitable for a finish one of the above 3 will increase your carving’s lifespan.

Pain is another very good and “safe” option. Painting your carvings can both make an impressive effect and of course, it will serve as protection for many years.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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