Wood carving is an immensely fun but complex hobby that has countless practitioners around the world. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, one of the most important aspects of wood carving is choosing the right wood for the project or practice. Someone might prefer a softwood that is flexible, has fewer knots, and easy to carve while others might prefer hardwood that can support intricate details.
The choice of wood alone can make or break a wood carving project. In many instances, newcomers to woodcarving often give up their training just because of the wrong choice of wood. So knowing the basics about the woods commonly used in carving will help you a lot in the long run. This article will list the best woods for carving, how to determine the right wood for your project, and common questions.
Best Woods for Carving
Theoretically, you could use almost any wood variety for carving, but not all of them are well suited for getting the best results. There are different types of woods for different wood carving purposes, each offering their own pros and cons that make them suitable or unsuitable for your project. Here’s a list of the best woods for carving whether you’re an amateur or a pro.
The most popular and commonly used wood species for wood carving is basswood (Tilia Americana). Also known as American, basswood is popular among both novice and pro woodcarvers thanks to its versatility as well as the fact that it’s easy to work with. The wood has a creamy texture with a slight brownish tint and has little to no grain presence, resulting in a fine finish.
The biggest advantage of working with basswood timber for wood carvings is that it allows for detailed and intricate carvings on the surface. Basswood is also very easy to paint on, making it the perfect companion for wood model makers. The quality and durability of basswood make it ideal for both small and large scale carving projects.
Basswood also benefits from being very affordable, which is why it’s the most commonly used carving timber around the world. The pricing for basswood generally ranges between $3.55-$6 based on size. The only drawback of basswood is that it gets stained easily which might be hard to remove.
After basswood, the second most popular timber for wood-carving projects is Butternut (Juglans cinerea). Commonly known as the white walnut, it’s a relative to the black walnut, another popular carving timber. But unlike the black walnut which is classified as a hardwood, butternut is comparatively soft and malleable. It has a whitish hue with a slight pink tint.
The softness and malleability of the butternut make it ideal for novice woodcarvers who still working out the basics of using wood carving tools. Butternut has a coarse texture that gives it a coarse rustic look. Polishing butternut is really easy and produces the best result with minimum effort. The grain of the wood can be lightened by applying oil as well.
Other than it’s the softness that makes it ideal for any kind of sculpting, butternut is highly rot-resistant and easy to clean if stained. This makes butternut beginner-friendly and the perfect timber to practice on. Raw butternut is extremely affordable, usually priced between $6.20-$13 based on size
The walnut, also known as Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) in the botanical community, is a highly versatile and popular wood carving timber favored by seasoned wood-carvers who have their basics down to a pat. The wood is quite heavy and classified as hard timber. The hardness and stiffness of the timber make it ideal for large-scale projects. Walnut is straight-grained and comes in multiple shades between the brown and purple color spectrum.
Walnuts have a dark, hard, and coarse texture with straight wood grains that are plentiful. Smart woodcarvers usually use this to their advantage to hone their mallet skills. The timber has a clear natural finish which makes it very easy to add the finishing touches. Walnut also has a high level of durability that allows it to last for years without any sign of wear.
The two main advantages of using walnut timber for carving is that its rot and moisture resistance is comparatively higher than most other timbers. But on the downside, walnut can get bleached very easily if exposed to direct sunlight. Pricing of walnut timber starts from $15 based on size.
The Malaysian Jelutong (Dyera Costulata) has quickly become the new favorite for many woodcarvers in recent years. This lightweight but durable timber has straight grains and low density, which makes it easy to carve fine details into it. The wood grain has a white hue that slowly turns into yellow-brown as it ages. The timber has a brilliant luster and comes in various patterns.
Commonly available in Asia, Jelutong timber might be a bit hard to source if you live in Europe or America. The timber provides a high level of flexibility that makes it easy to carve, glue, and finish any way you want it to. Jelutong usually has a straight wood grain that can be occasionally interlocked, but that doesn’t affect the carving process in general.
Despite its popularity and usability, Jelutong also comes with certain problems. For starters, it’s not known for its durability and prone to insect attacks easily. The timber has a distinct sour odor that many woodcarvers aren’t comfortable with. While not allergic for the most part, Jelutong can cause skin irritations for some people. Pricing for Jelutong timber ranges from $37.5-$85 based on size.
Of all the woods mentioned in this list, Maple has the unique trait of coming in both hard and soft variations. There are about 128 varieties of Maple across the globe, but the ones most commonly used for wood-carving is Acer saccharum (hard) and Acer rubrum (soft). The differences that stem from the two variations can make it a bit challenging and confusing for novice wood-carvers.
The grain patterns on Maple are irregular, which has a tendency to blotch the carving if the density variation is not taken into account. But the grains of maple are also less inconsistent than other types of timbers, making it easier to create a uniform design. As a result, maple is often the timber of choice for seasoned woodcarvers. Maple is very easy to clean and maintain as well as boasting high durability.
Other than not being beginner-friendly, there are very few drawbacks of using maple in carving projects. It has a tendency to lose color if exposed to direct sunlight and very sensitive to humidity and heat. This makes it important to evaluate whether your current location and natural environment is the right fit for maple. Pricing for maple timber is varied, but the common one ranges between $10-$12 based on size.
Carving Red Oak
Red Oak (Quercus rubra) timber has been a favorite among wood-carvers and craftsmen since the dawn of civilization. It’s difficult to work with, but the final results are often masterful and satisfying. It has a deep red or brown hue in most cases. Unlike other varieties of wood, oak wood has large open pores. This timber has irregular grain patterns which are often difficult for novice woodcarvers to work with.
Red oak has a bunch of good features to which it owes its popularity. These features include high durability, stain resistance, rugged looks, and easy finish. It owes the durability to the high levels of tannic acid present in it. Since the surface of oak, if highly absorbent, it can support a large variety of finishing processes such as staining, glazing, varnishing, and smoked.
The main disadvantage of oakwood is its difficulty barrier for newcomers to wood-carving. Other than that, the only drawback of Red oak is that it can be damaged by moisture and cracks easily if you’re not careful. Oakwood is available everywhere and can be sourced easily. Prices for Red Oak range between $3.60-$6 based on size.
The Honduras Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), commonly known as mahogany, is recognized among the wood-carving community as the most stable hardwood for wood-carving. The color spectrum for this timber falls between dark red and dark brown hues. It usually has straight grains that are interlocked, requiring some finesse when working around the knots.
Mahogany has a certain level of flexibility that makes it less stiff, making it ideal for a wide variety of wood-carving projects. It’s also stable and shock-resistant, making it easy to work on with heavy and power tools. In fact, this is considered to be its biggest strength aside from the well polished-looks and easy handling. It’s also less likely to warp, twist, swell or shrink over time like other wood varieties.
The main drawback of using mahogany timber for carving projects is the fact that the wood has to be treated properly. It’s a tropical wood suitable for tropical climates, hence the extra processing steps. Mahogany is also one of the expensive varieties of timber, with average pricing ranging from $8-$8.5 based on size.
While it’s seen a dip in popularity and use in the last couple of years, the Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) which is part of the Maple species, is still a good choice for wood carving. The wood’s texture ranges from a very unique silver-white texture to reddish-brown. The European and North American maple trees differ in texture, with the American and Canadian maple trees having a yellow-brown hue.
Classified as hardwood timber, maple is very durable and easy to process. It is highly resistant to natural elements, making it the most robust timber among local European and North American wood species. It has fine and even grains which make it easy to carve complex designs on it without losing visual clarity. If quarter sawed, the surface gets a distinct freckled look.
Despite its benefits, Syracuse also has a couple of drawbacks which has impacted its popularity. The main drawback is the fact that it doesn’t excel in any area, making it a very moderate timber that seasoned wood-carving veterans don’t generally prefer. When it comes to price, sycamore timber is a bit on the expensive side, but there are cheaper options as well. The average price for Sycamore timber starts from $6 based on size.
Balsa is an inexpensive and lightweight timber that is very beginner-friendly. It’s very easy to whittle, making it a top choice for even pro-wood-carvers working on whittling projects. The timber surface has a reddish rusty texture that’s unique. Balsa wood has straight grains that are not very lustrous, which is why it’s usually not used for making decoration pieces.
Balsa wood is very easy to work on but not a good fit if you’re planning to use heavy wood-carving tools. Carving and shaping this timber requires very little effort, making it ideal for beginners who want to practice their whittling skills. The versatility of this wood allows it to be used for any kind of carving projects.
Classified as softwood, balsa isn’t as durable and strong as some of the mentions in this list. It’s prone to breaking easily requires you to sand the edges of the finished piece once you’re done. It also has poor water resistance, so you need to b careful with liquids around it. Luckily, Balsa is widely available and inexpensive, with prices start from $51 based on size.
Choosing the Right Timber for Wood Carving
Just knowing which timbers are best for wood-carving is well and good, but that knowledge would be useless unless you know how to choose the right timber for your project. Here are a couple of quick tips that will help you make the right choice easily:
· The choice of wood for a project needs to depend on the function of the final piece. If you’re making something decorative then go for ones that are flexible and look good. But if you’re making something for everyday use, such as a spoon then choose a timber that’s hard and durable.
· If you have dull carving tools or worrying that they’ll get dulled easily, it’s best to work on softwood. Hardwood takes its toll on wood-carving equipment which can result in a constant maintenance cycle.
· Decide on what kind of finish you want. In this aspect, the wood grain of the timber dictates what kind of finishes you can or cannot do.
· Make sure you have no allergic reactions to the particular type of wood chosen for your projects. Some wood varieties can cause allergic reactions or skin irritations that can put you off.
· Make sure you don’t react badly to the odor of the timber. Most wood varieties have little to no distinctive odors, but certain types have a strong smell that might be unpleasant for some.
· Check the timber you’ll be using for practice or projects to see if they have any defects.
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions related to choosing the best type of timber for wood carving:
What is the best wood for whittling?
According to expert wood-carvers, the best wood for whittling is basswood. Due to its softness and minimal grain presence, whittling is a lot easier with basswood.
What is the best wood for large wood-carving projects?
There is actually no exact answer for this one as there are multiple wood varieties that are suitable for large projects. Butternut, walnut, and oak all are equally popular and commonly used in large carving projects.
What is the best wood for practicing wood carving?
Everyone in the wood carving community seems to unanimously agree that the best wood for practicing wood carving is basswood.
What is the hardest wood?
Trees that have broad leaves and high-density trunks are commonly referred to as hardwood. They’re generally very durable, weather-resistant, and decay-resistant. Usually, they’re a bit difficult to work on.
What is softwood?
Timber sourced from trees with cone-like leaves and low-density trunks is commonly referred to as softwood. They’re generally easy to work on and resistant to insect attacks.
To Sum it Up
Now that you know what are best woods used by novice and pro wood-carvers for wood carving projects, you should have an easier time figuring things out. If you are new to wood carving, it’s best that you stick to softwood until your skills have developed enough to tackle hard timber that is difficult to work on. Good luck with your wood-carving projects!