Log Carving With Hand Tools – Step By Step Guide

Carving large wood logs is no easy task with non-powered tools, however, of course, it is possible and very rewarding if done correctly. In this article, we will cover in detail, the right way to carve logs prepare and carve logs from scratch.

To carve large wooden pieces such as logs, you need to have a strong wood holder such as a bar clamp, an axe, and your preferred carving gouges and chisels with a carver’s mallet. To start carving you must clear the bark using a peeling spud and shape out the outline of your log using an axe.

It is best that you have a fully equipped workshop with an adjustable workbench where you can work with your log. Getting the log there might take a little bit of effort, but it will be worth it as the wood will feel better inside and the convenience of your tools nearby will be very pleasant.

Now that you have a rough understanding of how things will shape, we can start with our step by step guide on how to carve a log using hand tools.

1. Saw The Wood

Very often you will not need the full length of the log that you have available. While you can leave it as it is, put some thought into how much of the log you are looking to use, and make a decision if you want to reduce the size of the log.

Sawing a log (especially if it large) is a long and hard process. If it’s your first time doing it, be patient, you probably are doing everything right, but it just takes a long time to saw through the whole log.

The log should not be lying on the floor, this will make it extremely difficult for you to saw it and the final cut will probably crack the wood in a few places. Make sure you are doing it on an elevated surface. You should also calculate the way the log will fall after you cut through it, you have to be very sure it will not break falling or damage someone or something.

A tip to consider when sawing is that you always want to “work”. There is no point moving the saw if you are not pushing down and cutting through the wood. Take breaks, give it a few tries but make sure you work when you saw. Trust that this way will be much faster.

2. Split The Wood In Half

Depending on what you are planning to carve, more often than not, you may need to split the wood in half. If for your project you need to keep the log in one piece, be sure to skip this step, otherwise, here is the way that we would recommend doing it.

Unlike the image above suggests, don’t split the wood in half by using your avarage sized axe.

This can be done using a few wedges. If you have metal wedges that’s probably best, in theory, you could also use wooden wedges that you crafted yourself, but that’s a little more difficult to use.

The trick to making a clean cut down the middle with a wedge is picking the right spots for the wedges. For that, you need to inspect the log’s surface for clues on what is the best place to start.

If you are relevantly new to using a wedge with a sledgehammer, you can watch this short 4-minute video for a very informational tutorial on splitting the log.

If your log happens to be larger (in length) and wedges from the top will not be enough to split it, you should use more wedges on the side of the wood to help it split all the way through.

3. Bring Your Work To The Workshop

As mentioned before in the article, you probably want to work inside as it is quite a long term project. Also in the workshop, you will need to use an adjustable workbench to keep the wood still as you are working on it.

When transporting the wood, be careful not to damage yourself. Use some kind of a wheelbarrow or a cart to not hurt yourself as you probably know yourself that wood is heavy!

In the workshop, you want to prepare the wood for carving by shaping the log. To do that, you should secure the log perpendicular to the floor at a comfortable for your height. Make sure it is very stable and stands firm on the ground that it is at.

You can use a bar clamp to help secure the wood in a stable position.

At this point, you should probably think of the best ways to preserve the wood if you are planning on continuing the next day. A nice trick that will help your wood is if you seal the end bottom of the log to stabilize the moisture content in the wood.

4. Flatten The Side of The Log

Now that you have the log standing in a perpendicular position to the floor, cut in half, and firmly stable you will want to flatten the side of the log that has been split from its other half.

If you are working with a whole log and your project does not require you to cut it in half, skip this step and continue to step 5 to peel the bark.

Before we get into the process of working with an axe, it’s worth mentioning that safety is very important. When working with hand tools always use protective glasses and kevlar gloves. As well as make sure your tools are very sharp, by the way, if you want some tips on sharpening check out this article!

Now, let’s get into flattening the log:

What you want to do is find the thinnest part of your log, and on the face of the log, draw a line parallel to so the side you’re cutting so that the thinnest point is not past this line. Then chop off everything past the line.

In less confusing words, you have to cut off the side in a way, that there are no dips going into the wood, otherwise, the side will not be flat. So you want to chop off everything past the thinnest point of your wood, perpendicular to the floor.

The best way to chop off the wood is of course with an axe. Try to follow the line and chop down making the side as even as possible. Please make sure that the wood is held firmly and that it will not move after a few hits with an axe.

It’s important for future measurements that the side of the log not at an angle and as perpendicular to the floor as possible.

5. Peel Off The Bark

Carving wood with a layer of bark over it is not much fun. So you want to get rid of it unless you are planning to keep it for aesthetic purposes which you probably won’t.

This can be done very conveniently using a bark spud if you have one, other alternatives also include an axe or a massive gouge.

Peel off the hard layer of the bark first, and then proceed to remove the brow layer until you get to the “white” shade of the wood.

After you completed that, congratulate yourself on finishing setting up the log for carving, you can now detach the bar clamp and place it on your workbench to start carving.

6. Planning How To Carve The Log

Depending on what you want to carve, you may place your log in different positions on the workbench. For most carvings, however, the log is placed horizontally on your workbench with the flat side down.

If you’re carving something in relief you most definitely want to carve with the flat side faced down, it’s also best that your workbench is at the right height.

To understand the significance of your workbench’s height you can read our article what is the right size for a workbench. If you want a shorter answer without any justification thought, then for carving a log with hand tools the perfect height for a workbench is 75-85cm off the ground, if you are 175cm tall. If you are shorter or taller, adjust the bench according to your height difference.

You can find more details and reasoning behind the measurements in the article.

After you have your log on the workbench secured, the rest is up to you. A tip we think is good to keep in mind is to try to plan as much as possible before you start carving the log. This will reduce the chance of unpredictable errors, and after so much preparation it will be a shame to have to start over.

Freestyling a log is of course also an option, but still consider put some thought and pencil to the wo6d before you get to the blade.

7. Tools For Log Carving

Carving a log is not too different than carving a large piece of wood, the only difference you may notice is that it is a little more wet (green) if it has been cut not long ago.

The tools you need for log carving are:

  • Gouges
  • Chisels
  • Carver’s mallet

The more accurate list of tools you need is “sharp gouges and sharp chisels”. Without sharp tools, you will be in a bit of trouble trying to carve through a log.

As for the carver’s mallet, it’s best that you have the more modern version instead of the traditional mallet shaped like a hammer. A round mallet distributes the pressure more evenly and damages the tools a little more sparingly.

You may also decide to use an axe to chop off large parts of the wood such as the sides if you want to have them curved.

If you’re interested to know more about the wood carving tools and their uses, You should read our descriptive article on All the Log Carving Tools You Will Ever Need.


8. Tips For Log Carving

As for our 8th step, we would like to give you a list of tips we have many times mentioned in the article that are important for log carving.

  • Keep your tools sharp
  • Have your log very very stable when preparing it for carving
  • Always use protective equipment
  • Have a large range of tools with various sizes for best results
  • Draw lines on the wood for a more precise cut
  • Use an axe to cut off large portions of the wood that are no longer necessary

The next tip is if you’re going to create a deep inwards curve into a large log, something bowl-shaped, you will need to use Something different from an axe. Carving it with an axe for an inwards curve will not work very well, which is why you will it’s best you a wood carving mattock.

Simply carve knock off the wood until you get deep enough to start using a large chisel with a mallet.

With that said, you are not completely ready for carving any project out of a log by only using hand tools.

9. Smoothing The Surface

With all the axe chopping and rough cuts, you will make you will need more than just sandpaper to even out the wood.

The Jack Smoothing Bench Hand Plane is the tool you will need to use to even out the wood without losing too much of the carving. This is a great tool to use because of the adjuster that controls how much wood gets taken off, therefore on sharper corners, you can cut more and on flat surfaces, you can take off less.

Alternatives to this are almost any large tools that you can take off a lot of wood off the carving evenly. Using such tools is a little worse than our recommendation because a lot more of the carving will be taken off in the smoothing process than necessary.

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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