Top 10 Woods For Relief Carving

Relief carving involves carving figures and designs on a flat piece of wood, so it projects slightly from the surface, appearing three-dimensional to the viewer. Depending on how far the figures project from the wood, a piece can be considered either high or medium relief. Before you start working on such a project, you will first have to choose the best wood for relief carving.

Basswood is one of the best wood for relief carving. It is soft and easy to work with, making it perfect for both beginners and experienced carvers. Additionally, it’s also easy to find and is affordable, however, there are numerous other options you can experiment with as well such as maple cherry and others that we will discuss in the article.

When you choose a wood, you will also have to take your experience level into account. While woods such as cherry and maple can result in stunning carvings, they are difficult for beginners to work with and should only be used by experienced relief carvers. If you’re wondering which wood you should choose for your next relief carving project, here are some of the top options.


As mentioned above, this is perhaps the best option for relief carving due to how easy it is to carve. You can use various tools on basswood, including knives, chisel, and gouges, and still achieve a beautiful result. If you’re a beginner relief carver, basswood is the best option for you to start with. This wood:

  • Ranges in color from pale white to light brown
  • Has a straight grain with a fine, even texture
  • Soft and light
  • No distinguishing scent
  • Easy to find and affordable


  • Soft and easy to work with, making it an excellent option for beginners
  • When finished and sanded, offers a beautiful smooth texture
  • Readily available in both stores and online
  • Sustainable and eco-friendly
  • When dry, is very stable
  • Easy to paint


  • Not resistant to rot, which is especially a problem if you’re looking to hang your basswood relief carving outside your home
  • Not the strongest of woods
  • Softness means errors can ruin the project and makes it difficult for you to get an even coating when applying a stain.

Basswood is popular among relief carvers for a reason and is undoubtedly one of the best options available on the market. If you’re looking for a wood that doesn’t offer too much resistance and allows you to complete a project quickly, this is the option for you.

Honduran Mahogany

While Honduran mahogany is a hardwood, it is relatively easy to work with and can produce stunning results when used in relief carving. However, the challenge with this wood lies in its price and how challenging it can be to find quality options on the market. This wood:

  • Ranges in color from pale, pinkish-brown to darker, reddish-brown. The color tends to darken over time.
  • Medium, uniform texture. Grain can vary, with possibilities including interlocked, straight, wavy, and irregular.
  • Resistant to termites
  • Easy to work with for both hand carvers and power carvers
  • No distinguishing scent
  • Export restrictions mean that this wood can be challenging and relatively expensive to find in the United States. However, its popularity in the high-end housing market means that there is still a rather large supply available.


  • Resistant to rot and termites
  • Very stable
  • Easy to carve and shape
  • Durable and long-lasting
  • Extremely attractive to look at
  • Water-resistant
  • Holds paint and polish well


  • Can be challenging to source
  • More expensive than other options
  • Dense and heavy
  • Can have issues with tearing and chipping

If budget is not a concern for you, Honduran mahogany is an excellent option for relief work. It’s both easy to work with and extremely attractive, which makes it ideal for carving. Additionally, because it can carve well using both hand and power tools, this wood is another great option for beginners – though you should take into account the price and chance of wasting wood while you practice your skills!


This wood comes from the same family as basswood and can essentially be considered its European cousin. Like basswood, it is soft and easy to work with and takes details well, making it ideal for relief carving. This wood:

  • Ranges in color from pale white to cream
  • Fine, even texture
  • No distinguishing scent
  • Janka rating of 700


  • Soft, malleable, and easy to work with
  • Does not break when carving edges
  • Attractive appearance 
  • Sustainable and eco-friendly
  • Easy to finish
  • Relatively affordable


  • Not as durable as other options
  • Difficult to find in North America
  • Not very resistant to rot

Limewood is a great alternative to basswood – not only is it as easy to carve, it is also stronger than basswood, making it one of the best options for relief carvers. However, it should be noted that as the tree this wood comes from is native to Europe, you may find it challenging to find limewood blanks if you live outside the continent.

If you live in Europe, this is undoubtedly the best option for you and will be very easy to find. For people in the rest of the world, this should be your second choice after basswood where possible.

Black Cherry

Considered a classic furniture wood, black cherry can also be a great option for hand carving. However, it can be challenging to work with, especially if you are a beginner carver. This wood:

  • Ranges in color from light, pinkish brown to medium, reddish-brown
  • Straight grain that is easy to work with
  • Mild scent
  • Very durable
  • Resistant to decay


  • Visually beautiful
  • Great for hand carving 
  • Glues well
  • Easy to sand 
  • Holds detail well, which makes it good for relief carving


  • Shrinks when drying (though remains stable after)
  • Can burn easily when worked with power tools
  • Breathing in the sawdust can result in respiratory problems
  • Difficult to stain due to the dark color

If you’re looking for something more challenging to work with, black cherry is the perfect option. Blanks tend to be moderately priced. However, it’s important to note that black cherry’s popularity among furniture makers and other woodworkers has led to its price rising in recent years, so it will be more expensive than options like basswood.

Sugar Maple

The sugar maple tree is also known as hard maple and rock maple, indicating just how hard and dense of a wood it is. While this wood takes detail well, making it great for relief carving, it is also extremely challenging to work with and should only be chosen by experienced relief carvers. This wood:

  • Ranges from a shade that is nearly white to an off-white, cream color. You can occasionally find pieces that have a reddish or golden hue.
  • Straight grain, though you can occasionally find pieces with wavy grain as well.
  • Texture is fine and even.
  • No distinguishing scent


  • Easy to find
  • Extremely affordable, one of the best options for carvers on a budget
  • Takes fine detail exceptionally well
  • Very durable
  • Good for hand carvers
  • Takes finishes well


  • Can burn easily when worked with high-speed tools
  • Susceptible to insect attack
  • Can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation
  • Doesn’t take glue well
  • Chance of blotching when being stained

Sugar maple can be a great medium for stunning relief carvings. However, it’s essential that only experienced carvers work with it – it’s a highly challenging wood to work with and can not only chip when being carved but also dull cutting edges.

Spanish Cedar

An aromatic wood native to Central and South America, this wood is popular among woodworkers for various projects, including relief carving. Not only does it have a distinctive, aromatic scent, it is also visually appealing and is relatively easy to work with. This wood:

  • Ranges in color from light pink to reddish-brown. The wood darkens in color as it ages.
  • The grain is usually straight, though you can find pieces with a shallow interlocking grain as well
  • Distinctive scent that makes it popular among woodworkers
  • Moderate luster and medium texture


  • Rot-resistant and resistant to termite attacks
  • Lightweight
  • Durable 
  • Easy to work with using both hand and power tools
  • Finishes well
  • Resistant to moisture
  • Takes details well
  • Relatively affordable and easy to find


  • Can occasionally cause respiratory irritation
  • The softness of the wood means that, unless finished properly, getting a smooth, sharp visual is difficult
  • Not as stable as other woods like mahogany

Spanish cedar isn’t as challenging a wood to work with as sugar maple and black cherry. However, the need to finish it properly means that carvers should have some experience at relief carving before working with this material, making it a good choice for intermediate carvers.

Yellow Birch

Also called swamp birch and silver birch, yellow birch is one of the 50 species of birch found in the world. It’s one of the primary woods used in woodworking and is easily available at affordable prices. This wood:

  • Is usually a light, reddish-brown. There’s little color distinction, which means wood sourced from the same tree has a relatively uniform appearance.
  • Straight or slightly wavy grain
  • Fine, even texture with low luster
  • No distinguishing scent


  • Relatively affordable
  • Easy to source
  • Easy to work with both hand and machine tools. However, woodworkers should pay attention to the grain, as pieces of wood with wild grain can often tear when worked with power tools.
  • It takes glue and finishes well. 
  • It takes detail well, making it good for relief carving


  • Pieces with wavy grain can be challenging to carve as wavy areas are more challenging to work with than spots with straight grain.
  • Gouges tend to dull quickly when using them on yellow birch.
  • Requires careful handling when carving relief, as it can be challenging for beginners to work with
  • Susceptible to rot and insect attack
  • Can cause allergic reactions

While yellow birch is undoubtedly a good option for relief carving, it is also a complicated wood to work with for this purpose. It serves as an excellent option for experienced carvers looking for a challenge. However, beginners should stay away from this wood when carving in relief.


Unless you live in Asia, this is probably not a wood you’ve heard of before. Native to Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Thailand, this wood is a relatively easy option to work with for both hand and power-carvers. This wood:

  • It is almost white in color, though it darkens to a yellowish-brown shade with age
  • Usually has a straight grain, though you will occasionally find pieces of wood with an interlocked grain pattern
  • It has a good luster and medium to fine texture
  • Has a sour scent that you can smell while working on the wood


  • Easy to work with
  • It has a beautiful finish
  • Takes glue, polish, stain, and varnish easily
  • Takes details well
  • Visually attractive


  • There may be some gum build-up on cutting tools
  • It can have a blunting effect on certain tools
  • Low rot resistance and is susceptible to insect attack
  • Can cause an allergic reaction
  • Can break easily, not very durable
  • As an exotic wood, it can be challenging to source and relatively expensive in comparison to other options

Jelutong is undoubtedly an excellent option for beginners due to its low density and easy workability. However, the biggest challenge with this wood is finding a supplier for blanks, and it may not be the right choice for woodcarvers on a budget.

Additionally, many carvers may be unaware of how to work with this wood. For help, you can refer to this article. However, as mentioned, this is a relatively simple wood to work with, and you can use the same techniques you use when working with basswood or limewood. If you’d like to see how easy this material is to work with, you can also check out this Youtube video:

While the video demonstrates a basic woodcarving pattern you can use for practice, pay attention to how smoothly the jelutong is worked. This is what makes it such an excellent option for beginners.

Red Oak

An image of a beautiful red wood background

One of the most common trees in North America, red oak can be found in nearly half the U.S. and large parts of southeastern Canada. It’s a great option for woodworkers, though you should be aware that it’s best carved using power tools (that said, it can still produce decent results with hand tools). This wood:

  • It is usually a light to medium brown in color and often has a reddish tone to it as well
  • Straight grain
  • Coarse and uneven texture with very large pores
  • A distinctive scent that is common to various species of oak


  • Takes stain, finishes, and glue well
  • It takes details well, making it good for relief carving
  • Easy to find and relatively affordable
  • The color makes this wood a lovely material to work with
  • Exceptionally durable and long-lasting – carvings are often passed down through the generations


  • Dulls most tools quickly (aside from carbide blades)
  • While it’s a great option for relief carving, the hardness of the wood means that it should be used for more detailed and intricate carvings, as sharp gouges and mallets don’t create too much of an effect.
  • Poor insect resistance
  • Stains easily when it comes into contact with water and may become discolored or stained on reaction to iron

While red oak results in beautiful pieces of relief carving, the hardness of this wood means that only experienced carvers should work it on. Additionally, you should be very careful about what tools you use and use power tools as much as possible.


Also known as white walnut, this wood is usually seen as a more affordable alternative to the highly prized black walnut. However, the softness of the wood makes it very easy to work with. This, in turn, has made it a popular wood among woodcarvers of all types, and many church altars are decorated with intricately carved butternut wood. This wood:

  • Ranges from light to medium tan in color, with occasional reddish tints
  • It has a straight grain
  • Boasts a silky luster and has a medium to coarse texture
  • Has virtually no distinguishing scent when being worked


  • Very stable
  • Easily worked using both hand tools and power tools
  • Readily available and relatively affordable (though not as budget-friendly as basswood)
  • Holds details very well
  • Takes stains, finishes, and glue well


  • Not very strong, especially in comparison to black walnut
  • Coarse grain structure should be dealt with carefully
  • Susceptible to insect attack

Butternut is a great option for beginners looking for an easy wood to work with and practice their skills while also looking for a slightly more premium wood compared to basswood and limewood. Given how easy it is to find this wood and the relative affordability of blanks, this is definitely one of the better options when it comes to choosing a wood for relief carving.

Choosing the Right Option

If you’re wondering which of the above-mentioned options are suitable for your needs, you can consider the following factors:

  • Best Relief Carving Wood For Beginners: Basswood
  • Best Relief Carving Wood On a Budget: Sugar Maple
  • Best Relief Carving Wood For Extra Durability: Red Oak
  • Best Relief Carving Wood For Carving With Power Tools: Butternut

Final Thoughts

Relief carving is a popular project option for woodworkers across experience levels. One of the first steps you need to take to ensure a successful result is choosing the wood.

While any of the woods on this list should work for your needs, make sure to keep your skill level and experience at both woodcarving and relief carving in mind when making your decision. Additionally, you will also have to consider which tools you will be using, as some woods work better with hand tools over power tools (and vice versa).

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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