Top 5 Kinds of Wood to Use for Chip Carving

Carving wood is an art form, and like any great artist, you need to have the right materials. Whether you are using a chisel or a knife, you also need to make sure you are using the correct wood type.  It is hard to know what to look for in a wood, and depending on your end goal, that answer might not be the same every time. 

Using the wrong type of wood for your project could be disastrous, and ruin everything. Here are the top five best kinds of wood to use for chip carving. 

1. Butternut Has a Great Texture and Natural Color

Juglans cinerea, more commonly known as butternut or white walnut, is native to the Eastern U.S. and Southeast Canada. You should be able to pick up a block at your local hardware or even craft store. 

This wood is perfect for carving as it is a softer hardwood.  The softness of the wood makes the act of carving much easier, and you will be able to control your design better with the ease of carving.  This is usually the go-to wood for most chip carvers.  Because the end and face grains are equal, it makes the wood ideal for chip carving. 

When working with butternut, you will notice how easily it cuts while still leaving a nice crisp, sharp edge. Many carvers find butternut to be their favorite wood, one of the reasons butternut is great is because apart from many of it’s good features it is also a light-colored wood. Therefore you can stain it with practically any color once your piece is finished. Due to the texture of the wood, you do not need to file it before applying the stain of your choice.  

2. Basswood Requires a Steady Hand

Basswood, or scientifically known as Tilia Americana, is native to the U.S. Basswood is easily accessible online. Or, you may need to research some specialty stores. One of the most unique things about basswood is that it has been used for centuries, and many indigenous tribes would use it to carve masks since it is native to the U.S.

Basswood has a straight grain, and the finish is not fuzzy, like some other woods you may encounter.  Although, due to the wood being so soft, it requires a steady and precise hand to carve designs without error.  Basswood is perfect for carving fine details with a smooth texture and straight grain.  As with many other woods, basswood, although soft for carving, is considered a hardwood.  

Basswood is light in color and will easily take a stain.  If you wish to stain your basswood art piece, there are a few simple steps to take:

  • Sanding – It is best to wet sand basswood due to its texture
  • Paint your piece – this can be done with either actual paint or stain.  Some people prefer to paint the whole piece, while some prefer to paint none, and others prefer to paint small sections or spots to make accents and make pieces pop!
  • Finish with sealer–If you paint or stain or do a combo of both, you need to make sure that you use a good sealer.  A quick buff will remove any nibs or imperfections.

3. Balsa Wood is The Best for Beginners 

Balsa wood is the lightest and softest of all the commercial wood you can purchase for chip carving.  Because of this, it is the best wood to use for beginners.  This wood is easily accessible and can be found in practically any:

Although Balsa is soft, it is still considered a hardwood and is shockingly high strength. Due to the fuzzy texture of the wood, you may have a difficult time carving if you do not have the proper tools.  Having the proper tools is just as important as having the proper wood.   Because of its softness, if you are going for a more intricate design, it may be a little tricky to use. You might consider a different wood for a project of that nature. 

Balsa wood proves to be a little more difficult to stain, but it is possible.  If you just put straight stain on Balsa, due to the loose fibers in the wood, it can be quite splotchy.  To get an even stain, you need to apply a wood conditioner and let that set before applying an oil-based stain.  

Balsa is a great choice and is the best bet for beginners if they have the proper carving tools and a steady hand. The only downfall is that is does not last as long as other wood types because it is so soft and becomes brittle over time.

4. Mahogany is Deep, Rich, and Gorgeous

Mahogany, as known as Swietenia macrophylla, is native to central and South America, with naturalization now in the:

  • Philippines
  • Singapore
  • Africa
  • Hawaii 

Because it is not native to the united states, it needs to be imported.  Due to being imported, it can be a bit more expensive than the wood that is native.

Mahogany is a medium soft wood and categorized as a hardwood.  Mahogany is very deep and rich in color, and depending on the origin of the wood, the grain will be a little different and will have a different workability.  Typical mahogany from Central America or the Amazon is going to be a softer hardwood, making it more ideal for chip carving.  Mahogany from other parts of the world will be a bit harder and more difficult to chip carve.

Due to the natural color, you usually do not need to stain it. A good oil or wax coat is enough for this strong wood.  Due to its structure. Mahogany is good for indoor or outdoor pieces and is very versatile.  Like most woods, you can also paint it, but most people would rather leave the beautiful rich colors shine.  Again, your downfall is the cost of the wood, but it will be worth it for the quality of the wood.  

5. Cherry is Long Lasting

Cherry wood is another common and great wood to use for chip carving.  Cherry, or Prunus avium, is native to Europe and Asia.  There are different cherry wood types that are grown in other places, such as the U.S.  Cherry wood is readily available in most places, like here. Since some types are imported, it can still be a bit pricey.  

Cherry is what they call a fine-grained wood.  Meaning that the grain in the wood is extremely fine compared to other types of woods on the market.  This can make it a little more difficult for a beginner to carve and requires more of a moderate skill level.  Usually, when you carve wood, you will want to carve it when it is still a bit moist, as when it is dry, it will crack more.  Cherry, once dry, shirks significantly.  Once it is dry, though, it is a very sturdy wood—something to keep in mind when planning your piece.  

Cherry wood has an extraordinarily rich, reddish color, and when carving, you may uncover variations in color which can give your piece more character.  Once your piece is complete, you can choose to stain it or not.  A nice clear stain will emphasize the color variations and protect it from damage.  But if you choose not to stain, with its structure, it will be quite sturdy once completely dry.  


Making sure you have the right type of wood is essential. The wrong type of wood can splinter and crack and can be disastrous, essentially ruining your work. On top of the right type of wood, make sure your tools are also ready to go and sharp. Thank you for reading until the end.

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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