Ultimate Guide to Carving Letters in Wood

No matter whether you’re working on a nameplate for your home, are looking to expand your skills, or are hoping for ideas for a new product line for your woodworking business, lettering is a great skill for any woodworker to know. However, if you’ve never carved letters in wood before, you may wonder how to go about it. 

If that sounds like you, don’t worry. In this article, we’ll go over any questions you may have when it comes to carving letters in wood, and I’ll cover everything from how to carve letters in wood to the best woods for carving letters and everything in between. 

How to Carve Letters in Wood (Engraving)

Engraving letters in wood is perhaps the most popular option when it comes to lettering with wood. It involves carving letters into wood such that they are sunken into the wood surrounding them and can be considered similar to Incised Carving.

To engrave letters in wood, you will need to transfer the design to the surface of the wood using carbon paper and a pencil. Then, use hand tools or a rotary tool to carve the design and finish with sandpaper. Depending on what you’re using the carving for, you can also paint it or use a finish to help it stand out. 

The wood engraving process is an art in itself. You can start engraving on any kind of wood but some woods perform best for this process while others don’t. That’s why choosing the perfect wood piece is very important for engraving. It can decide the quality of the engraving that you are making.

Here is our top recommended woods list for engraving. make sure that you have checked it out before starting your carving. For more information on how to engrave letters in wood, read on.

Here are the steps you’ll need to follow when engraving letters on wood:

  • Transfer the design to the surface of your wood blank. Unless you’re very confident in your freehand art skills, use carbon paper and a separate design when doing so. Working on the design separately will allow you to get the lettering and spacing between letters perfect in a way that is challenging to do so when drawing freehand.
  • Clamp the blank with the transferred design to your worktable.
  • Use a chisel and mallet to carve the wood. Alternatively, you can also opt for a rotary tool like a Dremel if you prefer power carving. When using a rotary tool, round cutting bits will give you the best line control. The carving process is relatively similar to other projects you will have worked on – use the design as a guideline on how to carve, and carve to a depth that you’re comfortable with.
  • Once you’ve carved out the letters to your satisfaction, smooth out tool marks using sandpaper. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper and move on to fine gritsanding two or three times in total should work. 
  • Complete the project using a finish or paint, depending on your personal preferences. Make sure to seal it to protect it against the weather, especially if you plan on displaying it outside your home as a nameplate.

Quick Tip: If sandpaper doesn’t fit inside the carved letters, try using a small burl as makeshift sandpaper instead.

How to Engrave Wood with a Knife in 7 Steps

As mentioned above, you can use both hand tools and rotary tools to engrave letters in wood. When it comes to hand tools, most people will recommend using a mallet and chisel – however, if you’re in a bind, a knife will do the job just as well.

To engrave wood with a knife, you will need to attach a paper pattern with your letters to your wood blank. Then, use your knife to carve the outline of each letter. Once you’ve carved the outline, use the paper pattern as a reference and engrave each letter into the wood. Complete the project with sandpaper and finish as necessary. 

Carving with a knife requires a slightly different technique than carving with other tools, including other hand tools. For a more detailed explanation on how to engrave wooden letters with a knife, read on.

Steps to Carving Engraved Letters With a Knife

Here are the steps you’ll need to follow when engraving wooden letters using a knife:

  1. Create a paper pattern of your lettering. This can be a printed pattern or a design you’ve worked on. No matter which it is, make sure that you use a paper pattern, and don’t create the design on the wood.
  2. Attach the pattern to the wood blank. You can do this by holding down the sides of the pattern with paperweights or tacking on the paper with the design to the wood. Make sure any adhesive is only applied to the sides of the pattern – there should be none on the other side of the lettering
  3. Using a chip-carving knife (or another sharp knife, depending on your preferences), start with the letter on one of the ends. Use the knife to trace the outline of the letter, and peel away the “inside” of the paper pattern for that letter. I recommend using the BeaverCraft S15 Whittling Wood Carving Kit from Amazon if you’re looking for a chip carving knife – it’s a complete set of 3 chip carving knives (a detail knife, a cutting knife, and a roughing knife) that are designed for use beginners, and comes with a tool roll, leather, and polishing compound included.
  4. Use the paper “stencil” you have created to engrave the letter. Be very careful when carving – make sure you don’t tear the surrounding paper or damage the rest of the pattern.
  5. Repeat for each letter (or number)
  6. Once you’ve finished the entire design, peel away the remnants of the pattern. Use your knife and sandpaper to smooth out the edges of each letter, and make sure each is carved to an equivalent depth
  7. Complete with paint, finish, or stain, depending on your preferences.

You can also refer to this YouTube video for an idea of how to engrave letters using only a knife. It provides a visual aid for the process described above, so you can have a better idea of how to go about your carving.

How Do You Attach Letters to Wood?

It is possible to buy or make standalone wooden letters if you’re looking for a 3D effect. However, there’s not much they can do as individual letters – you’ll need to attach them to a wooden backing to create an attractive sign. 

To attach letters to a wood backdrop, you will first need to choose the right piece of wood to serve as the backdrop. If necessary, sand down this piece so that it looks attractive. Then, line the letters on the piece of wood until you’re satisfied with how they look. Once you decide on a design, superglue one letter at a time to the board. Finish with one or two coats of sealer. 

That said, the process for attaching letters to wood is highly dependent on your aesthetic preferences. Let’s look at some of the other optional steps that may be part of this process. 

Creating an Aesthetic Wooden Sign

When attaching letters to wood, there are a few steps you can take to ensure that your final sign looks stunning and matches your aesthetic preferences

Consider painting your sign backing before attaching the letters. If you’re not too keen on your painting skills or want to try bringing in texture to the design, attach a wallpaper you like to the sign using Mod Podge after you sand it down. 

Then, paint the wallpaper to your preferred color if necessary. 

The sign backing is not the only part of the final sign that you can make more aesthetic. You can also work on the letters themselves

If you’ve made the letters yourself, chances are, they’re undecorated. If you bought them instead, they may either be plain wood or already painted

If the letters are plain, you’re in luck. You can use a paint or a finish to achieve the look you’re hoping for

If the letters are already painted, and you don’t like what they look like, don’t worry. You have two options:

  • Sand the wood until you reach a layer of clear wood. This is only an option if the letters are small and the layer of paint is very thin
  • Use wallpaper

If you opt for the latter, choose a white or light-colored wallpaper. Wrap each letter in it and use Mod Podge to stick the paper to the wood, including the sides, so that none of the existing paint is visible. Then, paint the wallpaper your desired color and pattern. This will also help you add a touch of texture to your design.

Once you’re satisfied with the pattern of your letters, gently sand the edges to get rid of any rough edges and splinters. Glaze the letter if necessary. Wait for the paint on the letters to dry before attaching them to the sign backing

Best Font for Wood Carving

When it comes to choosing fonts for woodcarving, you can opt for traditional options you can find on your computer programs or look for custom options specifically designed for woodcarving. 

The best fonts for wood carving are serifs, as they make it easier for you to ensure that the corners of each letter are sharp and crisp. The best-known Serif fonts are Times and Times New Roman. Other options include American Typewriter, Baskerville, and Cambria.

That said, this doesn’t mean that you can’t work with sans serif fonts – it’s just a warning that sans serif options tend to be more challenging to work with. However, once you’ve mastered a few common serifs, you can move on to more challenging options. Let’s look at the options in more detail.

Serif Fonts

  • Times and Times New Roman: One of the most commonly recognized fonts in the world, Times New Roman was commissioned by the newspaper The Times in 1931 – hence the name. The “Times” font is relatively similar to Times New Roman and was also developed for The Times. It is a variation on Times New Roman that was created to make printing with certain specialist equipment easier. The differences are slight – the serifs are thinner in Times New Roman, as are the linear symbols. However, they’re very hard to distinguish for most people.
  • American Typewriter: Created in 1974 for the International Typeface Cooperation, American Typewriter is based on (as the name implies) typewriter fonts. However, unlike true typewriter fonts, the characters do not all have the same width. There are four weights, each of which also has italic and bold variations. 
  • Baskerville: Designed in the 1750s and named for the designer, Baskerville is one of the oldest font styles around. The characters are influenced by calligraphy, with regular characters and more rounded curved shapes. This font was – and remains – especially popular when printing books.
  • Cambria: Commissioned by Microsoft and designed in 2004, Cambria is designed to ensure that text is readable on screens that are low-resolution. It is a proportioned text with even spacing.

Why Are Serifs Better?

As mentioned above, serifs are generally preferred when carving wooden letters because they are easier to work with

But why is this the case?

The answer lies in how a layperson can distinguish a serif font from a sans serif font. Serif fonts are fonts with tiny, pointed “end caps” on the corner or end of a letter. For example, as you can see in the letter M in Times New Roman font to the right (below for mobile users), the corners of the letter extend to create sharp edges:

These sections are not only easier to carve, they also help woodcarvers maintain crisp end cuts to ensure a polished look on the final product. In fact, serifs are so much easier than some carvers have claimed that serifs were likely originally invented to make woodcarving letters easier!

That said, as mentioned above, you’re free to experiment with sans serif fonts as well. The only cautioning factor is that they’re more challenging to carve – however, this also means they serve as an excellent challenge for intermediate and expert carvers who have already mastered working with serifs

Best Wood for Carving Letters

So, you’ve decided what font to use when carving your letters, and it’s time to move on to the actual carving. However, before you can do so, you need to make another decision – which wood you’ll be using for carving your letters!

There is no wood that is good for letter carving in particular. However, if you’re carving standalone letters, consider an easy carving wood like basswood, butternut, and aspen. Basswood and butternut are also good options if you’re carving using relief techniques (that is, engraving letters in wood or carving raised letters).

Wondering why these woods are so great to work with? I’ll cover the advantages of these woods below and also offer some more challenging – and more attractive – options you can try once you’re more confident in your skills. 

What Woods Are Best for Beginners to Work With?

The wood mentioned above – basswood, butternut, and aspen – were recommended because of how easy they are for beginners to work with. We have a whole article dedicated to the different kind of woods that we recommend to our beginner carvers, check it out for a more detailed explanation. Otherwise, Let’s look at them further below:

  • Basswood: Perhaps the most popular option for beginner woodcarvers, basswood is a very soft wood despite technically being classified as a hardwood. It has almost no grain, which, combined with its softness, means that it allows you to make mistakes while you practice your carving skills. Additionally, it’s an affordable option, and blanks are usually relatively cheap. You can get a full set of basswood blanks from Amazon.com – I personally enjoy the 5ARTH Large Beginner’s Premium Wood Carving/Whittling Kit. You can choose between a set of 5 or 10 blanks depending on your needs, and each set comes with blocks of two different sizes.
  • Butternut: Slightly darker than basswood, butternut has a nice grain and is an excellent introduction to carving wood with a grain. Like basswood, it’s soft and easy to work with, no matter whether you’re carving freestanding pieces or using relief techniques. It’s a touch more expensive than basswood but still relatively affordable. If you’re looking for blanks, consider this set of Butternut Carving Blocks from Amazon.com. The four-piece set has a good grain, and the wood has been kiln-dried to ensure it’s easy to work with.
  • Aspen: Another relatively soft wood, aspen doesn’t offer too much resistance when it is worked, making it a good option for wood carving. Additionally, the lack of resin and knots also make it easier for beginners to deal with. You can use it for any type of carving, but it’s best for making furniture and other standalone pieces – like carved letters!

Other Options You Can Experiment With

The three options mentioned above are all easy to work with, making them good choices for beginners. However, as you gain experience as a woodworker, you may find that you’re looking for a challenge – including experimenting with difficult (but aesthetically attractive) woods. These include:

  • Red oak 
  • Purpleheart
  • Red cedar
  • Southern pine
  • Cherry 
  • Sugar maple
  • Mahogany 

If you’re carving standalone pieces, you can also try carving burls. Burls are growths on a tree where the grain grows in a deformed, abnormal manner, causing an outgrowth that is full of knots

The last three woods mentioned above – cherry, sugar maple, and mahogany – are particularly challenging for relief carving. While you may find them easier to work with when carving standalone pieces, you should be very confident in your skills before you use them for carving engraved or raised letters

What Tools Do You Use to Carve Letters in Wood?

Aside from the font and the wood, the most important things you should have access to before you start carving letters in wood is your tools. However, basic letters are relatively uncomplicated to carve, which means you don’t need everything in your workshop. But what tools do you need?

Depending on whether you prefer to work with hand tools or power tools, you will need a knife, a chisel, a mallet, a rotary tool (like a Dremel), and bits (preferably round cutting bits) to carve letters in wood. You’ll also need sandpaper, a finish, and a sealer so you can properly complete and protect your project.

Let’s look at each of these tools in more detail, so you can understand how they can come in handy when working on letter carving. 

Why Each Tool is Important

  • Knife: As described above, you can engrave letters in wood using nothing more than a knife. You can even use it for whittling freestanding letters, depending on how comfortable you are with whittling. If possible, make sure to hone your knife throughout the carving process so that it remains sharp and effective
  • Chisel: While you can use any chisel, a chisel with a V-shaped end is the best option for carving letters. Chisels help remove larger chunks of wood faster, allowing you to complete your project quicker than you would if you only had a knife. 
  • Mallet: Whether you’ll need to use a mallet when carving letters mostly depends on the type of wood you’re working with. Mallets help you get a chisel into the wood if it’s too hard for you to work by hand. However, you have to be careful not to hit a mallet too hard, or you risk pushing your chisel too deep and ruining your piece. For most hardwoods, a gentle tap should do the trick just fine. 
  • Rotary Tool and Round Cutting Bits: Rotary tools help quicken the carving process and give you more control throughout. As mentioned above, round cutting bits are the best option when carving letters with rotary tools because they give you the best line control out of all bit types. 
  • Sandpaper: Working with carving tools of any type will leave you with rough edges. If you’re engraving letters, the inside of each letter will likely be uneven and rough right after carving, no matter how experienced you are. Sandpaper helps you mask the imperfections and get everything to a single, smooth level. Depending on how much sanding is necessary, you may have to go over your project a couple of times – if you do, make sure to start with coarse-grit sandpaper and move on to finer grit
  • Finish: A wood finish has numerous benefits – depending on which finish you use, it can help change the color of the wood and can also help seal pores and protect your project from outside elements. Depending on how finished you want your piece to look, you may have to apply several layers of finish. If you do, don’t forget to sand your piece between layers
  • Sealer: When sealer isn’t always necessary, it adds another layer of protection to your piece. Additionally, it helps preserve the finish, so you don’t have to worry about checking your piece a year or two down the line and discovering some of the stain has been stripped away by the action of the elements

How Do You Carve A Raised Letter in Wood?

So, you’ve gotten engraving and carving freestanding letters down pat, and now you want to move on to carving raised letters in wood. Luckily, it’s a relatively simple process. 

Carving a raised letter in wood is very similar to relief carving. You will need to transfer your design to the wood blank and then start to remove the wood around the design. Chip away at the wood closest to the design and remove larger quantities of wood further away from it. You can either level the background entirely or just create a level section, depending on the design you’re aiming for. If necessary, carve any details in the text.

If you’re wondering how to carve a raised letter, don’t worry – I’ll go into it in further detail here.

Carving Raised Letters

As mentioned above, carving raised letters is relatively similar to carving in relief. If you’ve done the latter, you should be able to manage the former with little to no issue. However, if you’ve never tried your hand at relief carving previously, here are the steps you can follow:

  1. Transfer the design to the wood blank using carbon paper, or draw it on freehand. Unlike engraving, attaching the design to the blank will not work when carving raised letters. 
  2. Outline the letters
  3. Remove excess material around the letters. This is an opportunity to remove a lot of the excess material – you don’t have to be too gentle in this step. All you need to be careful about is not carving inside the outline you have already traced. 
  4. If the design will include letters that are of varying depths, identify the parts that will be deeper and those that will be shallower
  5. Add depth to the outlines and start working on any details you may have included in your design.
  6. Smooth the background. You don’t have to level the complete backdrop – you can also simply even out a certain amount of area around your design
  7. Smooth irregularities, carving marks, and mistakes with sandpaper.
  8. Finish using a stain or varnish and sealer

You can also refer to this video for help on how to carve raised letters in wood:

The video walks you through both how to engrave letters in wood and how to carve raised letters on a blank using a rotary tool. It also gives you an idea of how you can experiment with the background of your raised design and shows you how you can combine engraved and raised letters to create a 3D effect

As you can see, carving letters in wood is relatively simple. All you need to do is decide which method you’ll use and then start working on a wood blank. Carving letters in relief is a great way to create nameplates and add more detail to other carving projects, while carving freestanding letters allows you to add unique decorations in and around your home.

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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