Wood Carving: The Ultimate Beginners Guide (Whittling)

Wood carving is a fascinating hobby that you will never know everything about. Even after a hundred years of whittling, you will still learn something new every single day, this learning curve has to start somewhere, so today’s article is an ultimate resource for a beginner carver with hand tools.

If you are a wood carving beginner, learn proper safety precautions first. From there, procure all the tools and materials you need for your project. After planning your design, you can begin practicing basic carving techniques. Studying famous woodworkers will further advance your artistry.

In this guide, we will walk you through everything you need to know. To prepare, we will break down the safety protocol you need to follow, what tools you will need, how to find your wood, and how to plan a design. Then, we will talk you through beginner techniques that you can practice at home.

Safety First

The cardinal rule of wood carving is safety first. This cannot be stressed enough. Wood carving can lead to serious injuries, likely resulting in stitches. Furthermore, the following safety procedures will make your wood carving experience more enjoyable.

Follow these tips to stay safe while wood carving:

  • Know your tools. Make sure you understand how your tools work before using them. Most importantly, know what and where the cutting edge is on each of your knives.
  • Use protection. Wood carving gloves or a thumb guard are necessary to reduce accidental cuts, especially for beginners. A woodworking apron provides full-body coverage and convenient pocket storage, this is not necessary when carving but is a pretty good idea to use for extra protection. Start your shopping with these ‘Best Sellers’ from Amazon:
  • Identify what you need. In addition to safety gear, be specific with what tools your design requires. Different carving knives perform different functions and should not be misused as this can affect the outcome of your wood carving. 
  • A sharp tool is a safe tool. A dull knife is dangerous. If you notice a lot of resistance while cutting, stop immediately. Use a sharpening stone and then continue. 
  • Keep your workplace well lit. Lighting your workplace properly will help you determine where you are cutting and avoid injury.
  • Work from a relaxed state. You should never carve wood while drowsy or under the influence. However, like driving, handling a knife while angry or stressed can lead to serious injury. Find an activity that will calm and focus you before carving.
  • Take breaks. Wood carving can be a meticulous and arduous activity. Set time aside to take a breather from your work. 
  • Take your time. Wood carving is a skill that takes years to master. So start with easy designs, use simple non-electric tools, and refrain from rushing. Taking your time will make carving less stressful and more enjoyable.

Equipment & Tools

Besides safety equipment, there are some basic tools that you need for carving. It doesn’t matter how safe you’re being; If you can’t slice through the wood, you’re not going to have a fun time with this hobby. Fortunately, you’re in the right place to discover all of the tools and equipment that you’ll need.

Here are my recommendations:

BeaverCraft General Sloyd Knife with Leather Sheath (C4SH) is a general knife that is perfect for carving wood (and leather) and would work really well for a beginner woodcarver.

If you are taking woodcarving seriously, you need the Flexcut Carving Tools Deluxe Palm & Knife Set as it provides you with almost everything you need for whittling.

Sharp Pebble Premium Whetstone Knife Sharpening Stone. A “#1 Best Seller” on Amazon, this sharpening stone is made from premium whetstone and has a bamboo base for extra security. Provided with this stone are a sharpening angle guide and an e-handbook for knife sharpeners of all experience levels.

Getting these basic tools will allow you to excel at woodcarving. It might seem like a lot, but once you have your collection ready to go, you’ll enjoy the results. These recommendations are designed to produce the best wood carving projects around. With precision, comfort, and sharpness, you’ll be able to move onto the next section to choose the right wood.

Picking Your Wood

Beginners should start with softwoods that are easier to cut, like basswood or balsa. Pine and butternut, while they are more coarse-grained, are suitable as well. Basswood is one of the top choices for the industry because it’s lightweight and easy to cut through. Balsa is very similar, though it’s not as common due to availability.

Our website has a lot of articles written about a specific wood and its characteristic and qualities when carving. If you want to read about basswood or pine, click the links bellow:

Pine and butternut aren’t as soft and easy to handle, but they’re not too much more difficult to handle than basswood and balsa. Furthermore, they hold their shape better after being moisturized if you accidentally drop water on them. Moisture from perspiration can alter softwoods, but you won’t have that issue with pine and butternut.

You can purchase carving wood at your local hardware store or lumber yard. If you have any questions, an employee can assist you. Most name brand hardware stores have websites or phone lines with people who can help you before you get to the store. Make sure you choose the right shape and size so you don’t have to keep going back.

We do not recommend buying lumber online. However, if you are confronted with slim pickings, we suggest BeaverCraft wood. Check for their BeaverCraft BW12 Basswood Carving Blocks on Amazon. They’re perfect for people of all experience levels since they’re small enough to handle without using too many tools.

Wherever you get your wood, you should consider the size of the block. Some people wood carve chairs, while others only want to deal with small figurines. There’s no use in buying a massive 2 x 4 if you’re only using a small portion of it.

Knowing what wood you want to use is only half of the battle. Before you choose from this list, you should know what you’re going to cave. After all, different woods hold different colors, shapes, and styles better. If you want to learn about the design process, then proceed to the next section.

Intention & Design

Planning a design beforehand will help determine what tools and techniques to use for your project. You’ll also know what kind of wood you need, though it can be a bit tricky to decide if you’re not well-versed in wood carving. However, it’s still a great stepping stone to get the general layout of your project.

There are many options to try. For original designs, we recommended you lightly sketch on your wood with a pencil before carving. Make sure you use a carpenter’s pencil before you get started.

For more inspiration, study the masters to learn techniques and develop new ideas. Famous woodworkers to know are George Nakashima and Tage Frid. Nick Offerman also offers a beginner’s guide called Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop a very recommended read for those who like to study.

If you’re beginning your wood carving journey, it’s highly recommended that you test your knives on a cheap block of wood. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with a tough project. Wood carving is all about patience and continuous growth. If you’re able to find a budget-friendly wood block or a branch outside, you’ll be able to learn the basics.

Once you get beyond the initial training stages, you can try carving faces, plants, small figurines, and more. Remember that wood carving doesn’t have to be a 3D piece. You can sketch 2D faces and pictures on a block of wood, just as you would with a pencil and paper. It’s another form of art with more room for creativity.

We also have some great segments featuring the “Master of Illusion,” Randall Rosenthal, and Guinness World Record holder, Zheng Chunhui:

Wood Carving Techniques

Before we review the different cuts available to you, here are some carving fundamentals:

  • Hold your knife with the dominant hand and stabilize it with the non-dominant thumb. For example, if you are right-handed, you would hold the carving knife with your right hand and the backside of the knife with your left thumb. You can control the force of the blade with your right hand while the left hand does the steering. If you need more guidance on holding tools properly, Then we have a separate article “A Guide To Holding Wood Carving Tools For Beginners” that discusses the proper method and technique for holding tools.
  • Cut with the grain. Notice those dark streaks running through your wood? That is the grain. Cutting parallel to the grain in the direction of least resistance will make the cleanest cut. Unless it’s essential to your design, avoid cutting against the grain whenever possible. It’ll cause chips and unsightly issues.
  • Know where your knife is going. Being mindful will prevent injury and maintain your desired proportions. As a rule of thumb, cutting small angles will whittle thin pieces, while big angles will whittle thick pieces. Never try to take on a massive corner or a long grain at once. You’ll end up harming yourself or ruining the wood.
  • Learn to control your wrist. Many expert wood carvers will point out that your wrist is where all of the power comes from. Do your best to angle your wrist when you carve, scooping the small bits of wood to create your artwork. Straight cuts should only be performed when you’re working on long surfaces.
  • Brace or vice your wood when you’re carving. If it’s a small piece, you can use one hand to brace and the other to carve. However, large blocks of wood that are too big for your hand should be viced. This suggestion will prevent you from cutting your hand, dropping the wood, or making mistakes.

These techniques cover the basics of what you should know about wood carving. However, you’ll be able to develop your style to see what works best. The key is to stay comfortable and in control while you’re carving. Don’t risk your safety for a better cut; It’ll never work out in your favor.

Basic Cuts

We have a very descriptive article on All the 7 cuts to master in wood carving. If you have the time go over and read it for a better understanding of woodcarving and required technique. If you want a shorter version that is also written below.

Once you’re comfortable learning the techniques mentioned in the previous section, you’ll be able to start learning different cuts. There are countless wood carving cuts, but you shouldn’t confuse yourself with too many at once. These basic cuts will get you through carving a plethora of figures when you start your journey.

There are three types of cuts you should know.

  • Push Stroke: This cut provides the most control. Using the dominant hand, rotate your wrist in a scooping motion. To avoid slipping, brace the knife with your non-dominant thumb. Work in slow, controlled swings to keep your handling as good as possible. You don’t want to push the hole block away.
  • Straightaway Cut: This cut will carve out the rough shape of your project. Make long, thin cuts away from the body. This will shrink the wood to your desired size. Rather than carving quick and deep, you’ll need to shave away thin pieces in a slow motion. Again, being too aggressive will lead to too many problems.
  • Pull Stroke (or Pare Cut): This cut is essential for small details. Move your carving knife as if you were peeling an apple. Just be careful not to slice your thumb. You’ll have to scoop the knife toward the palm of your hand while bracing the block with your thumb. Think of the pull stroke as the opposite motion of the push stroke.

These three cuts will get you through the first few weeks or months of wood carving. They’re essential for as long as you’ll be carving, so try to master them before you learn anything else. Don’t worry, though; You won’t be limited as to how many figures you’ll be able to create.


Gouges create hollow areas and curves. When using one, secure the wood with clamps or a vice. Then, grip the gouge roundarm with your non-dominant hand. Place the curved blade against the wood and push with the dominant hand. This is the only method that requires you to cut deep rather than thin, narrow strips.

Common Wood Carving Mistakes

Although you know the basics of wood carving, it’s easy to make a mistake here and there. When you’re a beginner, you should expect that you’ll run into a few issues. The good news is that you’re about to learn about the most common mistakes that you can avoid.

Here’s what you need to know before you start wood carving:

  1. Digging too deep, too quickly will cause all sorts of issues. When you get a fresh block of wood, don’t get ahead of yourself and start chopping at it. You’ll break the wood, hurt yourself, or damage your knife. Many wood cutting knives are thin because it provides a smoother cut.
  2. Pulling the knife toward an unprotected hand is more dangerous than you might think. Even if you’re trying to do the aforementioned pull stroke, you need to wear gloves. One mishap and you could cut your hand or drop the wood. Either scenario is unwanted, so get a comfortable pair of gloves before you start.
  3. Forgetting to wear safety equipment for quick adjustments will result in harm. Speaking of wearing gloves, don’t forget your goggles and other protective gear. Some carvers prefer to wear masks when they’re using sanding tools or shapers. You’ll be able to carve without breathing wood dust.
  4. Not sharpening your blades can make it far too difficult to carve. If you forget to use the whetstone, you’ll find that the blades will get dull. Dull knives won’t cut as easily, and they increase the chances of hurting yourself in the process. When you notice that it’s a bit harder to carve, sharpen your tools and get back to work.
  5. Always brace your blocks of wood if you need to. If you want to hold the block in one hand, then you might not need to brace it. However, if it’s slipping or you can’t handle it enough, then you need to get a vice. Vices aren’t too expensive, but they make a massive difference in your projects.

These avoidable mistakes can set you back a bit. If you’re able to adhere to the advice, you’ll be safe and sound. However, it’s important that you use the right knife for the job. In the section, you’ll find out what types of wood carving knives exist and which ones are right for your intentions.

Different Types of Carving Knives (Tools)

According to The Sculpture Studio, there’s a long list of carving knives that you can try for the hobby. The knife you choose will greatly impact your performance by altering the methods and techniques that you use. Furthermore, your knife will change the appearance of the wood block when you’re done with it.

Let’s review the various types of wood carving knives below.

  • U-gouging knives are a popular choice for deep, sharp cuts. Another alteration includes the V-gouging knife, which has less rounded edges. Both knives allow you to cut deeply right away without having to create a shallow divot. They’re perfect for shaping eyes and other facial features on wood blocks.
  • Carving knives are undoubtedly the most common wood carving knife in the industry. Any person who’s tried carving a block of wood has used a carving knife. They’re a basic knife with a sharp, straight edge. Some of them are slightly curved, but they’re designed for the same purpose.
  • Carpenter’s chisels aren’t as common, but they can provide a rough appearance that many carvers desire. These chisels flatten a surface and remove valleys to create an open space. They’re also designed to create a textured appearance that’s desired for realistic carvings.
  • Spoon gouges are similar to U-gouges, but they’re rounder. You can use a spoon gouge to dig out a bowl-shaped area on a block of wood. They usually have a long handle that allows you to easily scoop the wood and shape the figure. Spoon gouges aren’t too common, but you’ll benefit from adding one to your collection.

There are many other tools and knives that you’ll receive in a beginner carving set. Different shapes allow them to be used for various angles, so why not give them a try to see which ones work best for you? Every carver has their own preferences. It’s important that you find out what you can work with so you can master your skills.

How You Can Improve Your Skill Set

Beginning your journey as a wood carver can be challenging, especially if it feels like you’re not about to get better. It’s such an in-depth, detailed hobby that many people find it too difficult to master in a short time.

Here’s how you can get better at carving wood:

  1. Focus on what you’re good at. If you notice that you’re proficient at using a V-gouge than other tools, hone your skills and get even better. There’s no need to bounce around to too many knives and techniques; You’ll end up confusing yourself and getting frustrated. Master one method, then move onto the next.
  2. Repeat the same techniques on a sample wood block. Don’t buy the most expensive wood on the market when you’re learning to carve wood. Instead, try to find a few sample blocks that you can mess around with. Learn the various techniques mentioned on this page instead of carving a masterpiece right away.
  3. Try carving different types of wood. Hopefully, you read about the different options you have, including pine, basswood, balsa, and more. Everyone has their preferences, so testing different types will let you know what you’re good at. Furthermore, it’ll let you test various densities.
  4. Learn from books, audiobooks, and videos. It might be a hard time to find an in-person class, but there’s no reason that you can’t take advantage of all of the available resources. Try to find out where you can learn, including the books and videos previously mentioned in this post.

What Can You Do with Wood Carving?

Contrary to popular belief, wood carving is more than a simple hobby. You can make countless creations and drive a steady income. Below, you’ll learn how beneficial wood carving can be and what improvements it can make to your life.

Wood carving as a hobby

If you’re taking up wood carving as a hobby, you can craft anything from simple from small faces to rocking chairs. You can craft tables, useful tools, and other bits and pieces. When you’re wood carving as a hobby, you can relax and go at your own pace. Find the ideas that you love and work your way towards them.

Wood carving as a career

On the other hand, you can become a professional wood carver. Using various online websites or in-store businesses, you can sell your crafts. It’s one of the toughest careers to get into if you’re not a part of a company. Building your own business as a wood carver requires lots of customized carvings, but it can be a very rewarding path.

Whether you’re wood carving as a career or a hobby, it’s a unique path that you won’t find with any other activity. You can start off with simple creations and work your way up to major projects that take months to complete. The variety of things that you can make as a wood carver is one of the main reasons that so many people are trying it out.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to carve wood can be a simple and satisfying process. There’s no need to stress over how many different techniques you need to learn or how you can make the perfect figure. As long as you follow the steps mentioned throughout this page, you’ll be on your way to becoming a wood carving expert.

To start, beginners should learn these things:

  • All of the required safety protocol and what protective gear to use
  • What carving tools to secure and where
  • How to find the best wood for your project
  • Planning a design and studying the masters
  • Basic wood carving know-how and techniques

With time, patience, hard work, and a little bit of caution, anyone can follow the steps and tips we discussed and become a wood carving artist! 

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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