Which Wood For Carving Is Best For Beginners?
Which species is the best wood for carving for beginners? When you begin learning the many lists online can become confusing.
I wish to eliminate some of this confusion and give you a shorter list of great places to begin, then expand. None of the wood species I detail require expert levels of experience.
Some species do require more experience than others. Yet each of these can be explored rather early in your learning phases.
Match The Species To The Intended Wood Carving
If one is wanting to work with wood art, more unique pieces may be desired. Wood Burls, spalted lumber, or other unique variations can be rare and expensive.
These more select pieces are for more advanced wood carving. Lumber of this nature is not isolated to species, but rather can come from any species.
It becomes what it is due to outside forces of nature which impact the tree within its growth cycle. It is for this reason that each is unique and can be rare.
Some applications such as resin art require nicer wood for carving due to the expense of the epoxy. It is common to see exotic species or rare pieces within this art.
If one is learning chip carving, again Basswood is where you would begin. Yet this art is best applied to wood species with less density.
The greater point to be found is that one does not wish to use expensive or exotic wood for a lesser purpose. Also you do not wish to learn an art with wood that requires more experience.
Take the necessary steps to match your project to your intended outcome. Also match your tools properly to the project. If you use hand saws for example, know that each can be designed differently for hardwoods and softwood.
It is best to start with wood grains that are naturally straight yet not too tight or dense. It would be good for a beginner to avoid knotted wood until some experience is gained.
Hardwoods are commonly what people gravitate towards yet not all are equal in density and hardness.
While my list will cross over with others you find online, I want to go more into why one is better than another from my experience. This can help a beginner select where they may wish to start.
After you acquire lumber be sure to store properly for preservation. Some species are more sensitive than others.
In terms of hardness Basswood ranks at 410 in Janka hardness. Note this does not relate to density or weight. Nonetheless it is close to pine which is rated near 380. There is a benefit to learning with this species when compared to others.
The grain of basswood is relatively straight and clean. When cutting with a sharp blade it is easier to work with removing shavings where desired.
While it is easy to start with in hand carving, it can also be mechanically tooled with exceptional ease.
This is why it is often used in instrument making. It can also be found in use for more commercial applications.
Basswood may not be the prettiest of lumbers but it holds its place in availability as it is common in North America. Unfortunately it is not a resilient as other harder species, and can be prone to damage by exposure and the elements.
In my experience with this lumber I do enjoy how easy it is to work with. Yet for me its color and lack of unique grain keeps me away from it in general.
I do recommend Basswood for beginners in wood carving. It is especially good for those learning whittling where blade dynamics can interact with the hand more easily. The wood itself allows for a bit of a safety factor.
If one is looking to begin learning wood carving and does not care for the appearance of Basswood, I would suggest using Butternut instead. It has more to offer in terms of its grain and can be beautiful.
Often it has been called the white walnut, yet it is no where near as hard as Black Walnut.
The Janka hardness of Butternut is at 490 which still places it inside a window where hand carving is easily done. The grain is still easy to work with just as Basswood would be.
This species will let you begin to learn how to cut along grain lines and see how they respond to different cuts. This is a great wood for chip carving.
While this is not my personal favorite it is one that is fun to work with and can give beautiful results.
I would suggest saving Cherry for when one has gained a little experience in woodworking despite its popularity.
Cherry is a great wood for carving yet if one uses tooling on this species it tends to burn. Tool marks are easy to leave within the wood grain as a result. Knowing speeds and feed rates are important.
In hand carving it is more difficult than the previous two species I have listed. The key is keeping sharp carving knives and removing a small amount of material at a time.
In Janka hardness here we jump up to 950 so it is considerably harder than those I previously mentioned.
You will immediately notice a difference in how the blade cuts through the wood when compared to softer woods. As for a finished work there are few woods that are as beautiful.
Over time Cherry tends to become darker in color. It is very stable when it is dried and cured. This is a major bonus for more elaborate projects.
If one is obtaining green lumber just know that it will shrink more than other species in the drying process. It is no doubt one of the most popular species for woodworking in North America and thus is more expensive as a result.
One major drawback in some forms of wood art is the color of cherry. The challenge is creating contrast in relief art. To create contrast by stains often requires lighter grained wood.
Despite this drawback the wood is so beautiful I have often found ways of using art within it as I love it. Nevertheless in terms of wood for carving I would suggest more experience in other species before attempting Cherry.
If we back up a little on the Janka hardness scale we find Maple ranking in at around 850 depending on its variation. While often darker woods that are harder can be more popular, there is a lot Maple has to offer.
It is hard enough to use for many applications including furniture, and in wood carving its grain is easy to work with.
It can be tooled with little ill effect and minimal burning. Tool marks are common to be found so adjusting tool settings is required.
The finish is smooth and few artifacts are left in imperfections. This is one of my favorite species to work with.
The reason for it being a favorite of mine is more than its ease of use in carving and tooling. In its spalted variations you find wood grains that are simply stunning in contrast.
Ambrosia Maple for example can give some of the most beautiful outcomes in a project. Artwork that is carved into this wood stands out like it can in few other species.
The color difference from the natural grain and its darker transitions allow for art to be displayed with higher contrast. Varied stain colors create little to no bleeding.
While Maple is not where a beginner should start on day one. it is no doubt easy to learn with some trail and error early on.
There is no doubt that White and Red Oak is a favorite among woodworkers. This wood is often found in home features such as flooring.
On the Janka hardness scale we jump up to the 1290 range depending on species and where it was grown. While Oak is easy to tool, it can be more difficult to work with in hand carving.
The reason for its difficulty is that despite the hardness, the pores of the wood are more open.
One could take a piece of Red Oak and submerge it while blowing into the end of it like a straw to see bubbles come up in the water. When hand carving these open pores create a different feel that may require some adjustment for fine details.
Keep blades sharp! You may discover a cut goes too far after facing some resistance with a blade. It can slip slicing more than anticipated.
Getting fine details in carving becomes difficult as the pores can create a slight fuzzy appearance, or it will not hold the form or shape as desired. This can be especially true for very fine letters or lines in a 2.5d format.
Oak is common for general application, and again I tend to prefer spalted variations avoiding farm grown lumber. Not only will this serve well for exterior uses with things like wood chests, but it can also be beautiful.
Oak and Maple, if farm grown their grain is rather plain. There is not a lot of contrast to be found and they will appear like general lumber found in big box stores.
Nevertheless Oak can be beautiful to work with but not the best place for a beginner to learn.
Here we step into a unique species. Walnut has often been overlooked. Its Janka hardness is around the 1000 to 1100 mark depending on where it was grown and its variation.
It is among the easier hardwoods to work with and few can top Walnuts beauty. It is also a great place for a beginner to learn which will surprise a lot of people.
Its ease of carving and tooling comes in that its grain is typically consistent and straight. Its pores are more closed. Across a board from end to end its density is more consistent than other species.
One may wonder what the catch is since it is easier than other hardwoods to use.
The catch to this species is that it often can be more expensive. Also in terms of wood artwork the darker grain does not allow for contrast of artistic features to be displayed as easily.
This is why I often use walnut as a contrast or accent piece to things such as box art.
Its grain is absolutely beautiful, but over time it will lighten somewhat. This is not a problem as typically its grain becomes more defined and pronounced with age.
In terms of furniture use there are few that are as beautiful with the exception of perhaps Cherry.
In ease of use and carving all one must be careful with is knowing what speeds to use when tooling. If one does not adjust accordingly it can cause some burning.
Be careful to not allow the tools to stay in one place for too long. Smooth consistent cuts with moderate speeds are best.
Why Begin Carving With These Species?
The above list is the best place to begin for those starting out. Each species will vary in difficulty but all will have their own lessons to be learned.
In North America each can be found relatively easily. While costs may vary, none of them are exotic enough to be outrageously expensive.
Each species can be hand carved as well as tooled. This can be compared to other species such as Pear which is far more difficult to work with.
Often Pear is reserved for smaller hand workings due to how close grained and dense it can be.
If one begins with the above list the lessons learned will make for an easier transition into other more exotic species when you are ready.
Nevertheless there are amazing and beautiful woods to be found with what is native to North America. There is little need to go to imported lumber unless one desires to do so.
More Challenging Wood For Carving
There are more challenging alternatives in wood for carving than those I have given.
For example, Cedar is another favorite in North America and is commonly found. Yet this species presents some unique challenges a beginner is not ready for.
This can be said for Poplar as well. As these two are abundant and loved by many I will detail the challenges for each.
Poplar is rated at near 2,400N so it is a harder wood, but there are drawbacks.
Despite its hardness it has a lower density which creates challenges. When working with finer details it can leave a fuzzy surface.
While sanding can help remedy this in wood art, it proves difficult to do without destroying the artwork placed within the wood.
Due to this low density it is more porous which can also make contrast of colors in stain difficult. Some portions of the wood will appear darker while other parts lighter.
It is no doubt a durable wood. but there are better options which allow more flexibility of work with less frustration.
Another interesting aspect to this wood for carving is how it can curve or bend. It is more sensitive to the forces placed upon it when compared to others like Oak.
In tooling you may find that the processed board will cup or twist slightly. This is more often than not due to the grain structure.
I have used poplar in wood art. In fact I would not hesitate to use it again. Keep in mind I say this due to the experience that I have with the wood and time in my craft.
I would not advise it as a place to begin learning. To the benefit of Poplar, there are more exotic grains that can be found that are beautiful. Yet work your way into this species with time and experience.
Cedar ranks in at about 900 on the Janka hardness, again depending on where grown and its climate.
There are variations to species around the world and each offers similar but also slightly different characteristics. More commonly in North America we are used to Red Cedar.
Its popularity comes from the species being rot resistant, and also its aromatic qualities. In terms of woodworking that is the best characteristic of this wood.
The other qualities it possesses are more problematic than a benefit.
A plank is semi stable from end to end. Its density can alter dramatically from heartwood to its outer layers.
In places where it is dense it will accept stain will little bleeding. Meanwhile in more porous layers attempting a two tone stain of light and dark is impossible. The dark stain will bleed heavily into the lighter area.
While this species is great for general woodworking it is not common to find used in wood art where carving and color contrast is desired. I have used it in my work, yet I have to be very selective.
The portions of the lumber I select are done with care.
If one is wanting to begin in wood carving I would avoid cedar for a while. It is definitely unique in how it responds to a blade and finishing.
It is not difficult as some other species like Pear, but can be aggravating at times. An example of this is due to its changing density. A board will cup or warp more easily when trying to form it for some projects.
There is no doubt that it is a beautiful wood and certainly offers the initial aroma we enjoy for a while. Yet to learn wood carving I would advise some of the earlier examples for starting your journey.
More Than Anything Have Fun
The important part in beginning this journey especially as a hobby is to have fun. Explore the different aspects wood can offer in stylized and realistic art.
Avoiding some early frustration can help you along that path rather than facing frustration that can dissuade you from continuing on.
There are other applications which time will teach such as cnc mill work or routers and how a species is cut. It is a lifetime journey that you can enjoy and hand down to the next generation. Once you begin it is often impossible to quit.