How To Start Wood Carving
If you have wondered how to get into wood carving, it is easier than you think. This does not mean you will be creating life like sculptures tomorrow.
Nevertheless I can help you down the path of knowing how to start.
There will be some information which crosses over with other articles I have written. Be sure to check the highlighted text for additional information where applicable.
It will expand on some information you may have interest in. Nevertheless wood as an art medium can be profitable.
Likewise you may benefit with woodworking classes which can be easily found online and in your local area. These classes will require you to have tools, so please be wary of buying prepackaged wood carving kits.
At the end of this article I will give my thoughts on where exactly someone with no experience should start. Yet research each of the options here for one may strike you as being more interesting than others.
What Kind Of Carving Do You Want To Do?
As a beginner most start with small 2d projects. What is 2d? Imagine you want to carve the letter A into a board. You simply carve the wood away to leave an impression of the letter A. This can also be called engraving.
Others want to do 2.5d carving. What is 2.5d? Imagine you want to have the letter A raised from the surface. Here you remove the material away from around what the A will be. This will leave the raised letter behind. This often is called relief carving.
For beginners 2d is much easier to achieve especially by hand. If you are wanting to get into more complicated carving, you can get there with practice. Just know it takes some time. Let’s talk about what you will need to achieve these different types of wood carving, including the more complex styles.
Hand Carving With Traditional Woodworking Tools
This is what many people think of when it comes to wood carving. Yes hand carving it is still alive and well yet unfortunately many people do not use this today. I will say that it is an essential skill to learn, especially for wood art.
There will be many times when electric tools cannot or will not finish a project to your liking. Using hand tools gives the touch and control that many others do not offer. Know it is time consuming and a process of trial and error to learn.
To get started in hand carving, begin with tools that are affordable. You do not need to get into Japanese Woodworking Tools just yet. If you grow into these then that is great. Reading about the Japanese version will give insight to what to look for in Western clones.
Many western made tools will do the job perfectly for someone starting to learn. There are also many places to learn how to use these tools. Truly there is no way text on a screen can give the necessary means for teaching this.
Often these skills are learned from others in person much like within an apprenticeship. Yet you can learn just as well with the information available from places like YouTube.
A Dremel Can Be Your Friend
An often overlooked tool is the dremel. For a starting point there is really no better way to begin. Even if you wish to focus on hand carving, a dremel is still amazing.
What does the dremel offer? It is great for stencil work, outlines, decorative designs on small pieces, and general 2d engraving. I would consider it first and foremost an engraving tool.
There are some complications in removing wood material across larger portions of space. Aside from the bits not being designed for extensive cutting or chipping, it can create an uneven surface. This is its drawback.
Another strong point of the dremel is its use in cleaning a surface. There are various attachments which aid in light sanding, smoothing, and cleaning which can speed a process. Nevertheless I would personally consider this a secondary function to its primary being engraving.
Routers Can Do Amazing Carvings
A router is a major step up in the wood carving world. While normally these have been used for creating decorative edges or clearing material for functional uses, it can also make art. The methods of how to use a router in this way are many.
Freehand use of a router, especially smaller ones, are a common way for a beginner to start. It works in much the same way as the dremel yet with more powerful bits that are like blades. This tool is designed for clearing material away from a broader surface.
I would suggest exploring the many possibilities in its use. You can find examples online of how to build and use a router table. Additionally there are more complex track systems one can design.
What would a track system be used for? The router rides across the tracks on an x y axis creating what is essentially a manual cnc by hand. I personally have friends who use these for perfecting a level table top in their custom designs.
Yet a router can also produce fine carvings. Here is where you can begin to step into 2.5d wood art with some confidence once you have your system set up and working for you.
Scroll Saws Are Very Effective
While technically not carving but more of a cutting tool, a scroll saw is great to have. This is another beginner tool that can be found in many shop classes. Rather than engraving the letter A into wood, think of it as cutting out the letter A.
A scroll saw can be used in one of two ways. The first option is to cut out shapes, pieces, or objects from wood. Such as with the letter A, you would be holding that letter in your hand.
The second way is removing the material from the wood so that the letter is left within the original piece. Here the plank you cut the letter in leaves a see through hole in the shape of the desired letter. The same can be done with shapes and designs.
Whatever cutting you decide to use a scroll saw for just keep in mind it will cut through the entire piece of wood from top to bottom. It is designed for freehand use and is great with stencil work.
There are many tutorials on scroll saws on the web. Additionally virtually any pattern can be used with them in making art.
Wood Carving With A Lathe
A lathe is another specialty tool for wood turning. Yet this tool allows you to create a three dimensional object unlike the scroll saw. The wood will be set on the lathe so that the wood spins. You then can carve the wood to a shape desired.
People use these for making objects such as pens, candle holders, bowls, cups, and yes I have even seen an insulating cup. Here you are only limited by imagination and the dimensions which a lathe is designed to allow.
This tool I also would consider a good place to begin learning especially if this style of woodworking as a visual art is your thing. Keep in mind carving art into these objects you create will in turn become a very unique work of art.
Alternatives To Carving Tools
Wood carving knives may be a more purist choice for those seeking to avoid power tools. This is a viable option for more traditional work.
One may wish to seek out wood burning tools. While this is not my preferred thing, many enjoy it. These tools are much like a soldering iron. They are hand held and allow freehand work to be burnt into the wood.
There are some issues with this method. Among them is that it is not carving thus the heat can mar the surface. Additionally you cannot use stains to create varied colors across different portions of the work.
Cnc Wood Carving
Of the methods in the world today for carving none surpass the power and accuracy of a cnc mill. This machine is computer controlled and it runs based upon the digital designs you create. It has far more staying power than a router when a spindle is used.
While this is the most expensive option, ranging between 8 to 10 thousand for a self built setup, it is extremely powerful. Most serious wood artists today use this in conjunction with other methods.
Where the cnc is nice is that it can quickly rough out a piece removing the bulk material that is not wanted. From there one can hand carve with greater speed if desired. In this way it reduces the amount of time for more detailed or intricate artwork.
This method is for the more serious and often experienced in the woodworking world. Yet a beginner can set out on this path if one knows for certain that this is for them.
If you plan on doing a lot of hand tooling or hand carving you will want to explore a woodworking vise. There are different variations to the concept which applies to different needs.
While these are not at first critical to have they do become more so in time. What they offer in stability far exceeds other options within your work.
Essential Tools You Will Want
A planer is imperative. Get one if you do not already have one. For small shop use or starting out with basic art, a benchtop is fine.
You do not need to begin with the expensive more commercial versions of this tool. Typically these can benchtop models can be had for under 500 dollars new, and even cheaper used.
Where they serve you best is in two functions. They not only provide the thickness to the wood you desire, but also a smooth surface to begin with. While the surface may not always be perfect a electric sander will help make it so.
A table saw of some kind is also a must. If all you have is the contractors style in the garage as a beginner, then use it. Exploring wood carving as a beginner shouldn’t cost a fortune. Wait on buying more expensive equipment until you know you are ready.
Where a table saw serves you the most is in two key functions. Clearly sizing the material to what you need is the most critical function. Yet if it is in good working order, it can also be used to create an edge that can be joined to another piece of wood.
This function will save you money on buying a joiner if you believe that you need one. Other obvious shop tools will be needed such as sanders yet most likely you will already have these.
Where A Beginner Should Start
With tools I have my favorites, yet also some tools are better at some things than others.
Shaping tools such as a hand plane are easy to get at the local hardware store as a starter. Yet I wish to look at actual carving. As a beginner there are three places that I would suggest you focus.
The first is old school hand carving with chisels. Look into a cheaper beginners set. The reason why you should explore this is that no matter what other carving tools you may use, these ultimately come out to aid in finishing.
The second is using a dremel. The reason I suggest this is due to it allowing you to get started right away. Indeed a router can do the same, yet a dremel is much easier for a beginner to learn.
Now for the third suggestion. After you have explored these with a bit of fun I would definitely say get a couple routers. One for fine work, then another for bulk clearing of the wood surface. This will get you moving in the right direction for more intricate work.
Less common tools you may have an occasional need for are easy to find in general shop use. While not always a part of woodworking things like a drill press can be cheap to obtain.
No matter what you select you will have entered a hobby that will always be with you.
As your skills improve you will begin to minimize the use of things like screws or nails for wood art. Carving for aesthetics and joining becomes a part of the art.
Notes For Parents
I would advise parental supervision for all shop activities. This should go without saying. While any tool holds potential risks, some are more dangerous than others. Statistically speaking a table saw causes more injury than most other tools annually.
While this may be the case for a table saw, know that a router bit spinning at near 18k rpm is no joke. Of the tools which I could classify the safest would be the old school hand carving tools or the dremel. Nevertheless blades and spinning things should be fully supervised.
For wood carving it may be best to custom made a carving board. This surface is where all carving is done and acts as a work station. In case of blade drop or slip it will help protect you and the blade.
While working keep in mind the effects of wood dust as well. Breathing this is hazardous. Keep your areas preferably outdoors or with very good ventilation. Wear appropriate masks and other protection.
Ultimately a good measure of common sense will take anyone a long way. Keep fingers or other body parts away from sharp things and prevent hands from moving towards the blades. There is a lot of helpful safety information on the web and even within various posts on this site to the related tools.